Listen: You need to sharpen your customer service skills. Even if you’re an award-winning customer service guru at the peak of your career, if you’re not sharpening those skills, you’re letting them atrophy. This means going beyond platitudes like “the customer is always right” and learning how to provide excellent customer service.
Improving your customer service isn’t easy, but the concept is simple. Try one of these customer service tips to help keep you at the top of your game.
1. Look for the common ground.
Psychologists call it “implicit egotism,” and it means people tend to like other people who are similar to them. Finding common topics of interest when talking with a customer shows interest and capitalizes on this facet of human nature.
It’s not enough for the customer to always feel right. The customer wants, more than anything else, to feel listened to.
Done wrong, this feels like a used car salesman trying to “build rapport” so he can unload a lemon on an unsuspecting victim. But if you find points of commonality and have a sincere conversation around those points, it builds legitimate connections that turn customers into friends and fans.
2. Use CARP.
Sometimes you screw up. Sometimes, “the customer is always right” rears its head so you have to apologize for doing the right thing. That’s when CARP comes in.
This customer service tip is a process for handling complaints and problems that helps you heal a damaged relationship until it’s stronger than before the problem happened.
The four stages of CARP are:
- Controlling the situation so further ill will is prevented
- Acknowledging the problem to show you care
- Refocusing the conversation onto creating solutions
- Problem-solving with the customer so she feels agency
By remembering and working through these steps, your team stays on track even during the most embarrassing mistake. It keeps the customer service session from veering off into other stages like “insisting you’re right” and “taking unnecessary abuse.”
3. Hang a lantern on mistakes.
This is the practice of pointing out a problem early on to help people accept it without undue emotional involvement. The term comes from writing, and is part of maintaining willing suspension of disbelief. If you call out your mistakes—and what you’re doing to fix them—instead of hiding them, you’ll demonstrate your honesty and gain trust.
This is one of the most counterintuitive ways to provide excellent customer service, because the habit for most of the history of branding has been to project a reputation of flawlessness. But this century, people want transparency and authenticity. Admitting a mistake while simultaneously showing what you did to fix it gives both of those things.
4. Practice active listening.
There’s an expression: “Listen, don’t just wait for your turn to talk.” Too many customer service interactions, especially those run by scripts, fail to heed this advice. There are four components to active listening:
- Clarifying: Asking questions to make sure you understand a customer’s ideas.
- Paraphrasing: Rewording what a customer just said to confirm you understand.
- Reflecting Feelings: Using phrases like “that must have made you angry” or “you seem pretty excited about that” demonstrates empathy and shows that you’re paying attention.
- Summarizing: Finishing a conversation with a quick summary of the most important points ensures that everyone’s on the same page.
It’s not enough for the customer to always feel right. The customer wants, more than anything else, to feel listened to. Active listening is one of the most important tools to make that happen.
5. Say, “I don’t know.”
It’s tempting to make something up or take your best guess when somebody thinks you’re an expert, but it’s a mistake. Instead, admit it by saying, “I don’t know, but here’s what I’ll do to find out.” Then set a time to get back to your customer with an answer.
This touches on hanging a lantern on mistakes. That transparency and authenticity can appear like magic when you admit you aren’t omniscient. To provide excellent customer service, you have to be willing to say “I don’t know….”
…but always make sure the next thing you say is how you plan to find out.
6. Bring your work home.
Work-life balance is important to both your health and your performance, but it can pay to come home one day and apply your customer service rules to your interactions with your family. Use active listening, and transparency, to interact with your family and see what happens.
This practice cuts both ways. You might find that your behavior at home wouldn’t stand up to professional standards for treating your customers … or you might find that your customer service habits are too insincere to pass muster with your loved ones.
7. Watch your language.
This isn’t about not cursing in front of the preacher who comes in for an oil change every three months. It also means watching your everyday customer service language for opportunities to make an impression.
It’s one thing to sprinkle customer service tips into your front-line CSR training, but if you embed your language and culture with excellent customer service skills you create something memorable and special.
Look specifically for opportunities in three places:
- Authenticity: Do your words sound like a personal connection, or are they corporate boilerplate?
- Positivity: Are you focusing on the best part of an interaction, even when it’s an opportunity to improve?
- Memorability: Can you, in an appropriate way, stop a customer in his tracks with a particularly clever, funny or meaningful phrase?
By going over your plans, training and internal documents with an eye toward improving those three points, you won’t just be able to change your customer service language. You’ll take a step towards making your customer service culture better.
It doesn’t take a lot of time, effort or money to keep up amicable relations with your customers. The key is to not let those skills get dull. These customer service tips will help keep those skills sharp and in tip-top shape.
Remember: Every day in every relationship you are either one step closer to making that customer a friend, or one step closer to losing that customer forever.
What’s it going to be today?
A version of this article was originally published on August 21, 2013.