Taking time out – an effective tool to aid positive customer interactions

When we equip our frontline customer service teams with powerful tools to respond confidently to anything that comes their way, we empower them to take control and responsibility, particularly in challenging environments where high demand and pressure are still prevalent today. Having proven options at their fingertips will enable your teams to deal positively with customers, including those who may be in a heightened emotional state due to situations largely beyond the individual service provider’s personal control such as long wait times. This is particularly true when demand for services significantly outstrips service giver availability to answer the demand. Having effective tools and strategies to hand will also enable your teams to safeguard and manage their own wellbeing.

While many customer service teams continue to work diligently and professionally, our ongoing research shows that challenging behaviour from customers keen to vent their frustrations towards service givers is common. A quick walk down any high street will reveal an increasing number of warning signs stating that abusive behaviour towards staff will not be tolerated. We’ve encountered two examples of unacceptable behaviour in standard, non-extreme situations: a frontline team member diligently trying to help while delivering disappointing news for the customer, whose response was, “I don’t know how you sleep at night”, and “If you’re not able to give me an answer to that, you must be incompetent”, even when the service provider was sensibly taking time to think about an answer.

A proactive time out

A proactive time out or pause is a key tool that we teach and ensures that team members can be confident that it’s OK to step back, check, and take a time out or a pause in order to maintain their composure and control of the situation. This enables them to manage the demands and remain in the best position to deliver good service, while also providing an opportunity to seek out the best solutions for the customer or ask for assistance from someone more senior or with more specialist knowledge, as needed.

A tactical time out is a hugely positive and empowering tool; simply knowing that they have this option available as a constructive way forward ensures that customer service teams can reduce pressure and stress on themselves and the customer while continuing to strive for the best solutions.

A powerful 3-step process

Taking steps to do your best to try to control and improve the situation with a positive time out or pause is a three-step process. Here is an example of how this can be used:

  1. The service-giver assures the customer that they are committed to helping, for example, “I am really committed to getting the answer for you and to finding a good way forward.”
  2. “What I need to do now is consult with a colleague and take some time out to find the answers and come back to you.”
  3. “I will definitely come back to you, either with an update or with some answers and solutions, by 5pm today.”

If the situation continues to escalate

We know that when customers continued to exhibit unacceptable behaviour and demands, some customer service representatives became so distressed that they disconnected the phone without warning. In these exceptional cases, our advice would be to try the following strategy of clearly forecasting what will happen to make an effort to defuse the situation, although sometimes the customer is so angry that they are unable to listen at all. Using this 3-step approach again could sound like:

“I really want to find a good way to help you and move this forward for you, and I am unable to carry on the call with you raising your voice. What I will do is disconnect now and call you back in ten minutes, which will be at 10.40am.”

This strategy allows the service provider some time to ensure that they are in a good position to find solutions on their own or to seek assistance and support from senior staff or colleagues, all of which contributes to their resilience. A pause or time out also allows the customer to reflect on and comprehend the impact of their actions, which is the first step toward positively managing unpleasant and upsetting behaviours.

During exceptional circumstances when they feel the need to implement a time out or pause, it’s important for customer service teams to ask themselves the following questions to fully appreciate who needs to take a time out:

  • Do I need to take a time out and get some help and support here?
  • If the other person is getting stressed, will they benefit from a time out?
  • Do we both need to take a time out?

We use this after we’ve tried everything else to encourage the customer to tell us what they want to hear so that we can provide solutions. Having the right tools and strategies at their disposal during times of significantly increased stress and pressure allows customer service teams to continue to assist their customers because they are still doing their best to properly listen and hear the customer. In extreme cases, ensuring that the service provider understands that when things escalate, they truly do have the tools to take a break will empower them to continue with the process with the goal of reaching a satisfying outcome.

How can we help?

Find out how MGI’s Customer Service Excellence Toolkit can equip your teams with the right language strategies, time-saving tools and skills to enable them to deliver outstanding service, productivity and outcomes, whatever comes their way.

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