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Effective Communication in Customer Service
Published at Mar 31, 2016.

Effective customer communication is the most important aspect of the business-to-consumer relationship. Yet most businesses fail miserably at it. A full 50% of the time, when a customer contacts support, the response doesn’t answer their question.

As a species, we just aren’t very good at communication. Yet a business’s success depends on getting past that flaw. Just look at the benefits of relationship marketing to see the kind of impact good communication can have.

To improve communication in customer service, we need to take a close look at how we can make every conversation better. Here are four things we all need to do:

1. Phrase Carefully

Accusation

Poor phrasing can completely derail a conversation. With one misplaced word, you can put a customer on the defensive or turn unhappiness into anger. Anyone speaking to customers must therefore carefully avoid a few pitfalls:

A. Using the Accusatory

  1. “You’re not following my instructions correctly.”
  2. “It sounds like you haven’t watched our tutorial.”

“You” is a dangerous word to use in customer service. When you combine the word “you” with the suggestion of a failure or wrongdoing (as I just did), it’s an accusation. You make the other party feel like a criminal on trial.

Avoid saying anything that suggests the customer is at fault. Make sure “you” is never the subject of any sentence about what has gone wrong.

If you catch yourself about to say something accusatory, rephrase so there’s no hint of blame. For example, the sentences above could be better phrased as follows:

  1. “Let’s go back over that last step and make sure we didn’t miss something.”
  2. “Our tutorial can show you how to do that. Just skip to four minutes in to see the explanation of that feature.”

B. Being Negative

  1. “I’m afraid I can’t help you with that. You’ll need to talk to technical support.”
  2. “I’m not sure we can do that for you.”

Nobody likes to hear the words “no” or “can’t.” It crushes hopes and damages trust. Stay positive to keep the customer’s faith in you strong.

You could rephrase the sentences above as follows:

  1. “Technical support can help you find a solution.”
  2. “We’ll do everything we can to make that happen.”

For more guidance on the two issues above and similar insidious mistakes, I highly recommend this excellent TechRepublic article.

2. Forge an Alliance

Forge an Alliance

When customers have a bad experience with your company, it’s natural for them to start thinking of you as an enemy. You took their money, then you left them unable to do their job or tearing their hair out for hours over something that didn’t work correctly. It’s only natural for them to have their claws out when they contact you.

As soon as you hear from an angry customer, set yourself up as their ally. This calms them down immensely. It makes them feel that someone is fighting for them, rather than that they’re taking on a corporation alone.

There are several ways to do this:

A. Offer Assurance

  1. “I’m very sorry our product isn’t working. Don’t worry, though—I’ll get it back up and running or give you all of your money back.”
  2. “No worries, that’s a very common problem in these situations. We can have everything sorted out for you in less than half an hour.”

When you tell the customer that no matter what, everything is going to be okay because you’re here to solve the problem, you become their superhero for the day. 

A few words of caution: Firstly, reserve this strategy for times when you’re confident you can find a solution. Secondly, don’t brag about how often you fix something that’s the result of your company making a bad product.

B. Sympathize

  1. “Oh man, I hate it when it does that. My own copy did the same thing yesterday and I found it frustrating even though I knew the solution.”
  2. “Don’t worry, I know what it’s like to need every dollar in my bank account. I’ll process your refund right away.”

Taking off some of the armor of professionalism for a minute and telling the customer that you feel their pain can help them see you as a human and as their friend.

Keep it short and sweet. You don’t want to destroy their image of you as a professional problem-solver, or let the conversation devolve into you telling them about your problems.

C. Join Sides Against a Mutual Enemy (Use with Caution!)

  1. “FedEx broke another of our packages?”
  2. “Accounting has made the same mistake with three orders this week. I’m taking this straight to their supervisor right after this call.”

This strategy can immediately redirect the customer’s anger away from you—making them a lot easier to deal with! Once they’re calmed down, you can work toward a solution together. It can be a lifesaver when someone calls in so angry that refund demands and bad reviews would otherwise be inevitable.

However, it must be used judiciously. Your coworkers/employees and business partners will get upset if you habitually throw them under the bus. You can also damage your business’s image by regularly admitting to internal problems.

Finally, you should never use this strategy to shirk responsibility for your own screw-ups. Customers can smell that from a mile away and it will only make them more upset.

3. Be Both Human and Professional

Friendly and Professional

Ultimately, this is the point that everything above is getting at. You must show your customers that you are human, while at the same time conveying a sense of professionalism.

A. Being Human

Briefly share how you’ve experienced your customer’s pain. Show a little shock or horror when they tell you what has gone wrong. Go along with their jokes and laugh at the end.

Connect with your customers on some emotional level and the benefits will be enormous. Most immediately, you’ll make the current conversation more pleasant for both of you. Most importantly, that customer will develop an emotional bond with your business. It stops being a faceless corporation and starts being the place where Sherry, the world’s most awesome customer support agent, is always ready to solve their problems.

B. Being Professional

While you don’t want to be a robot, you also don’t want to become Tom, the support agent who admitted that he both has a drinking problem and can’t answer half of their questions because his company has trained him poorly. Nobody wants to do business with a company or individual they recognize as deeply flawed.

Never let customers see too far into your or your company’s shortcomings and failures. Admit and take responsibility for mistakes that affect them—it’s important to be honest. But don’t show off your company’s metaphorical album of mugshots.

4. Make It Convenient for the Customer to Reach You

Effective Customer Communication

Your support team can have the best customer communication skills in the world, but if customers never contact them, then those skills are useless.

19 out of 20 dissatisfied customers never contact the company. You can bet that for a lot of them, it’s because reaching the company is so damn inconvenient—nobody wants to wait on hold for hours or slog through endless questions on a website just to talk to a human. Making yourself accessible makes customers much more willing to open the channels of communication.

If you run an online business, I strongly recommend you read our ecommerce customer service guide. It covers seven different ways to make your business easier to reach and to smooth out the wrinkles in online communication.

The Ultimate Goals of Effective Customer Communication

At the end of the day, the most important thing is that customers see your company as competent, your product as the answer to their needs, and you as their problem-solver. If you can do that while still coming across as their friend, then you have achieved truly effective customer communication.

Need better communication with your Amazon and eBay customers? We can help.

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