Regarding the question of what exceptional customer service looks or sounds like, the good news is there is a clear answer. What qualifies as exceptional customer service is highly definable, with clear and specific fundamental rules of performance, based on agents’ word choice and phone manners.
And while a common approach is to see customer service as something to add to what an agent is doing; the better approach is to see customer service as something that requires fixing or repair.
The quality of an agent’s service performance is mostly determined by their word choice and phone manners. When these are flawless, exceptional customer service is the ensured outcome. When these have flaws, service levels suffer. The flaws must be fixed to offer what qualifies as exceptional customer service.
What qualifies as exceptional customer service is highly definable...
Let’s take an agent named Jerry, who is unsatisfactory on the phone. His tone lacks warmth, his manners lack politeness, and he generally lacks professionalism. The goal is to make Jerry an exceptional call center agent. How do you do that? How do you take lower-skilled agents like Jerry, prevalent throughout our industry, and turn them into the ideal agent who offers only exceptional service?
The standard approach is to add words and phrases to what Jerry is saying to make him better. But that is like putting whipped cream on top of a spoiled piece of pie to make it taste good. The pie will continue to taste spoiled no matter how much whipped cream you put on top of it.
The only approach that works is un-spoiling the pie. What makes Jerry bad on the phone must be fixed to make him good. And the only way to do this is to identify and then fix the mistakes in Jerry’s word choice and phone manners that are causing him to offer subpar customer service.
Yes, it is necessary to add a word or phrase here and there to Jerry’s approach, but only to replace his wrong way of saying and doing things with the right way. Not simply adding stuff on top of his wrong way of saying and doing things. What is broken must be fixed.
Habits Define Agent Performance
It is essential to understand that agent performance is defined by individual habits. In every call they handle, agents do the same things, both good and bad, related to customer service. It is how each agent does what they do in their own way.
The habits of agents who offer unsatisfactory customer service always include many identifiable and specific mistakes in their word choice and phone manners. If these habits are not corrected, the agent will continue to offer unsatisfactory customer service.
I will provide a small example.
I recently listened to a healthcare industry call. The patient indicated midway through the call that she would like to verify if she had a secondary emergency contact on file as she hoped. The agent said, “We have the first contact you mentioned, but as far as a second one, I would have to add that…” to which the patient responded in an agitated and sarcastic tone, “...alright, why don’t we do that right now if that is okay with you.”
It is essential to understand that agent performance is defined by individual habits.
So, what happened? Why did this customer suddenly become agitated? Because of the agent’s choice of the words, “I would have to,” meaning, “You are making me do something I would rather not have to do, and now, because of you, I have to do it.”
This is an example of a seemingly innocuous word choice that caused a customer to become upset. Because of this agent’s poor choice of words, this customer left this conversation with a bad feeling about the organization.
And this is an example of how, contrary to the standard narrative, an agent’s tone is most conveyed by their word choice and phone manners, not their voice inflection. The tone created in this call by the phrase, “I would have to,” was a lack of caring, politeness, and eagerness to serve the customer.
Agents who offer subpar service habitually use improper word choices like this throughout their calls. If they are not identified and fixed, which requires a high level of scrutiny, they will continue to disappoint and agitate those they engage with.
“Delighting Customers” Misguided
The prevailing narratives in our industry include a misguided belief that quality customer service must boldly stand out or delight customers. This well-meaning idea is the whipped cream approach. It does not consider the nuanced execution of proper word choice and phone manners exceptional customer service requires, nor does it consider the prevalence of lesser-skilled agents like Jerry. They need fixing, not flash, to offer quality customer service.
Ideas such as creating memorable moments or delighting customers fall short as a customer satisfaction solution because they do not address and cannot fix an agent’s flaws. These flaws will continue to create negative customer experiences routinely.
I once saw a call-center study in The Harvard Business Review that advocated against the concept of delighting customers. It concluded customers are far more likely to punish companies for disappointing service than reward them for exceptional service. This means that customers expect highly competent and professional service at every moment when engaging with an agent, and not getting it (typically the result of poor word choice and phone manners) is what most impacts them emotionally and turns them off from companies.
As this HBR article also stated, the misguided idea that companies must delight their customers has become so entrenched that many are unwilling to consider any other approach.
What Makes Customers the Happiest?
For some, the rules of proper word choice and phone manners (there are 15-20, depending on the type of call, and not all apply in every call) would seem unspectacular, academic, or even inconsequential.
But I have studied this subject extensively. And it has been my experience that, without question and very clearly, what makes customers happiest is the fundamentally flawless service these rules create. This is proven to me repeatedly, routinely, and predictably as my staff and I review calls each day.
These rules of behavior are based on societal norms of politeness, respect, and appreciation as conveyed through human conversational language. They are emotionally charged yet nuanced, and while most are more obvious and less subtle than “I have to,” each rule is essential to offering exceptional customer service.
What does exceptional customer service look like? It is simply flawless or mistake-free service. And this is readily achievable by holding agents accountable for properly navigating the rules of customer service, defined by proper word choice and phone manners.