Learn Techniques for Solving Customer Service Issues

Learning Objectives

After completing this unit, you’ll be able to:

  • Explain the value of active listening, critical thinking, and emotional intelligence in the contact center.
  • Identify practical ways to use active listening, critical thinking, and emotional intelligence while engaging with customers.

Mastering the Art of Customer Service

Customer service is a delicate balancing act requiring agents to simultaneously assess all the facts while addressing the customer’s emotions. Listening to both aspects of a conversation—the factual and the emotional—at the same time takes a little bit of mental jiujitsu. But with practice, anyone can do it. In this unit, you will learn how to develop active listening skills and apply critical thinking and emotional intelligence to master the art of customer service.

It All Starts with Active Listening

In everyday conversation, we often think more about what we’re going to say next than what the other person is currently saying. Active listening is different. When you listen actively you listen to understand, rather than listen to reply. 

When you work in a contact center, active listening means patiently hearing what the customer says and then repeating what they’ve said back to them. 

It’s a process with some back-and-forth that works like this.

  • Set aside judgements. Start with an open mind. Don’t form any conclusions or beliefs before you’ve heard all the customer has to say. To get the complete picture, ask open-ended questions such as, “And then what happened?”
  • Listen for emotions. Notice if the customer is angry, disappointed, or frustrated, and let them voice it. Unexpressed emotions tend to intensify, not dissipate. Let them know you’ve heard them by acknowledging their emotional tone: “I can see how frustrating that must have been.”
  • Listen for issues and impacts. It’s important to pinpoint exactly what has caused the customer to be upset in the first place so it can be addressed. Equally, you need to know how it has impacted the customer or their business. Acknowledge their concerns directly, for example, “I hear how this problem is putting you in an awkward situation.”
  • Repeat what the customer said. After listening carefully and completely, restate what you have heard in calm, objective wording. Start by saying something like, “If I’m understanding you correctly…” Then paraphrase what the customer said, and end by asking, “Do I understand that correctly?”
  • Get agreement. When you ask the customer to verify your summary, it’s fine if they disagree. Allow them to repeat, rephrase, or elaborate; then reflect your revised understanding back to them. Again, ask them if they agree. Repeat this step until you are in sync and potential solutions can be identified.

That’s active listening in the customer service setting in a nutshell. Here are a few more pointers to help you become a pro at it.

  • Let the customer speak without interruption. Interrupting a customer, even to agree or explain, will likely increase frustration and anger.
  • Be patient. Let them finish. Patience is perhaps the most important skill to have as a customer service agent.
  • Let the customer direct the conversation whenever possible. The meeting is their opportunity to get the whole story out on the table.

Assess the Situation with Critical Thinking

Many customer service calls are a jumble of facts and emotions. One of the most common challenges that agents encounter in the contact center is knowing which aspect of the customer’s complaint to address first. That’s where critical thinking comes into play.

When you use critical thinking, you are making an objective evaluation and analysis of an issue before forming a judgement. Critical thinking helps you stay calm and enables you to confidently sort issues into emotional and factual buckets so you can prioritize them appropriately in your response. Here are two examples that illustrate how critical thinking lets you assess the situation when you’re in the contact center.

Example 1: Let’s say you answer a call and the customer is reporting a service outage of a business-critical component. The customer is clearly unhappy but effectively relays the information in order to quickly get it fixed. In this case, the factual aspect is the service outage that should be prioritized over the emotional aspect of the complaint. So you offer a quick apology before letting the customer know that an emergency field technician is on the way to help. 

Example 2: Now imagine you work for a pet food company and get a call from someone who has obviously been crying and is struggling to explain that they need to cancel a recent order because their dog has died. In this case, the emotion clearly takes priority over the customer’s order cancellation. Regardless of the status of the order, you should acknowledge the customer’s emotion by giving sympathetic feedback first before asking for order details to handle the request. 

In the first example, the customer was upset but really just wanted a solution, so getting into the emotional component of the call wasn’t that important. In the second example, the customer needed to resolve an issue, but the emotion needed to be acknowledged first.

Repair the Damage with Emotional Intelligence

In a world where brand reputation is everything, simply resolving a product or service issue is not enough. It takes positive 1-1 interactions to repair any damage to the customer’s impression of the brand. 

While critical thinking helps you resolve the customer’s issue, emotional intelligence helps you repair the customer’s overall impression of the experience and relationship with the company. Emotional intelligence is composed of five essential elements. 

  1. Self-awareness: The ability to recognize your own emotions, strengths, weaknesses, and values, and how they affect others
  2. Self-regulation: The ability to control your emotions
  3. Empathy: The ability to sense and understand how others are feeling
  4. Social skills: The ability to manage relationships and build networks
  5. Motivation: The ability to use your emotional energy to achieve goals and overcome obstacles

Unexpressed issues, like unexpressed emotions, can get in the way of restoring trust. Use empathy and social skills to address the emotional aspects of the situation, concentrating on these three areas. 

  1. The customer’s impression regarding your assessment of the situation
  2. The customer’s satisfaction level with the solution
  3. The customer’s overall impression of the company after this experience

Run through a mental checklist to make sure you cover the above and help ensure your company maintains good relationships with its customers. 

Problem-solving is something contact centers always focus on. But the ability to digest incoming information, analyze it, and respond appropriately is a skill—and an immensely valuable one at that. When you start with active listening and add critical thinking and emotional intelligence, you can soon master the art of customer service.

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