The other day a friend launched into a rant about the horrors of customer support with a string of bad words for the people he encountered on the phone.
A couple of days later I read an article that I wish I could find again that said that when people were nice to technical support people they got their problems solved 95% of the time but when they were rude it was only 70% of the time.
I get good tech support 99% of the time. At one company I worked for once the people from the surrounding cubes gathered around my cube to listened to me do my “magic” with tech support. I’ll tell you what I do.
If you go to Google Scholar you will find many papers on the psychology of the person that is getting screamed at and, unsurprisingly, they sometimes want to see justice done in the situation. After getting yelled at and abused they might construe justice as not having the customer get what they need.
When you talk to a tech support person you are talking to both the role of a tech support person and a person. The role of a tech support person is an ideal person that is part of the organization. This ideal person acts in a uniform way. They are trained to know the answer to questions and to respond to situations in proscribed ways. They are like parts of a car engine. If one wears out, the company simply replaces it with another one, which is, hopefully, identical.
However, the reality is, there is a person that is being, basically, an actor that we talk to when we call. Their role is to represent the company.
Often when we call, he or she becomes the personification of the company itself. After struggling for hours or days trying to get some sloppy product to work, we are frazzled. Tech support is usually the last resort because we face voice-jail and interminable wait times. When we finally connect it is all too tempting to finally tell the company what we think of their product, their voice jail, their wait times, and other things that came up while we were on hold.
Once, were were having some phone lines added to our office. It required a new switch box be added in the alley behind our office. The telephone guy installed it and we invited him into the office for a cup of coffee. We were chatting when our neighbor, a high-strung German guy, came storming in.
He had, apparently, made big plans to fix up the alley and the switch box marred his vision. He demanded that we remove it. He yelled at the guy from the phone company at the top of his lungs, threatening to call his supervisor, the president of the phone company, and so on. The phone company guy stood there placidly, coffee cup in his hand and listened to him.
After the neighbor stomped out of the office the phone company guy turned to us and in a calm voice said, “the phone company is a huge bureaucracy, he’ll never get to anyone with an attitude like that,” and sipped his coffee.
Of course, most of us realize that we are not talking to the company. We are talking to some low paid person in a place where low paid people can live. They have little technical knowledge, no responsibility for the product, input into how it is made, or ability to change it. Surprisingly often, they might be able to think up some way to solve your problem or to get you to someone that does know how to solve your problem if they don’t. But they have to be willing to do that.
The trick is, don’t talk to the role, talk to the person.
First off, I prepare myself mentally for the fact that no matter how hard they try they may not be able to do anything about it. The product may have been discontinued, there might be hard and fast rules that are programmed into the computer that they can’t do anything about … once in a while … rarely, that happens. Even in that case, it is possible they can find alternatives.
Once, I was about to catch a flight that has the most complicated set of connections I had ever had. Athens, Istanbul, Corfu, Vienna, Helsinki, Oulu with the intermediate cities, as well. I had tried to do it myself but couldn’t and had to hire a travel agent. I was giving talks in several of the cities. When I got to the airport, they told me there had been a hurricane in Texas and the flight from Houston had been canceled and I would have to wait until the next day for a flight.
For me, even getting to SFO was an issue, much less missing all those flights so my instinct was to flip out, but somehow a calm descended on me and in my sweetest voice I said, “I have a complicated set of connections, and I don’t have the faintest idea what to do, what would you do if you were in my shoes?”
She thought for a few seconds, brightened up, made a phone call and said, “I got you on a flight on another airline. You will make all your connections and everything will be fine.”
It is lucky that there was a flight, but I wouldn’t have gotten it if I didn’t treat her like a person.
Here are some tips.
Do not insult the product, allow the person to have some pride in what they are doing.
Do not insult the company, same reason.
Do not complain about voice jail or being on hold, they are sympathetic but there is nothing they can do about it.
Do say something along the lines of, “I am glad you are helping me with this, I am already behind on this project and my boss is not too happy.” Sound grateful, not accusatory.
- Before you call, be sure they can identify you. Have your customer number, your secret password and if it’s possible bill, bank statement, or whatever else is relevant. Often, that’s not possible, but do the best you can. Try to remember your name, at least :-).
- You need to have the device in front of you with the app open and available, if possible.
Open with something like this, ”hi, thanks for taking my call. I know that no one ever calls to say, ‘the software’s working great,’ we only call to complain about something. I appreciate you being here to help me.”
“Ah, heck, that’s my job, I’m glad to do it.”
“Well, you must be as good a psychologist as a technician, I imagine some people are pretty hot by the time they get to you.”
“Most people, are pretty nice, but there sure are some … ”
“I appreciate it, I am sure you will be able to take care of it, here’s what’s happening … ” (there’s, actually, a lot going on here, come to one of my workshops and I teach you, just use the line).
Once, I had added new phone lines and when the bill came it was hugely more than I expected. It was a mistake, so I called the the woman who sold them to me. I started the call by saying, “When I got the bill, I almost had heart attack, but then I remembered you and knew that there would be no problem.” She straightened it out and found extra discounts. When I got in the next morning there was a message on my answering machine that she had found even more discounts and applied them to save me several hundred more dollars.
When you talk to them, here’s what you need to tell them.
- What you expected to happen.
- What happened instead.
- What you did to make it happen.
Once, when I was supporting a program I wrote, someone called and said, “Your program isn’t working.” I said, “what seems to be the problem?” She replied, “I don’t know, it’s your program, fix it. There wasn’t a lot I could do with that.”
Follow their instructions. If they say “are you familiar with X?” and you aren’t, don’t pretend you are.
Even if you do this, it might not work. This is where all your cooperation and collaboration will pay off. If they can do it for you, they will.
Often, they will tell me to wait while they go across the building to talk to someone. They will connect me to people on three way calls. They will replace the product. You can ask,
“If you can’t figure it out, do you know anyone who can?”
“How can I get in touch with them?”
“Can I get the product replaced?”
When you close off, take the time to give them a good a good evaluation. You are doing a service to the human race. Those good evaluations improved the mood of the whole team, they answer the phone and they are in a better mood, which puts the people that call tech support in a better mood … it’s true.
Once, I was working at corporation of about 12,000 people and I had a problem with some simulators I was using for classes I was teaching. They were being supported by a team in India. I connected with one guy and it turned out I knew a bit more about them than he did, but he was good natured and we worked together and straightened things out after a few days on and off.
When things were working I took about two minutes and fired off an email to his boss saying that I appreciated his help and he had done a good job.
A few hours later the email came back to me as a CC. It had been forwarded to the entire support group and to the manager’s manager. It turned on that in the entire history of the company no one had ever taken the time to thank anyone in support. This was the first time it had ever happened. The whole group was elated.
Guess what happened when I made support requests in the future?
Sometimes you need to make a decision. There are things you will run into, for instance,
- Your product is obsolete.
- The company’t customer support is so bad that it is hopeless (it is not the support person’s fault, remember).
- The amount of effort to resolve the problem is more than the product is worth.
Believe it or not, I have had people recommend better companies!
If your product is obsolete, you are going to have increasing grief so you have to consider what your time is worth. The only one that gets hurt by getting mad at a company for changing things is you.
Not everyone makes good products. There is cheap junk in the world that falls apart. Customer support is part of the product. If I buy something that turns out to fall apart, I might have a moment when I kick myself for not checking one it better, but it happens.
When Pacific Bell eventually became AT&T the customer support was so horrible I changed to Verizon. I would be on hold for 40 minutes. It cost me a bit, but, hey. That’s part of life. If a company’s customer support is bad, it is a bad product. But, that is rare because they know that.
It was only a sunny smile
And little it cost in the giving,
But like morning light,
It scattered the night,
And made the day worth living.
— F Scott Fitzgerald