The 3 things everyone should do to humanise customer service calls

People who work in call centres are every bit as human as you and I. By treating them as such, not as talking robots, we can raise everyone’s welfare.

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Given all the talk of automation, robotics and artificial intelligence, it is easy to lose sight of the human. This is especially so when talking to a customer service agent, whose task is often to follow predefined policies and scripts without deviation.

This job is notoriously close to the mines and factories of centuries past in its potential for mindless drudgery. Having myself worked as a VDU data entry clerk in my youth, I can attest to the toll that “actively boring” uncreative work can exact on one’s psyche.

We humans thrive when we feel joined to one another, and experience life through our hearts. We wilt when we solely inhabit our egotistical heads, and suffer when we feel alienated from society. The loneliness of the teeming city is our modern epic tragedy, and one of the cruellest tortures is solitary confinement.

It is the responsibility of everyone to stay connected to the shared human spirit. We do this by ourselves modelling the behaviours that we wish to see manifested by others. Every interaction you have with a call centre agent is an opportunity to bring forth a more humane world.

You are not speaking to a robot, and need to act as such. Here are the specific ways in which you can make this practically real, based on my own experience.

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1. Humans have a name, so listen for it

Most call centres have a scripted opening of something like “Hi, this is Sandra, how can I help you?”. Your first job is to be attentive to the agent’s name, and to remember it.

This puts you into the right frame of mind. Whilst you yourself have a need to be met, and so initiated the call, you are not the only participant with a need. The agent is a fellow human, and for their work to be seen as meaningful they have to be treated as such. This is important, because it keeps you attached to your heart place, which ultimately is good for you.

2. Clearly state an initial outcome they can succeed at

The purpose of the agent is to help you, and your job is to facilitate them to succeed in that endeavour. The ideal opening is one that the agent can accomplish, even if you are angry and wish to complain. Help them to help you, and everyone is better off.

The way to do this is to be thoughtful in what you initially ask for, anchoring the request in “gentle kindness” rather than “harsh meanness”. It’s easier to teach this by example than to make up a theory. Contrast the following two openings:

Opening 1: “Hi, I’d like to book a seat on BA1310 tomorrow.”

Opening 2: “Hi, Sandra, I want to visit a business partner tomorrow, and I’d like your help to sort out travel.”

In the first example, you’ve gone straight for a logical “head” solution, but have neglected the heart. There is no guarantee that seats are available on BA1310, so the agent may need to disappoint you, and internally will not feel like he or she has met your request. It is also unkind, in that it springs upon the agent a piece of detail. They may not have been expecting it, so it increases the cognitive load of the interaction.

The second example opens by acknowledging the agent’s individuality, and that this is a relationship based on reciprocity and respect. You are generous with offering some context, and then kind by framing the “ask” in terms that should be easy to fulfil. It is then up to the agent to ask for the right information. Its pace is more relaxed and not over-demanding.

There are times when the agent should feel negative emotions when they cannot assist as you might have expected — “I am sorry sir, our reservation system is down”. That’s OK, and now you have to mutually renegotiate the request. By having a humane opening, it leaves space for an accepting customer response, rather than an angry one. Your own high blood pressure only hurts you!

You don’t need to engage in a sophisticated rumination on call success criteria. Just pick a simple and easy first outcome on the route to what you really want. In this made-up example, ask for help in checking flight availability, or finding what travel options exist. The final booking can be sorted after that. By making the agent feel like they are helping and valued at every step, you yourself will have a better experience.

3. Gratitude is a gift to its giver as well as receiver

At the end of the call, you should adopt an enlightened approach to its closure. Presuming that the agent has performed their task to a reasonable standard, your default should be to offer appropriate credit. (If they have been unpleasant or unhelpful then it could be seen as a sarcastic attack, and is not appropriate.)

The way I aim to close calls is something like this:

Agent: “Is there anything else I can help you with, Mr Geddes?”
Me: “That’s all, Sandra. Many thanks for your help today.”

Then listen, really closely. If you are speaking from your heart, then you will notice a reaction and change in tone. After all, call centre agents are not used to hearing true heartfelt appreciation that is directed to them by name.

If you have done your job in service to the agent, recalling their name at the end of the call, then you will hear something like: “Thank you very much.” And at that point, you will have a good day regardless of whether anyone wishes it to you from some rote script.

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In customer service, the customer is also offering a service

Every gift is a demand, usually for love; and conversely, every demand is a gift, usually of love. The opportunity is to reframe the nature of a customer service call, where you as the customer are now in the service of the agent, making suitable gifts and demands. This “social gift economy” that circulates love is what we humans are hard-wired for; money is the strange aberration in our development.

You have the power to act differently on every single call you make by being mindful of your own feelings and considerate to those of others. My experience is that by being genuine and authentic in your care for the other, you can sense the difference and their delight. Deep down, we all know that the only path to lasting joy for yourself is through service to others. So let’s act upon it!

I would like to thank Shailesh Tyagi of Novanet for the inspiring conversations that provoked this article.

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