The Customer is always right, comes first, and is King! And Service is our middle name, with a smile.

These are lovely slogans and declarations of intent — but truthfully, people tend to pay more attention to them when they’re breached than when they’re followed.

Why Isn’t Service Better?

Based on typical results, you might think that actually satisfying customers comes down to the luck of the draw. But how could that be possible in professional operations with good products, trained staff, attentive supervisors, and reasonably generous service policies? Maybe it’s because there’s so much focus on providing service that the person at the receiving end gets forgotten.

Multiple service observations — in call centers as well as service and retail environments — have convinced me that most customers have pretty low expectations and that many establishments are leaving money on the table because they do a poor job of responding to their customers’ real needs.

Here’s what I mean: In all too many “quality” operations, the reps follow the rulebook, the call guide, the script, or the screen prompts very carefully. They speak politely, ask customers for their account information, look up account histories, and provide accurate information.

But there’s something missing: A crucial part of providing good service is understanding what the other person — the customer — actually wants and needs.

It’s not enough for reps to have handled countless similar scenarios before, and therefore to presume they know exactly what’s going on. The customers must be made to feel comfortable enough with the reps that they’re able to tell their own story about what they need.

The First Step, Every Time

Listening closely to the customer is the only way to pick up on the nuances of the situation, and to detect any tone of voice that might indicate real comfort and trust or, conversely, any confusion, equivocation, or assent without satisfaction. Reps shouldn’t assume they know everything the customer is going to say: Their expectation of “normal” customer responses often causes them to miss anything a customer says that’s new or different.

Rather than driving the customer through a standard process, the rep should, to the greatest extent possible, allow the customer to set her own agenda and describe her own needs in her own way, particularly at the beginning of the interaction. It can be really upsetting for a distressed customer to hear, “Before I can help you, I need your account number. And your telephone number, please, to verify?” while she’s trying to explain her problem.

Listening also includes noting — mentally, on screen, or on paper — any salient facts needed to complete the transaction to avoid having to ask the customer to repeat them — which would only prove to the customer that the other person wasn’t listening.

Adding the Second Step

The true companion behavior to listening is acknowledging. If reps don’t let customers know they’ve been understood, customers feel the need to repeat themselves, or they can get overly intense and insist on being heard. Prompt acknowledgment of both content and feeling tells customers they’ve been heard. It also confirms for the reps that they got it right.

Listening and acknowledging are simple, not complicated, but they require a different kind of focus from plowing through a prepared presentation as if the customer has also been through the training and knows exactly where and how to chime in.

In the practical reality, listening includes commonsensical things like not talking over customers; not interrupting; not asking for data that supports systems but doesn’t immediately add to understanding; and certainly not telling customers there’s something wrong with the way they’re expressing themselves. (“You know I can’t help you if you don’t give me your account number!”)

Acknowledging can include making supportive sounds like “uh-huh, uh-huh;” repeating back some of the words or phrases the customer uses; and, in person, nodding or smiling. A particularly skillful use of acknowledging is filling in things the customer has already said as part of completing the standard transaction processing: “Now, you said you had a model JKL, right, and that the shim-sham was a little loose,” instead of prompting the customer to repeat the model number that he already gave at the beginning of the interaction.

A Small, But Perfectly Representative Example

Just yesterday I called a restaurant, and asked, “Do I need to make a reservation for lunch tomorrow at 1:00 for six people, or can we just show up?” The hostess said, “We always recommend that you make a reservation. When did you want to come?” “Tomorrow at 1:00,” was my answer. “And how many people?” she asked. “Six,” I said, almost sighing with frustration. The hostess was on automatic pilot — she sounded perfectly pleasant, but came off as completely inattentive because she was so focused on her own requirements that she never registered the fact that I had already completed them.

And as is often the case, one kind of ineffectual behavior suggests the presence of others. When we got to the restaurant, there was not one single customer there, and by the time we left, there was only one other occupied table. The restaurant may always recommend reservations, but when it does it so mindlessly, it seems unaware of its own reality.

The pairing of listening and acknowledging works in every kind of interaction you can have, whether it’s sales, service, or personal. These two aspects of communication may not be all you need, but when they’re present, you’ll always have the leeway to incorporate any the other necessary components of dialogue into your conversation.