Archive for March, 2011

March 29, 2011

Dealing with Complaints: Is it Really Worth Saying Sorry?

In light of the new drive by Lloyds Bank to reduce levels of customer complaints, ( currently running at about 2000 per day, new research on apologising makes thought-provoking reading.

Psychologists report that people who have a complaint believe that an apology will help but, when they actually get one, it doesn’t seem to live up to expectations.

David De Cremer and Chris Reinders Folmer compared how people felt when they simply imagined that they had received an apology, to how people felt who really did receive one. 

They found that an imagined apology was valued more than a real apology, suggesting that the thousands of people complaining to the banking industry every day are probably expecting an apology to help the situation more than it actually will. 

So the question for all customer service providers is: is it worth apologising at all when simply uttering the words to someone who deserves one will run the risk of disappointing them further?  Perhaps customer complaints handlers should simply not apologise.

Well, of course they should.  We all know how infuriating it is when the instigator of our frustration or annoyance refuses to take responsibility for causing inconvenience or distress.  Saying sorry is, or should be, a clear indicator of acceptance of responsibility for both the situation and for the effect on the other person.

However, to complicate matters for complaints handlers, the apology needs to be perceived as sincere.  Anything that sounds like it is simply a scripted, standardised apology with no depth or genuine appreciation of the “hurt” caused is not going to improve a customer’s impressions at all. 

Professor Michael McCullough of the University of Miami and author of “Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct”, argues that a genuine apology works because it encourages empathy in the recipient which increases the recipient’s ability to forgive.

Of course, in a formal complaint handling department such as the 200-strong dedicated unit that Lloyds has just set up to handle their 2000 complaints a day*, the person giving the apology is unlikely to be the actual person, or body, responsible for creating the problem.  However, the response to someone understanding your distress, acknowledging responsibility and committing to helping sort it out may well transfer to the wider organization through a variety of typical cognitive processes.  In a corporate setting this humanizes and connects the corporate service provider with the customer through the emotional connection between the two people involved in the apology.

* For information, Lloyds doesn’t compare badly to others in the finance sector like Barclays and Santander who have more than double the amount of complaints per account.

Given the personal connection required to effect a sincere apology, clearly the skill and the disposition of the people staffing Lloyds’ new complaint-handling centre are going to be central to the effectiveness of the department in improving customer satisfaction with the company.

And returning to the research on the disappointing nature of real apologies, it suggests that even the most sincere of apologies will fall short.  Professor de Cremer suggests that his results indicate that “…an apology is a first step in the reconciliation process (but)…you need to show that you will do something else.”  There needs to be considerably more substance to the interaction to leave the customer feeling satisfied with the situation and the organization.

Much to do, banks, much to do.



1. De Cremer, D. & Reinders Folmer, C.P. (2011). How Important is an Apology to You? Forecasting Errors in Evaluating the Value of Apologies. Psychological Science, 22(1), 45-48.

2. McCullough, Michael E. (2008), Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct, Wiley and Sons, ISBN 078797756X, 9780787977566

March 22, 2011

Customer Service Roles: The New Frontier for the Over 60s?

Aged 60+?

Coming to the end of a long and rewarding career and getting ready to potter around the garden and finally read those books you have been meaning to get around to?

Don’t!  New psychological research from the University of California, Berkeley suggests that you might be coming into your element as a potential customer service representative. 

Ok, it’s fair to say that the research doesn’t make any specific job suggestions for you, and there are probably a host of roles which the research might indicate increased success in for the over 60s.  However, what Robert Levenson’s research does suggest is that, as we get older, our emotional intelligence improves and that it reaches its peak as we go through our sixties.

Specifically, our capacity to empathise with others and appreciate their sadness or disappointment is heightened in comparison with younger people.

In addition, older people are better able to see the positive side of a negative situation, even if that situation is palpably grim.

Levenson argues that we become more suited to social and compassionate activities as we age and that the changes in our nervous systems which bring about these emotional intelligence changes are likely to give us an advantage in the workplace in those tasks involving social relationships and caring for others.

It’s probably obvious by now why this might be important news for customer service organisations: feeling and expressing empathy and being able to see positive aspects in all situations are invaluable traits in customer service representatives.  Yet the age profile of front-line customer service representatives in most sectors is way below this 60+ demographic.

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March 16, 2011

Is Staying Calm and Unemotional Exactly the Wrong Thing to do for Customer Service Employees?

Well yes, very probably, implies a new study.

This new paper by two Canadian psychologists reviews the academic literature on emotional intelligence and suggests that the ability to influence others as a result of one’s own displays of emotion is a distinct emotional ability with consequences in the workplace. 

Stephane Cote and Ivona Hideg argue that some people are better than others at showing appropriate emotions which influence the feelings, behaviour and attitudes of those around them.  

They propose that this ability to influence others through displays of emotions sits alongside other aspects of emotional intelligence that are currently better understood, such as the ability to perceive emotions or the ability to manage emotions.

Much is written about the contribution that emotional intelligence makes to the quality of customer service and academic studies show evidence of a link between various features of emotional intelligence and objectively measured job performance in customer service roles.  For example, research indicates that people who are more emotionally intelligent in terms of understanding and managing emotions, are rated higher in terms of customer service provision by senior managers (1).

However, there has been little attention focused on the role that expression of emotion plays in job performance and the authors contend that not only is it a genuine and measurable ability that is present to differing degrees in different people, but also that it is highly likely to have a direct effect, albeit moderated by other factors, on job performance.

So What Does this Mean for Customer Service Providers?

It means that customers like people who come across as positive about, and genuinely engaged in, the interaction and who seem to reflect appropriately the emotions they are experiencing.  And that because they like them, customers are likely to communicate more clearly, more warmly and more informatively, thereby making the customer service employee’s job easier. 

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March 10, 2011

Natwest’s Progress Report on their Customer Charter: How much difference has it made?

Natwest’s customers may have been pleased when last June they announced their 14 Customer Commitments designed to make Natwest “Britain’s Most Helpful Bank”.

However, there may also have been some concern that the targets they set were somewhat modest, particularly on the measures to do with how people feel about their dealings with the bank.

For example, aiming for a target of 9 out of 10 customers being very satisfied with how friendly and helpful the service is, should prove far from impossible. Even more modestly, Natwest set themselves a goal of 75% of customers being satisfied in the way that their complaints were handled: that should be achievable surely?

To learn then that Natwest’s first progress report shows that they have not achieved these targets, and that levels of satisfaction with complaint handling is down at 57%, may have been a bit of a let-down.

Of course when dealing with changes in organisational culture, 9 months is not long. Natwest say they have been re-training all their customer service staff in complaint handling and that “we know we have more work to do” on customer satisfaction with the friendliness and helpfulness of staff.

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March 4, 2011

Customer Service Orientation

No1 in the series on aspects of Customer Service Personality

Of all the facets of personality that are fundamental to outstanding customer service delivery, Customer Service Orientation is arguably the most elemental.  By that I mean, even if an employee has every other quality in abundance, if they yet lack Customer Service Orientation, they may struggle to deliver excellent customer service. 

For example, a customer service representative could be highly resilient, have a strong drive to achieve and possess a good degree of interpersonal understanding, but if they do not also have a real commitment to customer service and a motivation to please the customer, when more challenging customer interactions occur, they may find that they cannot effectively tune into or deliver what customers seem to want.  

Not only that, but it tends to be very clear to customers when a customer service representative is particularly high or low on Customer Service Orientation. It determines both effort and time given to listening and trying to help the customer and so tends to be a primary feature of the customer service interaction for customers.  Because of this, it is likely to be one of the most significant contributors to how the customer feels about their contact with the organisation and has the potential to shape their overall evaluation of the organisation.

What Exactly is Customer Service Orientation?

Customer Service Orientation, or by some of its other names, Service Orientation, Customer Focus, Customer Excellence etc, is the psychological manifestation of  the belief that customers and their perspectives are of the highest value and consequence in an organisation. 

Any description of Customer Service Orientation would therefore draw on values, feelings, attitudes and preferred patterns of responsive and proactive behaviour that predispose an individual to the delivery of outstanding customer service. 

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