In the 1970s, Bell Canada introduced WATS lines (Wide Area Telephone Service), providing companies access to toll-free numbers and long distance at fixed rates. Available throughout the US in 1967, indications are that AT&T was generating a billion dollars in annual revenue though WATS lines by 1976.
This is the innovation that sparked what we commonly refer to as the telemarketing industry. As a fixed cost, it became easier and more economic for companies to use long distance phone calls as a regular part of their sales process.
But what would have happened if, during the first year companies made sales calls to households, everyone they reached gave them a firm “No thank you and don’t ever call here again”?
Companies would have had to rethink things and try using the technology differently. We wouldn’t have reached the point where, after 50 years of interrupted dinners, we are immediately defensive when we answer an unexpected call. And perhaps we wouldn’t be living with an industry that has become increasingly aggressive and nefarious. I’ve spoken to several people intimidated by the CRA scam phone calls, which are not only stressful and terrifying to receive, but also result in the loss of thousands of dollars.
As consumers we have the power to influence change. Sometimes we forget we have this power or we are unsure how to use it. Our default is simply to accept. Complain, but accept. This is exactly what’s happening when it comes to customer service.
In the past year, as I’ve trained many customer service teams, I’ve recognized that new staff members often bring impatience, arrogance, anger or disdain to the task. Why? Because that’s been their experience of customer service. When they’ve called for help – with the internet or a cellphone or a banking matter – this is what they’ve received and, as a consequence, it’s how they’ve come to define “customer service”.
What we accept does become our reality. If we want to interact with more automation, more email, more texting, then we should do nothing. But if we want to reach someone with great communication skills when we call for help, if we want an explanation that we can discuss with someone, if we want to be treated as a valued customer … we need to start speaking up.
How? Here’s a few ideas to incorporate into your next call for service:
1) Make sure you hear the name of the individual who answers your call. If they don’t use it as they answer the phone, ask for it. If they say it so quickly, you can’t grasp it, ask them to repeat it. My go-to phrase is “I’m sorry, I wasn’t able to catch your name. Can you repeat it for me please?” Write the name down and use it throughout the call. Names are the handshake of the phone call and they are vital to effective communication.
2) When you reach a customer service representative that makes you uncomfortable or begins to spark your anger or impatience, ask to be connected to someone else … but don’t make it personal. You can say something like “For some reason this call is making me uncomfortable. Please transfer me to someone else.” or “For some reason I’m having difficultly understanding you. Please transfer me to someone else.” An employee that hears this statement from customers regularly would either be retrained, or let go.
3) Let representatives know how long you’ve been on a call and ask them to share that information with management. For example, a recent call I made to a provider lasted over an hour and still there was no resolution. I asked several times if they could work on the problem and call me back once there was an answer. Apparently this isn’t an option … but it should be!
4) Share your experience not only with supervisors but with senior management because this is where change happens. Earlier this year I had an incredibly frustating experience with an automated system that hung up on me, included non-existent extensions, etc. I got online, found an Executive Vice President with an appropriate sounding title and called her. Turns out, she had never used the system and had no idea what was on it. She began making changes the next day and was grateful for my call.
5) Speak up when you know something is wrong. Whether it is an incomprehensible voicemail menu, or the inability to leave messages for staff, or that you are treated as unimportant or of no value … say something to someone who will hear you.
And – of course – speak up when the customer service is excellent as well!
What are your thoughts?