Letting your employees communicate with your customers and prospects can kill your business. Let me be clear: Employees should be able to talk or write to customers. But when they say and do dumb things, customers and prospects will walk away.
Case in point: After 3 decades, I recently left my wireless phone company. (You can’t say I haven’t been loyal!) But ongoing poor customer service communication and related policies have finally taken their toll. Here’s the latest interaction:
I asked my husband, who works with me in my business, to call our wireless service company to get information on their newest small-business plan. In the middle of his phone conversation, I overheard what the rep was saying, so I introduced myself and asked the rep a question.
Rep: “I can’t talk to you.”
Me: “What do you mean?”
Rep: “It’s a policy—I can only talk to your husband.”
Me: “It’s MY business account. You’ll see my name on the account. I own the business. I asked my husband to place the call. I can give you any verifying information you need—EIN, acct number. What do you need to verify it’s my account?”
Rep: “I can only talk to your husband because he placed the call. If you want to talk to me, you have to call back.”
Me: “That’s goofy. I don’t want to have to call back and sit on ‘hold’ for another hour.”
Rep: “It’s nothing personal. That’s just the policy.”
Me: “You’re really serious? You’re saying I need to tell my husband to ask the question and then you’ll answer him?”
Rep: “Or call back…. Nothing personal. I just don’t want to get in trouble. That’s the policy.”
An hour later, I walk into the wireless provider’s retail store and tell the rep there about the prior conversation.
Store rep: “That’s not a policy. That’s just poor customer service. He could have talked to you.” (So I ask him my questions and ask if he can match their competitor’s price for the same plan.)
Store Rep: “No. We’re about $20/month higher for virtually the same features.”
Me: “So you’re telling me that I’d be better off to go to [competitor]?”
Store Rep: He shrugs, “Probably.”
So I did.
I’d like to say these customer service interactions are unique and rare. They are not. They’re common communication gaffes happening on frontlines across many industries.
In fact, here’s an earlier interaction with that same service provider. I noticed that they’d debited my checking account twice for the same monthly invoice. When I notified their customer service department, here’s how that communication unfolded:
Rep: “We don’t make billing mistakes. With our system, that doesn’t happen.”
Me: Well, it did happen. You debited my account on X date and then you debited it again a day later on Y date.”
Rep: “You’ll need to prove it.”
Me: “Can’t you investigate and see the double billing on your end?”
Rep: “No, you’ll need to send us the appropriate documentation.”
Me: “Fine. I’ll send you the bank statement so you can see for yourself.”
Rep: “No, that’s not acceptable. You’ll have to get your bank to send us a letter, noting the double billing.”
Me: “Are you kidding? Your company made a mistake and you’re asking me to do the work to go to my bank and persuade them to take the time to write you a letter?”
Rep: “Right. That’s how it’s done.”
So the bank and I were forced to help them correct their mistake.
No doubt, you’ve experienced similar nonsensical and irrational communications with customer service agents. My question: Are you sure similar communication is not occurring with your own frontline? Your assistant? Your service partners?
Had the phone company rep known the reason behind the “I can’t talk to you” issue mentioned earlier, he would have understood the policy’s purpose was to ensure account ownership and privacy. Then he could have simply asked me for information to verify my account ownership.
But absent that policy’s purpose, the agent responded like a robot.
When I posted the above phone-company interaction on Facebook, friends replied with a plethora of equally shocking experiences. Among those most often shared was the irritation of employees talking (often whining) to coworkers while completing the customer transaction.
Example comments: “How long before you go on a break?” “What time is Jill getting back from lunch?” “So how did you like the party last weekend?” “Did you see that old man with that weird hair?”
Your customers need the full attention of those trying to complete a transaction—not the backstory on the rep’s vacation.
Employees should not talk, move, sit, or stand as if they’re on their way to the dentist for a root canal. (And yes, callers can hear poor body language over the phone. Slumping affects both the tone and volume of the voice.)
Some reps sound angry. Many look exhausted—as if handling one more interaction would push them over the edge.
Slouchy body language, mumbled replies and directions, or dismissive facial expressions communicate negative things: job dissatisfaction, laziness, arrogance, or boredom. None of this body language encourages repeat business.
Common examples of poor word choice include these all-too-familiar comments:
Leaders, if you’re wondering why your business isn’t booming, consider listening to and observing frontline communication.
Learn more about how to improve your customer communication in Communicate With Confidence!: How to Say It Right the First Time and Every Time.