I’ve always been driven to help people and be of service. This point really hit home for me when I did a values exercise last year with my amazing coach, Gretchen. She asked me a series of questions that helped me articulate my top four values: service, authenticity, support and customer service. In considering how these values would show themselves in my business, I began reflecting on what led me to start my own business, solve problems and ensure service excellence.
I started my career in waitressing roles. I worked in a pub, steakhouse, hotel restaurant and even a dinner cruise boat. As we all know, waitressing is not for the faint of heart, but I really enjoyed adapting my style and ability to meet the needs of different customers. I loved seeing a happy patron. It was a fun experience and, let’s be real, my income depended on tips, which were directly linked to the level of good customer service I provided. That was okay with me because I was inclined to provide a great customer service experience anyway.
These adventures in waitressing led to my first nine-to-five job in customer service for a large student travel company. This time, I was talking with parents who were sending their children abroad, often for the first time. You can imagine the responsibility that I felt in this situation and the trust that the parents were giving to our company. The extensive and ongoing training I received at this company really rounded out my customer service toolkit.
I’ve been in the working world for 20 years now and have experience in a number of industries. Still, I see the lessons I learned in my first seven years in customer service as guiding lights in how I have navigated my career and now, how I run my business. The customer service skills I honed focus on the easy things you can do to make all the difference, no matter your industry or who your client is.
1. Lead the way.
When I worked on the dinner cruise boat, we weren’t allowed to gesture or point when someone asked for directions to the observation deck or the loo. No matter how busy we were, our job was to escort people to their destination. I still do this at my office and in my business, literally and figuratively. This customer interaction is a small gesture says that they are your top priority. Their experience matters most and you will ensure that they achieve their goals.
2. Call people by their name.
Dale Carnegie’s "How to Win Friends and Influence People" reminds us that "a person's name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language." Think about how you feel when you arrive at a hotel or restaurant and are greeted by name. It’s the ultimate VIP experience, right? You get a little jolt of confidence and feel flattered to have been acknowledged in this way.
It’s so easy for you to create this experience for your coworkers, boss and customers. Using someone’s name is not only good customer service, it showcases your empathy and that you care about the customer as more than just "the customer." It also shows that you’ve gone through the trouble to actually remember a name, which most people do not do.
I know it’s cheesy, but I always say that a smile is the easiest gift to give. When you smile at someone, it helps the recipient feel included, welcome and safe. You’ll benefit, too. In general, positive body language enhances the customer experience for the client and for the customer service representative. The act of smiling tells your brain that you are happy, whether it feels true or not. I work with most of my coaching clients via phone and when they are smiling it positively radiates through the miles that separate us. This small, free gesture goes a long way, so don’t forget your smile both in person and over the phone.
4. Share what you can do.
I learned this customer service skill at the travel company and use it regularly to set boundaries or expectations around a request. It is so impactful and empowering to stop focusing on what you can’t do and focus on what you can.
Oftentimes at work, a seemingly impossible and overwhelming request will come through. What if you changed "I can’t do this project" to "I can do this project next month" or "I can do this project if I can reschedule my presentation"? This gives the requestor options, rather than closing the door. No one likes to hear no, and with this you don’t have to say it to resolve a request.
5. Use positive language.
Building on what you can do, consider ways to reframe negative language. I do this work constantly with those who are updating their resumes or preparing for interviews. You can easily take your complaints about your current job and turn them into positive attributes that you want in your next role.
For example, if you are leaving your job because your boss is a micromanager, when asked why you are leaving, you can share that you thrive in an environment with a lot of autonomy. It allows you to express your problems while remaining positive and truthful. In a resume, I regularly change the bullet "dealt with customer problems" to "ensured customer satisfaction." People will understand your meaning either way and you won’t bring the conversation down with negativity.
6. Involve customers in problem-solving.
Another doozy from the travel company: when a parent wanted to cancel a tour, we’d ask what it would take for their child to be able to travel. The goal was to help these students get an amazing experience abroad. Since every student (and parent) is motivated by something different, so why not ask them for input?
This one came back to me in full force when my business initially began to pick up. When a potential or current client reached out to schedule a session, I’d spend up to 30 minutes stressing about their needs. I’d make guesses about their availability, provide multiple options, then worry about whether or not I should hold these times on my calendar as I awaited their responses. Now, I give my clients access to my calendar. They are in control and tell me what they need. They can even reschedule if something changes.
Customer service excellence doesn’t always mean being involved in every single step of a plan. Sometimes it’s best to empower your customer and take out unnecessary barriers. Remember, I'll walk someone to the loo, but they’re on their own upon arrival.
7. Respond within one business day.
This is a basic part of the customer service experience that is often overlooked. Even if you don’t have the answer to a request, the customer service team should let a client know that they are working on their question. It helps to provide an estimated timeline for completion. The same goes for deadlines.
Don’t make people wonder if or when you’ll respond. A small note will go a long way in building trust and setting expectations. Not responding or acknowledging a deadline can irrevocably damage a professional relationship. It’s not about getting the job done at the exact moment, it’s about being true to your word.
8. Bend rules where you can.
Avoid blindly or unfailingly following the rules. There are always exceptions to be made and extenuating circumstances. Having the ability to change rules within reason and when necessary helped my customers get what they needed and empowered me as an employee. Rules are there for a reason, but consider why they have been broken and where there is wiggle room. Should you question a "no refunds within 10 days" policy if someone calls on Day 10? What if it’s a Monday? What if the reason is out of their control? Is there a tangible loss to the company? The next time you're presented with the option, think it over — breaking a rule can have a positive impact on customer retention.
9. Never say "I don't know."
When it comes to professional customer interaction, there is no room for not knowing. Do your best to find the answer and be as helpful as possible. Sometimes, that might mean referring people to a different service rep. If you do that, consider facilitating the introduction so you’re actually handing them off to a new person rather than just sending them away. If it’s a business answer you could find easily, consider sharing the answer with the sender along with how you acquired the information so you’re not called upon again for something that isn’t in your purview.
Avoid responses that make someone feel like you’re just pushing them off like, "sorry, we don’t handle that," or "try checking with John." While you might not always have the answer or be the ideal person to ask, you'll be a valuable resource by guiding them in the right direction. Someone who needs an answer is already feeling a bit vulnerable; don’t add frustration to the mix.
10. If necessary — escalate.
If your relationship with someone is damaged, or they think you cannot help them, let it go and let your customer talk with someone else. If you’ve done something to cause them to look elsewhere, take it as a lesson in customer service skills and don’t repeat the behavior.
You may need to think of ways to repair the damage, but what’s most important is that your customer or client gets the outcome that they need. It’s a two-way street, too; if someone is behaving inappropriately or in ways that indicate that they will not be satisfied with any resolution you provide, take that opportunity to hit the reset button and get them the help they need through another person or resource.
11. Anticipate the needs of others.
To the best of your ability, anticipate what the customer might need next. No one enjoys being in react mode and putting out fires, so try to be a step ahead. It’s often the case that people don’t know what they don’t know, so it’s hard to express their needs.
I recently made an international move and, throughout the immigration process, the country sent me email tips. It started with the items that I could and could not bring through customs, then went on to share local etiquette, tools to set up a bank account and even how to navigate international healthcare. I wouldn’t have known to ask many of the questions around the information they provided; it really helped ease my transition.
These tips are exceptionally easy to implement once you know that they exist. We typically don’t even notice that we don’t do these things and our customers, employees, bosses and clients don’t notice either. The real magic happens with the engagement and trust that builds when you start practicing these techniques. You’ll see relationships, positive feedback and retention go from good to great.
Alyson Garrido is passionate about helping women advance their careers and find jobs they will enjoy. As a career coach, she partners with her clients to identify their strengths and create a path toward a more fulfilling career. Alyson provides support around preparing for interviews, performance reviews and salary negotiations, ensuring that you present yourself in the best possible light for job search and career advancement. Learn more or book a session with Alyson by visiting www.alysongarrido.com.