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During a recent visit at a client company, the management asked me about the problem of service reps who feel like they’re successful because a customer thanked them graciously, even enthusiastically, for their help, when, in fact, they had not been sufficiently helpful or gotten the customer the best possible outcome.

Although the reps were patting themselves on the back, they weren’t using their training to help customers; they were merely answering the customers’ direct questions and getting off the phone, ignoring any sense of the customer’s disappointment, confusion, or even the outright stated need for the merchandise.

Literally Phoning It In

Experience shows that many reps just want to answer customers’ questions and move on. They don’t want to get involved in tricky, sticky situations — the ones where their helpfulness backfires or where the harder they work, the less satisfied the customer seems to be. That’s never good for either party. It leaves customers unhappy and makes reps feel inadequate and dissatisfied themselves, and when you talk to 300 or more customers a week, that’s a lot of potential aggravation and inadequacy. Even if only a few calls are difficult, they’re the ones that reps remember.

But is there really such a high proportion of tricky situations? In most service environments, probably not. What’s more likely is that reps are drilled to give answers to questions but are given little practice exploring context or thinking about how customers feel. If they don’t personally have a flexible, optimistic turn of mind, reps won’t ask themselves, “What’s the best our entire operation could offer this customer?” Instead, their approach is: “How do I handle this customer’s problem and send her on her way with a minimum of fuss?”

My Own Happy/Unhappy Experience

Just the other night I called room service in a high-end hotel where I had stayed a number of times, and ended up thanking a rep and telling her how happy I was, even though I really and truly wasn’t. Of course it was correct to thank her: I wasn’t harmed in any way, she had answered my questions, and I accepted the result. But my thanking her meant that she wouldn’t learn to do any better. Perhaps, and even worse, the management wouldn’t learn about shadow demand — those things that customers really want, but which operations doesn’t register if customers ultimately accept whatever is on hand.

In the past, this hotel had been extremely accommodating about my dietary restrictions, and had prepared grilled vegetables and jasmine rice for me when I arrived late in the evening and wanted a small dinner, even though it was not a standard dish. When I explained this to the room service rep, she replied, “We took rice off the menu.”

She didn’t say, “Oh, I’m sorry, we took rice off the menu, but I can offer you pasta or quinoa as a substitute, if you’d like one of those.” Or: “We took rice off the menu, but is there something else I could get for you instead?”

Persevering Past “No”

Basically, her response was: “We don’t have what you want. Period.” It was very easy to believe she didn’t care because there was no vocal or verbal evidence to the contrary. But I wanted a pleasant dinner, so I led the witness. “Do you have any potatoes?” I asked.

“We have shoestring fries.” Again, she gave a flat, accurate response, with a kind of finality to it.

“Okay, that sounds great. Do you have any sorbet?”

“We do not.” It certainly didn’t sound like she had any concern for my pleasure or even my goodwill. I initiated again: “What about berries?”

“Yes, we have berries,” she said. Not: “Yes, would you like some? I’d be happy to send some.”

“Oh, that would be wonderful. That would make me very happy,” I replied, just to liven up the conversation — and yet potentially creating the impression that I was a satisfied customer.

Getting Reps to Go Beyond the Basics

Had this service rep not been trained in making customers feel welcome and comfortable? Couldn’t she have asked the kitchen if it was possible to make some rice for a very hungry, fairly frequent guest? (The kitchen certainly had rice on hand: I had some as part of a lunch there a couple of days later.)

It’s not an obligation for customers to let us know how they feel. But it is a leadership obligation to ask ourselves how we want our customers to feel, and what we want them to think about us. Then, we need to do the painstaking work necessary to help employees come to the same conclusions. Although the answers to these questions are conceptual and hard for reps to learn, they may be as important to customer satisfaction and purchase as the standard facts about the standard products.