The Customer Service Guide to Listening: Part 1

Listenphoto © 2009 Ian T. McFarland | more info (via: Wylio)NOTE:
This post is the first in a series on how to listen. It is aimed primarily at customer service call center agents, and we therefore talk about call centers, customers, and companies. However, the principles presented will apply well to almost anyone in any situation, whether business or personal.


You’d think listening would be easy. Maybe not much fun, but definitely easy. Just sit there and don’t say anything, right?

Nowhere near.

In fact, whether you’re listening to a best friend complain about his or her date, or a teen about what time to be home, or a customer about your company’s return policy, listening well may go against everything you ever thought you knew about communicating.

The basic truth to remember is that people will almost always not just want their problem fixed, but also want to feel heard. Not just be heard, but feel heard. There’s a huge difference. We all need to know someone cares, and that we are important. So…

Listening Rule 1: Make it obvious that you’re actively listening.

You can do this by providing some very basic cues while they speak, such as:

  • Uh huh
  • Yeah
  • Mm hmm
  • Really?
  • So what happened then?
  • Wow, that must have been frustrating!
  • Wow, that must have felt great!
  • How did that make you feel?
  • How are you feeling now?

There are of course an endless number of appropriate responses, but at the core of all of them is the reassurance that you are genuinely listening and interested in hearing this person’s story.

Listening Rule 2: Don’t try to help, or at least don’t try to help too soon.

This one’s tough. In fact, it’s the complete opposite of what seems to be the only sensible response when you know someone has a problem. It also directly opposes any customer service department’s reason for existence. But it’s still an important rule to follow.

In a personal setting, it’s best to not try helping at all for a long, long time. Let the person talk, and just continue to show you’re listening and interested. There is something wonderfully healing in just knowing someone cares. By being there for a friend, you’re already helping more than you can imagine.

In a business setting though, some financial realities set in even though the principles are very similar. Call centers are of course created to help, and they would in fact be miserable failures if they didn’t solve problems. After all, callers do want to be helped or they wouldn’t have called. So why avoid trying to help as quickly as possible? Good question. Here are three good answers:

1. You may not fully understand the problem yet. It’s often fairly easy to understand a basic problem within the first few seconds of listening. However, there will often be details that have not yet come out that can affect how an issue can best be solved. Taking the extra time just to ask a few more questions or listen a bit longer will often allow you to find a solution faster than if you had jumped in too early, only to be corrected and redirected.

2. The caller wants to be understood, not just “fixed.” This goes back to Rule 1. Yes, you may know exactly how to fix a problem, but doing it before a caller even feels heard will often leave that person frustrated or unsure that your solution will even be what they need. So take the time to hear the complaint correctly.

3. A caller who feels rushed will take a lot more time to soothe than one who feels fully heard. By the time people contact a call center it’s a safe bet they’re already feeling frustrated and stressed. Trust us: if you’re trying to be helpful or even just efficient, the last thing you want to do is frustrate someone who is already frustrated. Before you know it, you’ll have a truly angry customer on the other end of the line, and now your timelines and your own stress levels are about to climb substantially. So save everyone the added grief; listen well and make sure the caller knows you genuinely care.

With these first two rules down pat, you’re ready to move on to Part 2 of The Customer Service Guide to Listening. Practice the skills you learn through this series, and let us know in the Comments below how they work for you. Also feel free to offer your own rules or suggestions. Trust us… we’re listening!

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