Every job I’ve ever had has been customer facing, ranging from delivering pharmacy prescriptions at 10 (old ladies tip really well BTW, often provide cups of tea and large piles of biscuits) to my current role dealing with both internal and external customers.
I think I’ve learnt some important lessons from the nearly 30 years of customer service.1
- Have no shame about being in customer service
Firstly, there’s no shame in saying you work in customer service. We all have customers. Seriously, you’re not an IT professional without customers. You don’t get paid without them and you don’t have a job without them. So stop pretending you don’t have them and that your job is somehow about technology.2 If you don’t, and you forget just why your role exists, then I guarantee you that the people, those customers, who pay your salary will not be so keen on continuing to do so.
- Customer impact matters
Secondly, always think about the customer impact. Anytime I make change the first thing I consider is “what is the potential customer impact”. Anytime you gather requirements or choose a technology the underlying question should consider the customer and their needs. Sometimes this is obvious, for example an outage or an exposure.3 Other times small changes can have huge customer impact, for example choosing a technology that doesn’t scale. So I use the customer as the baseline for every decision. And don’t forget that, like all risk decisions, sometimes the customer will be impacted no matter what you do. Your job is to make the best possible assessment and then take the approach that provides the best possible outcome for the customer.
- You can never communicate too much
Thirdly, when a customer has an issue or you want to pass information to them, you can never over-communicate. Think about your worst customer service experiences. What was the most frustrating element of it? I’ll bet it was not knowing what was going on, not having enough information to plan and having no clear timetable for when service might be restored. So tell your customers every time the status of an issue changes and periodically even if status doesn’t change. Update time frames and estimates whenever they change.
- The high moral ground always wins
This next lesson is the hardest of all in my view. It does not matter what a customer says to you. It doesn’t matter how much you may wish to strangle them, go to their places of business and burn it to the ground or how angry a professional or personal attack may make you:
You never lose your cool.
Every response should be reasonable, polite, even-tempered and calm. This is not to say you can’t fire customers. If a customer is toxic or worse makes a personal attack then call them on it. Politely, calmly inform them that you can’t help them unless the dialogue is polite and professional. Be empathetic and understanding but be firm: you will communicate and help as best you can but on mutually acceptable terms.
- The customer rarely cares why there’s an issue4
During a customer service issue the customer, rarely cares about the whys. But they always care when their issue will be fixed. Don’t overload customer communications during an incident with whys. Provide the current state, estimated time frame to fix it and any workarounds or information that might help or mitigate an issue. During an incident, when tempers are frayed and the customer is unhappy, the why sounds like an excuse and doesn’t add value to the exchange.
- Don’t be afraid to “mea culpa”
Now after the incident, when the customer’s issue has been resolved then you want to share with them the why. But you want to consider how you communicate that why. Firstly, apologise. If you broke it then you own it. Secondly, be empathetic and if possible offer the customer something for their trouble: a month free of a service or comp them something they have bought. Thirdly, be transparent. I don’t need to add any collateral to the large body of wisdom around writing a good post-mortem and you can find numerous good examples of them online that you can crib from.
Lastly, whilst I am not religious, I do find one piece of religious sentiment particularly relevant to customer service (and indeed life more broadly). The so-called “Golden Rule”:
Do onto others as you would have done to you.
Delivering good customer service comes down to this one simple concept. If you would hate the service you were receiving then so will the customer.5
And there’s probably a lot more I’ve not learnt yet.↩
It is a little bit but without the customers there’d be no technology to play with.↩
For some subset of interactions there may not be any customer impact so don’t panic if you can’t find it. Just don’t get complacent as a result.↩
But they might later.↩
Always remember too that inside your organisation is like a special subjective bubble, a cultural relativistic bubble. You need to be sure to step outside that bubble when you’re thinking about your customers.↩