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7 Secrets to Get Good Customer Service by Phone

Agents are now better trained, if you can get past phone purgatory

posted by Caroline Mayer, April 25, 2014 More by this author

Customer service representative on the phone

Caroline Mayer is a consumer reporter who spent 25 years working for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @consumermayer


Customer service representative on the phone
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Over the past few months, I’ve had to make more than my usual share of calls to customer-service centers. The calls dealt with issues mundane (trying to learn what happened to an undelivered online order); frustrating (seeking help setting up a new printer) and serious (trying to assist my daughter in signing up for health insurance).
 
I’ve spent hours trying to get these issues resolved and here’s what I discovered: Once I reached customer-service agents, almost all were polite and patient, knowledgeable and helpful. But… it’s become increasingly difficult to reach live ones.
 
Making It Hard to Find the Number

Many companies seem to have made it deliberately hard to find the appropriate number to call. Phone numbers are conspicuously absent from monthly bills and useful contact information rarely appears on websites of manufacturers, retailers and service providers.

(MORE: The Top Companies for Customer Service)
 
When I did manage to find the right number to call, I typically had to wait at least 30 minutes to speak with someone. And that was often just the first step in a series of transfers to other people who could allegedly help me. Sometimes they could. But often, my call was transferred to another person or disconnected, forcing me to start all over.
 
After speaking to four customer-service experts, I learned that my experiences were not uncommon.

They Don't Want to Talk to You
 
“There’s no question a lot of companies don’t really want to talk to you,” says Chris DeRose, co-author of Judgment on the Front Line: How Smart Companies Win By Trusting Their People. “It’s no accident that you have difficulty finding a number to call. Many companies promote FAQs and email queries aggressively and deliberately in an attempt to cut down on much more expensive call centers.”
 
The economics are simple, according to the experts. The cost of handling a phone call ranges between $2 and $6 for basic service (technical support is more like $12 to over $20). Live chats or email, by comparison, are about 20 to 30 percent cheaper. Even less expensive are online FAQs that, once posted, require little maintenance.

(MORE: No Satisfaction From Satisfaction Surveys)
 
It’s no wonder then, that “the website is now the first line of defense,” says John Goodman, vice chairman of the Alexandria-based Customer Care Measurement and Consulting.
 
Goodman says that’s fine with many consumers, especially 20- to 30-year-olds who often actually prefer going to a site for answers rather than talking with someone on the phone.
 
While the Internet is a logical place to start to get a problem resolved, sometimes you can’t get your answer there. Goodman says then, more often than not, when you call the company, you get an annoying recording that says: For faster service, go to our website. “That’s like pouring gasoline on the fire! It drives consumers, including me, nuts,” he says.
 
What Annoys Consumers Most

Long hold times are what annoy consumers most, according to a recent Money-rates.com survey. Right behind: phone trees without an option for what the caller needs. “Note that these complaints are not mutually exclusive,” Money-rates.com said. “Some of the worst customer-service experiences start by trying to navigate an unhelpful phone tree, and then waiting for a long time on hold upon choosing the option for speaking to a representative.”
 
But some companies are realizing that consumer dissatisfaction due to poor customer service can be costly and are upgrading call centers accordingly, notes Bruce Temkin, managing partner of Temkin Group, a customer-experience research and consulting firm.
 
“If you treat customers well, then they are more likely to buy more from you, tell others to do the same and forgive you if there’s ever a mistake,” says Temkin.
 
Good Service Makes Good Business Sense

Personal interaction makes good business sense, says Peter Shankman, founder of the New York customer-service consulting firm Shankman/Honig. “Companies that allow someone to call and reach a human instead of relying on the web for customer-service actually do a lot better revenue-wise,” says Shankman. “One reason is that it costs eight times as much to gain a new customer than keep a current one.”
 
When I finally reached customer-service agents, I could tell they’d received targeted training. Some were even “empowering” (a favorite word of my customer-service experts), with the authority to resolve problems rather than seek approval from supervisors. Thank goodness for that. As Goodman notes, “the supervisor is almost never available.”
 
DeRose cites online shoe retailer Zappos.com as one company “intentionally built to emphasize customer service.” (Acquired by Amazon in 2009, Zappos still operates as an independent unit.)
 
The company, DeRose says, “puts its telephone agents through dozens of hours of training, including a full-time, one-week course. They listen to and debate recordings of real calls in class. Before flying solo, their calls are listened to by experienced agents. And all agents are told to think like owners of the business so they are entrusted to spend up to $100 to resolve problems without requiring escalation.” In many cases, they exceed that $100 figure.
 
Sadly, my customer-service experts agree that firms like Zappos.com are still vastly outnumbered by ones putting greater emphasis on calling costs than customer loyalty.
 
As a result, says DeRose, “the onus is on the consumer” to find the right number to call, to endure long holds and to keep at it until the problem is resolved. “Consumers have to be their own advocates; they have to be persistent,” he says.
     
7 Ways to Get Results

Here are seven ways to do it:
 
1. Do your homework before making a call. Explore the company’s website to see if you can solve your problem online. If you can’t, do some sleuthing to find the customer service number. It might be on the site or on your bill or insurance card or in the product’s warranty manual. When all else fails, try a Google search for the number; that’s how I finally found Verizon’s customer-service line.
 
2. Determine exactly what you want to ask before calling. Be prepared to define your problem concisely. If it’s a dispute, over a bill perhaps, know what you want as a realistic resolution.
 
3. Be polite. Don’t yell or curse or put customer-service agents on the defensive. It’s not their fault that you’ve had to repeat your name and account number five times. Nor is it their fault that they lack the tools or ability to solve your problem.
 
4. Give the agent an excuse to help you. If you’re a longtime customer, remind the agent of that. As a last resort, you can threaten to cancel your membership, contract or account if there’s a valid alternative.
 
5.Persevere and escalate the issue if necessary.  If the agent can’t help, ask for a supervisor. If that doesn’t work, try calling the company again (yes, enduring another hold); you may be lucky and reach another agent who’s more knowledgeable and helpful.
 
If you’re still unsuccessful and unwilling to give up, search the company’s website for an executive to contact. That could be the CEO’s office or someone in charge of customer service or both.
 
6. Go public. Lodge a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, Yelp, other consumer sites and the appropriate government agency, if necessary.
 
Try Facebook and/or Twitter, too; both are monitored by many companies. Some firms respond to tweets if they’re mentioned by name because they can then show their fans or followers that they’re quick to help customers in distress.
 
7. Vote with your dollars. DeRose says that if a company is too arduous to deal with and there’s a good substitute, abandon it and switch to a rival. Maybe if more of us do this, customer-unfriendly firms will get the point and change their ways.