5 Ways to be a Better Customer

I’ve been wanting to write about this for a long time.

Just this week, I was second in line at Starbucks and the gentleman in front of me ordered a grande dark. The barista, who I have frequently experienced to be friendly, kind, and very service-focused, did what corporate employment expects of her and asked if he wanted something for breakfast to go with his coffee. His response, “grande dark”. I thought the same thing she thought; that him repeating his order implied that he assumed she did not hear his original order. She repeated her question about breakfast to go with his coffee. He responded by saying “grande dark” three times in a row, angrily and loudly.  A true champ, she maintained her composure, took one breath, then asked if he wanted room in his coffee. I stood there saucer-eyed and impressed with her ability to let it slide. It must happen all the time.

All people want to receive good customer service. We demand it. Right now. That is the problem.

In this first world we live in, information comes at us like an onslaught of arrows being fired at a target.  Companies train their employees with techniques to make suggestions to us; to give us more information that will hopefully influence our immediate purchase decisions. We are seemingly being programmed by marketing teams to want what others think we should want, because of other things we’ve had in the past.

Corporate world is convoluted and over-constructed. Expansive teams are often segmented in silos, where information is everywhere, but not shared enough. Most corporations go through some kind of restructuring and reorganizing every 3-5 years, as a means to figure out the perfect formula to be ginormous efficiently.  Consequently, when a customer has a question or a problem, it’s not always easy to get the right answer immediately. Moreover, the data they are using to anticipate our purchase decisions is often influenced with what has been pushed onto us — so it’s not always in touch with what we want today. We are put into a situation where we’re overloaded with information noise, seduced to have immediate demand, but road blocked to get real solutions to problems as they arise. This formula puts people on edge, especially if the message being communicated is the wrong one. It quickly puts people on the defensive and causes situations to escalate that really shouldn’t have to. We are so sensitive. We tend to take our frustrations out on the person standing in front of us, the comment section of the Facebook post, the Tweet, the Reddit thread. We grab that arrow and stab it into the nearest person’s eye.

With all of these things happening around us, driving us to near insanity, how can you be a better customer?

First and most importantly: Be Patient.

Be genuinely okay with waiting. That gnawing feeling of annoyance because companies are slow or people are rude or unhelpful that makes you want to raise your voice to irate levels, swear, call someone an idiot and hit things: put it in your pocket. Store it under your shoe. Take a breath. Take 10. Write that angry letter if you need to vent your frustrations – but don’t send it. Yet.

My biggest pet peeve as a customer is receiving a half answer. Half answers include words such as “I think”, probably, “I suppose”, “It’s supposed to”, “I guess”. I attribute this to people wanting to give the best answer they can at the moment because they assume that I demand to receive an immediate response. Most people expect immediacy.

I don’t need an immediate response. I will wait for you to ask this department and that department; review my receipts; talk to others to find out how this has been treated in the past; debate amongst yourselves what would be a good resolution to my problem and then get back to me. Tell me that you need time.

If you give people time to figure things out, they will take the time and use it to be better.

I had a positive experience at United Airlines after complaining about what I felt was a wrong action on their part. UNITED AIRLINES. I had to wait 6 weeks while they figured out what they did wrong and how to best resolve. But it ended with me getting a $1600 refund.

Second: Stay Calm

I believe that we have an increased sense of entitlement to lose our temper because of all the things that companies do wrong. I also strongly believe that you will get better results fixing a problem if you do not lose your temper. If you make an effort to remain calm while articulating your problem, then the person you are talking to won’t have to sift through your emotions to hear you. Tell the person how the problem makes you feel without showing them. Let them focus on the words coming out of your mouth instead of how they are going to diffuse the situation (‘the situation’, being you). When people encounter a person who is upset or angry, it triggers a physiological response in them – nerves and agitation –  and affects how they would approach a problem compared to if they were calm and just having a conversation.

I do believe that this takes practice. It also sometimes involves taking time to process your thoughts before proceeding to address the problem with the company. It takes patience to stay calm.

Third: Listen.

Listening is especially important if you’re complaining and are upset. Consequently, this is usually the time when our listening skills seemingly disappear. We think, as customers, “I want to be heard” when we should think “I want to be understood.” You need to ensure that the other party understands what the problem is and what a suitable resolution is for you. Further, when you listen to the person you are talking to, you can get insight as to whether you’re even speaking to the person who will best be able to help you. You can look for non-verbal cues too. If the person you’re talking to isn’t ‘getting it’, then talk to somebody else. It’s frustrating to need to repeat yourself to multiple people – but if it means achieving your goal, then it’s worth it.

I was recently on the phone getting technical support and noticed that the person helping me was also typing a lot. I commented on my observation, ‘it sounds like you’re typing my words verbatim’. I found out that my problem was too complex for her and she was IMing her peer. I suggested that we invite her peer to the call, so that we could figure it out together. I was frustrated over the problem, but I was calm and we were having a normal conversation – so she didn’t feel like looping in her peer was “escalating”; it was more so pooling our knowledge to figure out how to fix the problem.

Active listening also involves confirming that you’re on the same page with what has been discussed. Always end a call by summarizing the main points. If you want to get really good at this, before you make a call or go to talk to someone, make a few notes on what you need to talk about. Imagine taking a step back and preparing to complain – or preparing to be served. It’s like looking at a menu before ordering and double checking that the server got your order correct. You could apply this when wanting to make a purchase in any other store.

Fourth: Complain to the right person.

While I don’t think it’s appropriate to tell a customer that you’re ‘just doing your job’, I do think it’s important as a customer to recognize when this is the case. I’ve never been a fan of the upsell – but I would never get pissed off at a barista for asking me if I want a muffin. Just say ‘no thanks’ and move on. This is something that’s super important in a call centre environment. Most likely, the first person you talk to is not going to be able to resolve your problem if you want money (corporate silos, remember). Your patience NEEDS to last long enough to repeat your situation to 2-3 people sometimes. It’s shitty, but it’s 2017 and, if you’re a customer of a corporate conglomerate, solutions take time. Ask me why my cell phone bill and cable bill is less than yours? It’s not because I got angry and made demands. Instead, I patiently made my way through the web of corporate call centre structure until I spoke to someone who was able to make a deal. People are more willing to help you when you aren’t screaming at them and haven’t just screamed at their coworker.

Complaining to the right person also means recognizing that the right person may actually be an email on a website. Remember my situation with United Airlines? I was overcharged in person, at the airport. But, because I needed my ticket immediately, there was little I could do at that counter, let alone start screaming my frustrations at the counterperson. When I got home, I wrote my venting email. I wrote about how the situation made me feel and why I felt that I was overcharged. I provided specific details about my purchase and the immediate solution available to me at the time. I did not click send. I did not go on Twitter. I did not go on Facebook. Two days later, I re-read my email and still felt that every word was true, so I clicked send.

I once received a store-made product from Whole Foods that was mislabeled as vegetarian. I was livid to have fed my vegetarian partner chicken. But going back to the store and yelling at the cashier, while it would have gotten me to talk to the manager immediately, it would have also been at the expense of someone’s day – who had no role or fault in causing the problem. I emailed in, the manager got ahold of me after he took the time to investigate and figure out how on earth that happened at his store and then did more than compensate me for the mishap. Further, by taking the time to identify the cause of the problem, he was able to put changes into place that would prevent it from happening again.

Fifth: Show Gratitude

When is the last time you formally acknowledged the good customer service you received? If you email a commendation about an employee, I guarantee that the employee will receive the feedback, be recognized, feel good, and talk about it to their peers. It works kind of the same way as emailing complaints on a company website. Use the same form and comment on the good things that happen to you or that you see (yes, I emailed Starbucks about that barista this week). We need to change our conditioning to jump to anger and only express ourselves when we’ve been wronged. I believe that collectively, being better customers will impact the kind of service we receive.

This post is about having a different perspective about Customer Service. There is a classic method of treating others the way you want to be treated that I think falls to wayside when it comes to the client/customer relationship. Following these tips will help you navigate complex corporate structures and get better results when making a purchase or trying to resolve a problem. You will also feel better about customer service in general. It doesn’t mean that you’ll always be treated better – but you’ll feel how much less it makes you rage, when you remember that you need to be patient and calm, you need to listen and talk to the right person and then show gratitude. You will feel less hopeless when there is a problem or you need to make a purchase.

Bonus Tip: When you are face to face to someone, being served, put your cell phone down. The person on the phone can and should wait. Acknowledge every moment of human interaction you get during the day. It’s amazing how many great people are out there wanting to make your day better.

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