Talk the talk

Posted: Sunday, April 09, 2006

For some companies, customer service is a key component of business. And while some may think there's not much to a customer service job, dealing with customers all day - most of them unhappy - can make for a difficult and challenging situation.

Customer service representatives are often a company's first line of contact with their clients. Whether someone is calling to discuss a late payment, cable hook-up or auto breakdown, the customer service representative on the other end of the line helps put a "face" on the company overall, which is why the role is growing in importance.

Scott Mazo, human resources lead for the Auto Club of California in Costa Mesa, Calif., says he places an emphasis on demeanor when hiring customer service representatives.

"Obviously, none of us like breaking down on the side of the road in our cars, and sometimes it can be a little scary," Mazo says. "Having people who have the ability to calm people down and make them feel secure, to make them feel like they have been treated with respect and compassion, and to assure them we're going to essentially rescue them from their breakdown is important."

Speech class

Anyone considering a customer service job should be able to communicate clearly, according to Mazo.

"Even if you're on a phone, your communication skills are absolutely critical," he says. "You've got to be able to speak clearly, listen very well, be able to use your intuition, use your judgment and be able to make recommendations based on what people have said to you."

Mazo says it's also important to hire people who are willing to help others.

"We hire talented, caring people out there who take care of our members every day," says Mazo.

Customer comes first

Aaron Livingston, a business consultant in Santa Monica, Calif., offers the following five tips for effective customer service:

1. Treat each customer as an individual: "Don't assume you're dealing with someone who's trying to take advantage of your company, or someone who has a problem you've heard a thousand times before," says Livingston. "Every person who calls or comes to see you has no knowledge of your past calls. They want to be treated as an individual, not as part of a collective group."

2. Each call is a learning experience: While it's important to treat each customer as an individual, there is plenty to learn from each customer. And this information can then be used with others. "If you find out that most people are satisfied with a month of free service in response to a problem, you can lead with that," Livingston says. "Find out what works with others and put it into practice when appropriate."

4. Don't tolerate abusive behavior: An irate customer likely doesn't want a solution to her problem - she just may want to vent. That's fine. You can listen and offer empathy and a solution, but if that venting turns to cursing and name-calling, end the call.

5. Place a value on customers: While we all want to be treated fairly, it's not an effective use of your time - or your employer's time - to spend hours hammering out details for an individual customer. If you have someone who's been with the company for a long period of time, they have value. Treat them accordingly.

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