Customer service styles: official or casual?

Blazej Szperlinski
7 min read
Aug 21, 2012
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Right choices result in satisfaction

Great communication choices utilised by marketers should also be part of good customer service. Being official or casual is just the tip of the iceberg of possibilities and different approaches should be applied ad hoc, ones that are well defined and flexible.

Characteristic styles stem from types of queries in context with the industry, process complexity levels and channels of interaction. An Armani suit salesclerk will be elegant and distinctive, while an outsourced Verizon rep will seek to meet standards and KPIs rather than to please clients.

Bottom line though, it’s all about conversations that affect the customers' feelings, boost retention, and possibly, cross-sell. Style definition should come after realizing how to measure performance of customer service at those levels. A commonly used report triad consists of availability time, average handle time and level of satisfaction. It's a good idea to track the volume of wow effects because mainly those generate true loyalty and positive word of mouth. A specific combination of these standards should, ideally, have a foreseeable outcome.

Define desired interaction outcomes

It is crucial to understand the role of customer service in day to day operations. Whether it's turnig around angry customers or upselling, there are a few similarities in the emotional outcome.

Scott McKain, expert on company culture, suggests a typology of four possible customer service interaction results:

Conformity in style means following scripts, showing up on time, exchanging pleasantries and going over it time after time. This usually gets the job done, since people don't have big expectations either way. It may quickly burn out CSRs, negatively impacting satisfaction levels of both engaged parties.

Confounding, on the other hand, is placing the customer in an emotional state he had no idea he'd be in after the experience. It’s individual, requires intuition and can sometimes make customers angry for having to deal with representatives too witty for their taste. The point is that being unique and a little crazy will increase the CSRs job satisfaction and deliver more wows to clients.

Steering customer service representatives to focus primarily on the triad (availability, reaction time and satisfaction) results in conformity and is a safe way to deliver decent quality. There is no risk that clients will misunderstand reps or that reps will waste time on helping people with topics that are not in their job descriptions.

Outstanding performance of wow generating reps can be difficult to spot. They will have average reaction times, borderline customer satisfaction reviews, however, they’re the guys who make people call your company for the sole pleasure of the conversation, oftentimes buying more and prolonging contracts. Under the influence of confounding delight, customers will recommend you to their closest circles, which is way more effective in getting new sales than any sales pitch.

Adapt to your customer's language

An easy way to achieve the desired outcome is to align with the way your customer actually verbalizes his request. Imagine a Rennaisance faire. A knight walks by, bows and greets thou as art didst come. Hi yourself, you'd reply. What if this happened at your local grocery store? It would definitely be weird, disappointingly confounding and you would probably get out of there right away.

Avoiding this cognitive dissonance is the first commendment in storytelling, and appropriate communication style. Every brand has a story to tell. It’s a necessity that the style is aligned and relevant. Marketing slogans, website design and copy, along with customer service are required to follow the same principals and communicate in a unique, branded style. If it's strong, the customer will adapt, but in most cases it's the other way around. How not to talk to customers. Clips from Black Books TV series.

If you are a high-tech company providing complex services, absolutely do not try to look like a genius when facing customers who don't know how to turn it off and on again. If you’re all about organic veggies, don’t look down on people coming in for a few apples while carrying a bucket of KFC chicken wings.

Most of the time you're probably right. The customer should take a computer class or cut down on deep fried meats, but your role is to meet his expectations, not patronize. If you become an obstacle between him and his desire, he’ll get frustrated, go away and potential revenue will be lost. Just like a policeman is supposed to catch bad guys, you are supposed to tell the customer what he wants to hear. Sticking to roles in customer service conversations ensures a positive outcome. Going out of character is undesired. If the interaction gets to private topics, it'll be unprofessional. If the customer, instead of the rep, solves his own problem, he'll feel too good to buy at such a place. There's a lot of science behind this, and the Zimbardo experiment is the most spectacular example where social role definition had determined stratified relations of complete strangers in merely a day.

Choose your customers wisely

Style requires flexibility. People have different attitudes so it's important to shift empathy from query to query and always try to be in their position.

Choose your customers
Complaining customers are not that bad!

The fact is, most customers requiring assistance are emotional and irrational. People hate to call because they're used to clueless support. When they buy a new iPad and it won’t work, no one can blame them for being agitated though. Peter Shankman, founder of HARO, divided these people into five categories:

First time complainers: they experience issues for the first time. They're the easiest to wow. Be quick and surprise with quality. It's an opportunity to cross-sell and show how great of a company you are.

Serial complainers: forget about these guys. Even though they hate your company, they stick with you because of habit, oftentimes ranting about irrelevant issues. If they feel like it, they are capable of wasting your whole day over the colour of your website that is not of their liking. Be nice, stay focused, however, don’t try to hard. It’s not worth it.

Best-Customer complainers: the 10% that generates 90% of your revenue. They are delighted with the service, happened to found a glitch and are too embarrassed to report it. This is a friend, who should be treated in the best of ways. Prioritize!

Multimedia complainers: they've got a webcam and have a Youtube account. They will record whatever they can to discredit your offerings. Here's where the social media customer service comes into play. Be original - record one of your own videos where you send out a replacement to that customer and post it as a reply!

Best @LiveChat complainers: Twitter shoutouts spread like wildfire. They know it and will not stop complaining until they're satisfied. Meanwhile, half of the web population will learn that there was a long line in your store or that the order came one size too small. Make use of the attention and show something spectacular while compensating the client.

Neither style is right, but all are good

Whatever you're trying to accomplish in customer service, remember to be flexible in communication. You cannot enforce one particular style and expect great results. Everybody's different and everybody's moody. Adapt and choose the right way individually every single time.

The key is alignment. Stick with your brand’s strategies and flex a little for customers. Balance conformity and confunding to provide stellar service!

How do you determine which approach is right for your business? Are you official, or are you casual?

Photo courtesy of Victor1558 and flowcomm.

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