What’s the worst customer service experience you’ve ever had?
I bet there’s an experience that immediately comes to your mind. One definitely comes to mind for me. Actually, I have several. Maybe you have a few, too—or a few dozen.
I could tell you all about my worst-ever customer service experience but, honestly, I’d rather not revisit it. Just thinking about it makes me grit my teeth. And it’s not like the internet is lacking in horror stories from both sides of the customer service equation.
The sad truth is that bad customer service is common. We’ve all felt frustrated, powerless, and ignored when trying to get an issue resolved or hunting down an answer to a question. We’ve all called or chatted with a company at one point and gotten the runaround—transferred from person to person, department to department, with no one willing or able to actually help.
And then there are those times when we call and get placed on hold forever. This one time, I called my internet provider and waited over two hours to talk to a human being, and when I finally did get to speak to someone…
Nevermind. Like I said, I really don’t want to revisit it.
Whew, okay, deep breaths.
Anyway. The point is that virtually all customer service issues center on a simple human need:
We want someone to listen.
The first thing—and often, the only thing—anyone wants when they have a problem is to be heard.
We don’t always need solutions, or even explanations. Sometimes, we’re willing to accept that certain problems are unsolvable, unavoidable, and outside of anyone’s control.
But we always, always deserve to be listened to. To be understood. To be cared about.
This is one of the most basic and important forms of human kindness we can offer each other. And you don’t need any specialized training or tools to offer it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the first customer service call of the day or the 1200th; whether it’s the CEO or an intern answering the phone.
Anyone, in any conversation, has the ability—and the responsibility!—to listen to the other person.
I’m talking about more than literally hearing the person when they’re talking to you. I’m talking about active listening.
If you’re not familiar with the concept of active listening, here’s a great definition from Indeed:
“Active listening is the ability to focus completely on a speaker, understand their message, comprehend the information and respond thoughtfully.” Contrast that with passive listening, which is “the act of hearing a speaker without retaining their message.”
Active listening requires ears, a brain, and a heart. You need to hear the other person, recognize what they’re telling you, and care about it.
Active listening is a foundational customer service skill. It’s arguably the most important element of your customer service operations.
Here are a few reasons active listening is pivotal for the success of your business:
Listening builds trust. If you prove to your client or customer base that you are actively listening, and respond with empathy, the people you serve will feel taken care of and continue to build a relationship with your company.
For example, consider this compliment from a caller, which one of our receptionists recently received: “You are one of the nicest people I have talked to. So many people forget nowadays to be courteous on the phone. I hope I get to meet you when I come by the office.” If your clients or customers trust that you’re listening to them, they’ll become your loyal supporters and advocates.
Listening fuels company growth. Having a listening ear does more than improve customer service. It also provides insights into how your company is performing and aids in decision-making. Are customers or clients expressing certain pain points more often than others? Or, on the flip side, are you receiving a number of compliments on a certain aspect of your company? The only way to find out is to listen.
5 ways to improve your company’s customer service through listening.
So, how do you become a better listener? How can you embed a culture of listening in your company? Here are five ways to improve.
1. Teach your employees to be active listeners.
Teach every employee active listening skills—not just those employees who interact with clients the most. Engage your employees through fun exercises like these:
Group Storytelling: This is a group activity in which participants tell a story one sentence at a time, with each person adding a new element. Every participant must listen carefully to ensure they tell the story correctly, while also adding an element that fits with the storyline.
My Vacation Spot: This is a two-person activity. One person describes their ideal vacation spot, providing subtle hints as to the specific location. The other person must then recommend a vacation destination based on their explanation, with the speaker confirming or denying the suggestion’s usefulness.
So You’re Saying: This is another two-person activity. Have one person explain a common customer complaint or issue. The second person must then summarize what has been heard, and repeat this summary back to the speaker for confirmation.
2. Listen to your employees.
A culture of listening starts at the top. By being accessible and willing to listen, you encourage your employees to speak up on issues and share ideas on how to take action.
Here at Ruby, for instance, we offer a number of outlets for team members to offer feedback about their roles and the company—and we take suggestions seriously. This has led to fitness classes, our WOW program, a dragon boat racing team, and lots of other cool ideas and cultural elements coming to life.
3. Give your customers a voice.
Empower your clients or customers to communicate their experiences and feedback:
- Invite them to share their thoughts through social media channels.
- Post a feedback form on your website.
- Email them short and simple satisfaction surveys. (Check out SurveyMonkey’s client satisfaction survey dos and don’ts).
- Seek out opportunities to gather feedback from your customers live—over the phone or face-to-face.
4. Show empathy.
Empathy is at the core of active listening. It starts with the listener. The more open you are with yourself, the more open you’ll be to others.
In other words, it’s vital to embrace vulnerability. Emotions make us human—and customers are increasingly looking for more personal, human experiences. By tapping into your emotions, you’ll make yourself vulnerable and approachable, and boost your ability to really listen to others and understand where they’re coming from.
5. Take action.
Once you’ve earned feedback from your customers or clients, acknowledge it. Take the time to respond personally to comments you receive, address any issues raised, and let them know the plan moving forward. This goes beyond providing updates on company changes or products. Share the story of where those changes originated, and the benefits they will bring to your customers. If you’re a service-based company, consider creating a blog series, podcast, or video series dedicated to addressing common customer questions.
The best part about active listening is how easy it is to do. Not doing it actually takes more effort. Think about all the brainpower someone has to use to ignore another person!
Ultimately, it boils down to one simple rule—the Golden Rule: treat other people as you would like other people to treat you. Take the time to listen to your clients and employees; make them feel heard, cared for, and empowered. It’s the right thing to do—and it’s good for business.
Listening creates a positive experience for your clients, but what you say (and how you say it) is equally important. Which reminds of the worst customer service phone call I ever had, where the agent I was talking to told me…
Nope. Not going there.