An apology and empathy that stretches beyond the first few seconds of an interaction with an angry or upset customer can reduce customer satisfaction. That’s the finding of new research led by Jagdip Singh of Case Western Reserve University. Too much empathy when complaint handling can negatively tip the balance on what customers perceive as effective service recovery.

When things go wrong at the airport …

The researchers analysed real-life video footage of customer service desks at UK and US airports. They discovered that customer satisfaction levels were higher when frontline teams used creative and energetic ‘problem-solving work’ to put things right. This proved more effective than over-compensating on ‘relational work’ such as apologising, empathising and trying to build a personal connection. Customer satisfaction was reduced when employees tried to be too cheerful, or were over reliant on empathy, especially beyond the first few seconds. The researchers found that when customers had a poor experience, lost a bag, or missed a flight say, they cared more about how their complaint was handled – the energy and proactivity displayed by the service rep and the options offered to fix things – than they did about the eventual outcome.

Customer interactions were divided into three phases:

  • Sensing – where agents tried to understand the problem
  • Seeking – where they brainstormed and looked at possible solutions
  • Settling – where the rep and customer chose the best solution to fix things

It was during phase two that customers evaluated the encounter. And talking through creative solutions was the trigger that improved customer satisfaction. Continuing to apologise and engaging in small talk was seen as a distraction from getting the problem solved.

The results of the research have especially piqued the interest of logistics-intensive brands. Find out more here.

From our experience in the customer service training room too …

Offering a direct apology to an angry or disappointed customer is the golden rule of customer service training and complaint handling. However, the weighting given to empathy and commitment to resolving the problem impacts how satisfied a customer feels. Our experience also aligns with the research. When things go wrong, customers look for help from a competent employee who is focused on solving their every way they can. By doing this, frontline employees can turn a negative experience into a positive one. It can help to improve customer satisfaction, rebuild trust and repair relationships. Angry customers are fuelled by emotions. Energetic, creative problem solving that involves the customer and provides them with choices can turn a difficult situation around.

Effective complaints handling processes

The most effective customer care teams establish a consistent complaints handling process like the one shown in the graphic below:

This helps to ensure that customers are not just ‘satisfied’ with the way their complaint is handled, but delighted. In dealing with a difficult situation, having a reliable process helps keep customer conversations on track. Effective complaint handling processes tend to start with an early apology and assurance that the agent is there to put things right.

Counter-intuitively, encouraging the customer to explain their circumstances and what has gone wrong is important in legitimizing the customer’s right to feel aggrieved. Asking questions gives the agent the opportunity to establish the facts and find out how the customer feels. It’s important to shape expectations and talk the customer through the options available to fix things. They should be involved in finding the solution where possible. Customer care teams should also try to close the service loop by following up on the agreed outcome. This can be as important as the initial interaction in rebuilding trust and improving customer satisfaction.

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