A reader writes:
I am the “lead” of a customer service team (not in a supervisory or managerial role; I report to the manager, but report to her with ideas, problems and how reps are performing) of a company that provides services to older senior citizens. Part of our training is to teach our reps that seniors tend to require a little more patience as some are hard of hearing and some are a little grumpy. Our team does GREAT with this.
Something I had not realized until it became an increasingly larger problem is the fact that many of these older seniors live at home by themselves and have limited interaction with the outside world and are starved for some personal contact. They call us and sometimes and just want to chat. I am always happy to brighten a customer’s day by letting everyone take interest in them for a minute or two. But now it has reached the point where reps are on the phone with one customer for 20-30 minutes – trying to be polite and get off the phone but the customer keeps talking.
I called a meeting recently and tried a quick training tip to tell them if the call is lasting too long simply say, “Mrs. Smith, I hate to do it, but I have other customers waiting to talk to me, so I need to let you go.” This works great in the moment, and gets them off the phone 90% of the time – but our call volume has increased now because those customers CALL BACK to see if their rep has more time to speak “now that they’ve had time to talk to everyone.” We even have one lady that calls her rep twice per day “just to be sure everything is ok on her account – then starts talking about the weather, the news, the election, and any other subject just to stay on the phone with her.”
I am unsure how to approach this from here. I am stuck between brightening customer’s day by having reps be cordial and the reps being able to manage their time and getting their share of work done for the day.
Do you have any advice on how to handle this? From my experience, senior citizens seem to get their feelings hurt quite easily, and simply having to say “Mrs. Smith, I HAVE to go now” and hanging up offends them and they often don’t return as customers – something our company is big on – repeat business. But aside from that, my manager and I really don’t know what to do or how to handle this.
Oooh, so interesting.
I’ll say up-front that this is a bit out of my wheelhouse because I am all about ending calls efficiently and moving on to the next work item on the list … but I’m also all about getting clarity on what it takes to achieve your work goals, so maybe that brings it back into my wheelhouse.
Anyway, I think the first thing to do here is confront the fundamental question head-on and figure out how much time you’re willing to spend simply on relationship-building with these customers. A few minutes and then wrap up? Longer? My guess is that a few minutes is probably the right answer, but it really depends on what your business model is. So that’s the first question.
Once you have clarity on that, then you can arm your call reps with language to use to set those boundaries. For example, if a customer calls back a second time to see if their rep has more time to talk now: “Oh, that’s so kind of you! To be honest, I have customer calls coming in all day so usually don’t have much time to chat.” You can pad this however you want — “I can tell I’d love chatting with you if we did have the time” or “I loved hearing about your rice sculpture the other day but our phones are keeping us busy” or whatever, as long as you don’t think that’ll just be taken as encouragement to try back later.
Arm them with ways to repeat the message too if a caller doesn’t immediately get the message. For example: “I really do need to get this next call, but have a wonderful day.”
In general, with most people, you can actually be pretty firm as long as you do it in a really warm tone. There’s a big difference between “I need to end this call now” and “you’re so kind — I wish I had time to chat but our phones keep us busy.”
But the first step here, before you can script any of this out, is to sit down and really get clear on what the boundaries should be and whether it does make sense for your particular business to spend more time than most might on this aspect of things — and since it sounds like a pretty widespread issue, not just a handful of customers, I might also pull people above you into that conversation too, to make sure that they’re in the loop on how this gets decided.