When is it appropriate for contact center agents to address callers by their first name?
In the course of my contract work as research director for the National Association of Call Centers (NACC), a not-for-profit research and membership organization based at Middle Tennessee State University, I get a lot of calls. Most common are from salespeople who want to get their hands on an NACC membership directory, like they’re the first one to think of that. They never get one. Lots of calls are from members who are contemplating new solutions or have questions about specific companies. I also get a lot of calls from people who have an empty building or call center and they want to fill it up with a contact center. I guess they think we’re in the real estate business.
Just before Christmas last year, though, I received a voicemail message that was a first. The lady who left the message said she found me and the NACC on the internet and just wanted to complain to someone. Her complaint? She didn’t like it when contact center agents address her by her first name when she calls. She thought it was presumptuous and inappropriately familiar to do so. She also said she had considered “correcting” an agent when they address her by her first name without permission, but she didn’t want to risk alienating someone she was hoping would help her. But she still didn’t like it.
I guess I’ve become used to first name familiarity and informality, although it does occasionally make me cringe. I once took my elderly father to do some banking while I was visiting him. He was in his mid-80s at the time and when the teenaged bank teller asked, “Anything else we can do for you, John?” I admit I had to bite my tongue to keep from lecturing this kid on how to respectfully address an elderly customer.
I recall when one of my daughters was just starting high school and she brought one of her friends home, and asked if she could stay for dinner. Before we sat down to eat, my daughter’s friend pointed to my wife and said, “I know your name is Barbara, but,” now pointing to me, “What is your name?” I said, “My name is Mr. Stockford.” This 13-year-old girl looked at me and said, “Oh, it’s gonna be like that.”
When I was growing up, I thought the first name of all my friends’ parents was either Mr. or Mrs. Having grown up with British parents, a degree of respect and formality was not just expected, it was demanded. That stuck with me and I did my best to ensure that I passed it on to my daughters, but I know that wasn’t the case with every kid growing up to working age and I suppose they shouldn’t be blamed for something they weren’t taught.
One of the first things I learned in boot camp, lo those many years ago, was to make sure the first and last thing out of my mouth was, “Sir,” as in, “Sir, yes sir” and “Sir, no sir.” I’ve never had a problem addressing someone I don’t know as Sir or Ma’am and still consider it proper.
So, when is it correct to address someone as Mr., Ms. or Mrs. as opposed to addressing them by their first name? In order to ascertain the answer, I turned to the ultimate authority. Miss Manners.
Miss Manners is the pen name of journalist, author and etiquette authority Judith Perlman. Since 1978, she has written an advice column that is carried in 200 newspapers worldwide. In the column, she answers questions about etiquette from her readers and dispenses advice on proper manners and politeness. So, what might Miss Manners say about when to formally address a customer who has called one of your agents?
According to several different posts found on the internet, Miss Manners believes this is a matter of culture, both internal and external. Professional relationships require formality although informality sometimes has the effect of putting people at ease and makes for a more relaxed interaction. But the underlying principles of manners include respect, which includes addressing people as they wish to be addressed.
To see how the rules of manners and etiquette are being addressed in the contact center today, I went to the membership of the NACC and simply asked who among the members conducts training that includes how to address callers—by their first name or by the more formal Mr. or Ms. Surprisingly, how to address a customer during an interaction is not part of agent training in the majority of contact centers.
If the NACC membership is representative of the U.S. contact center industry, only about 12% of the industry includes how to properly address a customer in their agent training. Although it seems that the majority of contact centers let their agents address customers however they please, there are some customer service professionals I spoke with who take the question of how to address the customer quite seriously, especially when cultural issues are concerned.
Rosario Fernandez, Chief Operating Officer at Project Amistad in El Paso, Texas, told me that some of their client callers view being called by their first name as a sign of disrespect. “In our border region, clients prefer to be addressed formally by Mr. or Mrs. Last Name,” Fernandez said. “This is especially the case for Spanish-speaking clients and the Hispanic culture.” There are exceptions to this rule, though. “I once took an escalation in which the caller specifically asked me to address him by his first name because Mr. was his father and it made him feel old,” she continued. “In cases like this, we proceed as the client requests.”
Cultural issues also drive policy at IDQ, the parent company of Dairy Queen Corporation, since they have restaurants in over 25 countries. According to Carolyn Kidder, IDQ’s Senior Fan Relations Manager, “I direct our teams to refer to a customer as Mr. or Ms unless they cannot be sure. For example, if they aren’t familiar with the naming conventions of other countries, the name could be a man’s or a woman’s name, or you cannot tell by the timbre of the fan’s voice.”
In other cases, it seems the preference is to simply take the conservative approach. “We train our agents to always address the customer as Mr. or Mrs., Sir or Ma’am,” said Mark Fichera, CEO at outsourcer OnBrand24 in Beverly, Mass. “Unless our client asks us to be more informal with their customers, our policy is to address the customer formally.”
Same is true at GCG in Dublin, Ohio, where Contact Center Director Eric Weber told me, “How to address a customer is a topic within our customer training modules. We train our agents to always address the caller as Mr. or Ms. In the event we have a name that’s difficult to pronounce, our agents are trained to ask permission to use the customer’s first name.”
Asking permission is also the rule at DISA Global Solutions in Houston. Contact center industry veteran Michele Owens, who is DISA’s customer experience specialist, told me that within the many contact centers she has managed, agents are given several options regarding the proper way to address a customer, such as simply asking them how they would like to be addressed. But in every case, she suggests to err on the side of caution and start with a formal address
I’d like to tell the lady who called me to complain about how she was addressed by contact center agents that there are still plenty of contact centers out there who feel the same way as she does about how a customer should be addressed. In fact, I did call her and left her a message asking her to call me so we could further explore her complaint. Ironically, she wasn’t courteous enough to return my call.
I wonder what Miss Manners would say about that.