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4 Capabilities All Reps Must Have

Customers' expectations have changed. Customer service managers should rethink what skills their teams need to handle live customer interactions

The number four 4 on a wooden doorThose handling incoming calls, e-mails or online chat requests are on the front line of customer service at the world’s large companies. Given all of us have spoken to a customer service rep at some point in our lives, these are probably some of the most visible employees a firm has.

While the rep job has always been important, it has become markedly more difficult in recent years. Customers increasingly want personalized, tailored service and only tend to speak to reps when they have more complex issues that can’t be resolved by an automated voice or online (see here for more on the changing nature of customer service). Faced with higher expectations and more difficult issues to resolve, reps cannot rely on traditional “soft skills” that would have been sufficient five years ago.

CEB research shows that the root cause of customers’ frustration and ultimate disloyalty is the amount of effort they have to expend to resolve whatever problem or query caused them to contact the company in the first place. Reps therefore need to resolve customers’ concerns in as “low-effort” a manner as possible.

The Changing Role of the Customer Service Rep

Many contact centers – that handle all this customer interaction – try to lower customer effort by reducing what the consumer has to do (the steps and actions they have to take) throughout the service interaction. But this only gets at a small fraction of what causes customers to think their issue was an effort to resolve. In fact, 65% of that effort is caused by a customer’s perception of the experience or, more precisely, how the rep made them “feel” during the service interaction.

This is good news for customer service teams as it means reps can control whether they provide a low-effort experience. The words they use and how they use those words have a tremendous impact on the customer. The not so good news is that handling these kinds of interactions requires an instinctive response and set of capabilities that many reps must be taught to provide.

Rising Above the Current Service Interaction

Creating low-effort customer service requires reps to understand a customer’s personality type, their expectations of what will happen on the call, and even what will happen when the call is over. To help reps resolve today’s more complex problems, forge a “connection” with the customer, and provide a low-effort experience, managers should provide training on four capabilities.

  1. “Interaction tailoring”: Customer service managers often think customers want consistent service experiences. Although this approach works for straightforward inquiries (and no-one wants to hear different things from different people), it doesn’t make provide the personalized experience customers want. Customers will either not trust a rep to handle the issue or feel the rep just didn’t understand; both lead to more customers calling back looking for a better answer. This annoys customers, takes up reps’ time, and increases bad feedback. In fact, 24% of repeat calls stem from an “emotional disconnect” between reps and customers.

    Contact centers can eliminate callbacks and provide better service by teaching reps to tailor their interactions according to customers’ personality type. Some firms use a simplified version of the Myers-Briggs methodology to help reps identify various customer profiles. Each profile requires a different communication style that gains the customer’s trust and helps the rep guide the conversation to the right result.

  2. “Content surfacing”: While it’s critical reps ask questions, they must also be good listeners. Customers constantly provide clues that can help reps resolve the issue. Reps that pick up on these clues and then probe for more information can decrease callbacks and reduce the amount of effort a customer must put in. Often the customer simply doesn’t know the whole story – otherwise they probably wouldn’t have to contact the company – so the rep must draw valuable information out of the customer to help them.

    Reps commonly keep customers on hold during the call as they try to resolve the issue. But leading firms instead use this time to engage customers in purposeful small talk and gain additional information about their requests. For example, if a customer has requested a service appointment on a Saturday, the rep may ask why she specifically desired a weekend appointment. If it is because of work schedules, the rep could offer an earlier appointment during the company’s evening hours that may be more convenient.

  3. “Experience engineering”: The biggest opportunity for reps to reduce customer effort is through the customer’s perception of the service experience. Most service organizations overlook a critical aspect: customers care about how the issue is resolved and respond to techniques like using positive language and being an advocate for the customer. Reps should guide a customer through an interaction as well as get them the best answer for the customer and the company. CEB data show this can reduce customer effort by as much as 75% and improve the quality of the experience by up to 80%.

    One example: often companies can’t give customers exactly what they want. But telling customers “no” can put them on the defensive. In such cases, traditional soft skills are not enough; reps must learn new skills to move the conversation forward without increasing customer effort. Service reps must focus on not just what they say to customers but how they say it (see chart 1).

    Using positive language during a service interaction

    Chart 1: Using positive language during a service interaction  Illustrative  Source: CEB analysis

  4. “Forward resolving”: Many firms still ask reps to resolve a customer’s issue(s) move on as quickly as possible. But reducing overall call volume and improving a customer’s service experience requires resolving more than the issue raised by the customer. Reps should also address the implicit or hidden problems the customer may not state or be aware of. While this approach may see slightly longer talk times, it is one of the biggest opportunities for call reduction – as implicit/unspoken issues lead to nearly 50% of all callbacks – and, so, to save money.

    Firms can run a data analysis of past calls to separate customer issues into primary issues (those that trigger the first call) and then related, secondary issues for each primary issue. They can then narrow down secondary issues into those that result in the most frequent callbacks and advise reps to deal with only these kinds of secondary issues. This data-based approach is the most reliable, but companies with fewer resources could just run a brainstorming session with a group of select, experienced reps to determine the most common secondary issues. These methods can help companies avoid 40% of repeat contacts — a clear cost saving for any customer service function.

These four capabilities, when deployed together during customer interactions, will improve the service experience, increase reps’ engagement with their job, and reduce costs.


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