Have You Been “Bulldozed” Lately?

man talking on phone while consulting laptop and standing next to a bulldozer

Since 2020 the requests I’ve received for customer service training have grown by over 50%. Why? The main reason is the same challenge that’s impacting most industries – too few people with the necessary skills to satisfy customer demand.

When creating training experiences for these teams, I approach the work from numerous angles. I research the industry, have detailed discovery calls with management and gather input from the participants. Then I set aside some quiet time and employ both my imagination and my empathy.

But even more important than all these steps, I remain attentive to the experience of being a customer. And two of my recent service conversations have highlighted how current challenges are impacting our ability to communicate effectively.  Listening is being replaced by “bulldozing”, a conversation pattern that increases frustration, staff turnover, and angry customers.

What do I mean by bulldozing? How is it impacting your experience of customer service or your customer service team? What can be done to eliminate it?

Experience #1: Calling My Credit Card Company

A charge appeared on an expired and cancelled credit card. I had carefully moved all valid charges to another card so I called to discuss this error and have the charge deleted from my records. First, there was the 15-minute wait. Rather than get frustrated, I put the call on speaker and continued to get work done. The initial person I spoke to could not solve the issue, so I was put on hold again, and the call moved past the 30-minute mark.

When the next person answered they sounded out of breath and rushed. In my nicest “The Phone Lady” voice, I explained the reason for my call and also let them know that the call was approaching 40 minutes.

This did not help us communicate. They spoke to me very quickly using words and phrases I did not understand. As a consequence, I kept asking questions. I wanted to clarify how and when the incorrect charge would be removed. They became impatient and kept describing a process to me that made absolutely no sense.

In the end, at the 50-minute mark, we found clarity. They were off the line, and likely on to another call,  before I could say thank you.

Experience #2: Calling My Municipality

I had been given some information by my neighbourhood municipal garbage team and wanted to clarify it before putting another large metal item on the curb. After making a few invalid calls because I’d chosen the wrong menu items, I reached the right phone line and was put on hold. This time I did dishes while listening to the call on speaker.

The call was answered at the 20-minute mark by someone whose voice projected tremendous impatience. My reaction is always to be pleasant and upbeat in the hopes of getting through the call easily. I introduced myself, told them the reason for my call, and shared the information I’d been given.

They answered me in a split second, telling me that the information I had was wrong and, clearly, I must have been living elsewhere, New Brunswick perhaps.

Wow … that got under my skin! I mean, how did New Brunswick get into this conversation? In the end, by using a decades-old political strategy, I received the information I needed and ended the call.

Bulldozing

In reviewing these experiences I realized, that in both cases, I was bulldozed. Both individuals answered the calls, not to help me, but to get me off the line as quickly as possible. Their listening skills were practically on mute, and their desire to communicate was minimal. Their focus was on the number of calls that continued to come in while they spoke to me.

Perhaps there was a visual of these calls in front of them? Maybe there were blinking lights or numbers appearing on a screen? Maybe, similar to fast food drive-throughs, their calls were timed with numbers flashing in front of them.

But real conversations are not like a toasted bagel with cream cheese or a large double-double coffee. They’re improvisations. They can’t be timed and remain valuable.

I empathize with these individuals. Without the ability to enjoy speaking with and serving customers, the job can’t hold much joy. The reality is companies need more customer service staff. The other reality is that talking on the phone is not always seen as a valued skill. It is. It does need to be taught and supported. I remain committed to making this happen. Well-trained staff can communicate effectively, create stronger relationships and loyalty with customers, enjoy their work, and eliminate turnover.

Keep Calm and Carry On

And I empathize with those of us calling for service. There are skills we can employ to help us get the information and support we need:

  • At the beginning of the call, get the name of the person you are speaking with. They will likely say it very quickly so don’t hesitate to respond with, “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name. Please repeat that for me.” 
  • Keep your voice warm and patient. Avoid speaking quickly. By projecting calmness on the call, they may relax and join you in conversation.
  • When things get under your skin, let them know. In my credit card experience, my sharing that the call was approaching 40 minutes was letting them know my patience was a bit thin.
  • Also, use their name. In my municipality call, when it was suggested that I had lived in New Brunswick, I simply said the person’s name three times in a row. (This was echoing a pattern used by Pierre Trudeau when debating Joe Clark back in 1979. I’d love to find a short clip of this if anyone knows where to find one.) They stopped talking and I was able to tell them that I’ve lived in the same house for 20 years and never lived in New Brunswick.
  • When your emotions take over, end the call. I know, you don’t really want to get back on hold again at another time. But when we are emotional, we cannot hear and the likelihood of your achieving the goal you seek is very, very small.

Thoughts? Questions? Please include them in the comment section below.

6 thoughts on “Have You Been “Bulldozed” Lately?”

  1. After wasting hours this week dealing with tech support people, this resonates. There’s a certain way to approach them and I now realize the way I do it is quite intuitive, my tactics vary… and I can’t imagine trying to explain it. That’s why what you do is so very important!

    Reply
    • Ahhh, tech support. Those are even more complicated conversations. At the company’s end, they need to put extra effort into training. And at the customer’s end, what I like to do is say, every once and awhile, “So, what are you doing now?” or “So, what are you investigating/researching now?” or “What are our next steps?” … basically questions that keep them talking to me while they scramble to find the answers to my questions.

      Reply
      • As you’ve said in the past, asking for help really works. I’ll say something like, “I know this isn’t YOUR fault but I really need your help to get this fixed.” And then we’re problem-solving together (and I’m trying really really hard not to let my frustration show 😉

        Reply
  2. Boy this brings back memories of my short stint at an inbound call center. There was a metric for the “ideal phone call length” and we were all expected to keep to as close to that time as possible. It was like ridiculous like 3 minutes.

    Didn’t matter that what we did was complex and could create incredible problems for customers if done wrong: keep that time down.

    Person wth hearing difficulties on the line? Get them off as fast as possible.

    Error with the actual system and it took twice as long to do the thing? Oh well, ruins your average which affects your “team” average so speed up the conversation to compensate.

    I’d be praised for high customer satisfaction because I slowed down to let people know I cared and wanted them to feel they were taken care of. “But Alison, you take too much time and we have to mark your performance lower. Don’t contribute to lowering your team’s average… you’ll lose your incentives.”

    I would cry in the bathroom on breaks it was so stressful. What a useless metric for the type of industry it was for.

    The people in charge could have used a Mary Jane, that’s for sure.

    Reply
    • Alison! Thanks so much for this insight. Three minutes is indeed ridiculous. And if that metric still exists with much less staff, imagine the stress this creates. It definitely supports high staff turnover and very unhappy customers, with lots more calls becoming highly emotional on both sides. Taking the time to really help a customer + offering staff access to the training and support they need makes a big difference to the bottom line by reducing turnover and creating customer loyalty and retention. It is a simple formula that consistently gets ignored.

      Reply

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