Experience Engineering: 3 Customer Service Skills for Handling Difficult Conversations

5 min read

The first things we learn in customer service are to smile, be polite and listen to the customer. But what happens when those “soft skills” are not enough? As we handle more complex situations, we need more advanced set of customer experience skills. When things blow up and difficult conversations arise, smiling politely at a customer doesn’t solve anything.

In the Effortless Experience, Matthew Dixon explores how the best customer support reps level up and gain support superpowers. Inevitably, it comes down to how we make customers feel. Fortunately, we’ve got more customer experience skills available to us than just smiles and happy thoughts.

Difficult Conversations Increase Perceived Effort

Difficult Conversations Increase Perceived Effort

We’ve talked a lot about how important it is to reduce customer effort across their journey. Finding and eliminating frustrating experiences is a huge part of providing a good customer experience.

But situations inevitably arise where there’s nothing more that can be done to give the customer what they want. Eventually, you’ll have to have difficult conversations with your customers. When this happens, how the customer feels about the experience is more important than the outcome.

In fact, how customers feel about their experience counts for two thirds of the overall “effort.

As support professionals, we have a lot of influence in how customers feel about their interaction with us. When high-effort situations arise, we can use “experience engineering” – a set of customer experience skills to make sure customers leave feeling happy.

Experience Engineering is a valuable skill that the best customer support professionals employ to turn around difficult conversations. It uses psychology-based techniques to engineer a more positive, effortless experience for customers in a difficult situation… even if the ultimate outcome is the same. These three techniques are customer advocacy, positive language and anchoring.

Dixon found that many situations where customers perceived higher effort levels were “scenarios where a customer had no choice but to accept an outcome they were not hoping for.”

The best thing to do in these situations is to actively guide the customer to a mutually agreeable resolution. Instead of allowing the customer to make demands, get upset and meander their way through a complex situation, we take control and ensure a positive outcome. Lowering the perceived effort is the main goal of experience engineering.

Let’s look at the three main customer experience skills involved in experience engineering more closely.

Customer Advocacy

1. Customer Advocacy

“Demonstrating clear alignment with the customer and supporting them in an active way.”

Get those empathy superpowers fired up. Customer Advocacy is all about understanding the customer’s goals and expressing a willingness to help them get there.

Let me take you through two different conversations with my phone company. I’ve recently moved, and I wanted to cancel my contract which still had 6 months on it.

The first agent I talked to would not budge. “You’ve signed a contract. That’s the end of discussion.” he stated. It became a me vs them conversation. I wanted something, and they wanted to prevent me from getting it – the very antithesis of customer advocacy.

The second agent I talked to was much more understanding. “I can see how frustrating it would be to pay for something you’re not using.” she said. “Let’s see if we can help you get some value out of this contract. Where are you moving to?”

Immediately it felt like we were on the same side. The outcome ended up the same – I wasn’t able to cancel my contract early. But she helped me find a way that I could use the minutes and data in my plan. We worked together to make the best out of a bad situation – as it should be with customer advocacy.

Positive language in customer service

2. Positive language

Resisting the use of words or phrases (like “no” or “can’t”) that convey an inability to reach a productive outcome with the customer.

Humans have a dramatic response to being told no. Rejection and physical pain are the same feeling to your brain.

Seriously. Research by the University of Michigan suggests that the brain processes rejection the same as a physical injury. Both events trigger a similar cascading series of receptors, followed by mu-opioid (a painkiller) being released.

Not only that, but experiencing rejection leads to an immediate 30% drop in reasoning skills and increases aggression. By saying “no” you’re making frustrated customers more difficult to deal with.

We also don’t want to lie to customers. If we can’t grant them their request, saying that we can and not delivering is an even worse experience.

So how do we avoid saying no or I can’t when the answer really is no and you can’t?

Focus on what you can do, rather than what you can’t do.

For example, say a customer wants to know if you have a certain product in stock. Rather than simply replying “no” offer alternatives or a later shipping date to them.

Peter: Do you have this jacket in black in a small?

Walter: It looks like we’ve got the blue jacket in small available right now, or I can put you on the waitlist for when the black jacket is back in stock next week.

It can be tempting to just answer the question: “No, that’s not in stock right now.” That doesn’t lead the customer towards a solution. Plus, the customer’s brain feels that rejection as physical pain and react accordingly.

As The Effortless Experience puts it, “it’s not about explaining why the customer can’t have what they want (which is a recipe for increased escalations and sometimes four-letter words from customers), but rather focusing exclusively on what solutions are possible.”

Anchoring in Experience Engineering

3. Anchoring

Positioning a given outcome as more positive and desirable by comparing it to another less desirable one.

Imagine your boss scheduled you for overtime on Saturday, due to an increase in support volume. Pretty awful, right?

Then, they give you an alternative. Instead of working this weekend, why don’t we just shorten our lunch breaks and stay an hour later on Thursday? It’s not a great option, but it’s much better than coming in on your day off!

Anchoring is the art of making an option seem more reasonable by comparing it to other options. The classic example is booking a technician to come and fix the internet. You can either have a 2 hour guaranteed window next week – or be on standby all day tomorrow. No one wants to wait at home all day for the technician, but if the other option is to wait a week…I guess we’ll make tomorrow work!

Positioning other alternatives helps customers put potential solutions in perspective. It might not be a perfect solution – but it’s definitely better than the other options!

Using these 3 customer service skills

Using Experience Engineering

Most agents don’t naturally turn to these customer experience skills in difficult conversations. They instead rely on politeness to try and make a customer happy.

To start using experience engineering takes preparation. Think of common scenarios that result in unhappy customers or high effort situations. Brainstorm with other employees how you can use customer advocacy, positive language and anchoring to address the question or complaint.

Write scripts and prompts utilising these customer experience skills to refer to when these situations come up. Practice using the phrases in role play games with your teammates. The more often you practice, the more natural experience engineering will come to you. Eventually, it will be second nature to guide customers through the most difficult conversations and turn them into the most loyal repeat customers.

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