Effective tips for dealing with emotional utility customers

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Phoenix, AZ, Oct. 10, 2008 -- Every utility company customer service representative deals with customers who are upset, but there are effective techniques that CSRs can employ to show these difficult customers respect and create solutions to their problems.

"Every customer who calls their utility company with an issue has an expectation that a friendly CSR will listen attentively, give them an explanation that's easy to understand and provide a solution if a fix is needed," says David Saxby, president of Measure-X, a company that specializes in helping utilities improve their customer service and sales. "Customers become difficult when they feel these expectations are not met. When that happens, they become emotionally upset and react in a number of ways."

Saxby offers the following five tips for dealing with emotional customers:

Don't jump to conclusions. Carefully listen to the customer's explanation of why they're calling, Saxby says. "Some CSRs have a tendency to interrupt the client because they've heard the same story many times before," Saxby explains. "They think they know what the customer is going to say and can interject to save time. This behavior sends a very strong message to your customer and it's not a positive one. Respect your customers and allow them to explain their situation uninterrupted."

Apologize or empathize. If the customer's problem is the result of a company error, apologize immediately for the inconvenience, Saxby says. "If it's not a problem the company created, show empathy for the customer's situation," Saxby suggests. "Voice inflection is a critical part of communicating compassion to the customer. The tone of your voice truly conveys that you care about their problem."

Ask open-ended questions to understand the situation. Open-ended questions force customers to provide more information than a simple "yes" or "no," Saxby says. "Having additional information from the customer can help CSRs understand the situation and create the solution or explanation," Saxby notes. "One of the most valuable open-ended questions when dealing with difficult customers is, 'What can we do to make this right for you?' Research has proven that a customer's solution will usually cost less than the one you might offer to correct the problem."

Confirm the solution or explanation. Whatever the solution or explanation, confirm with the customer that they clearly understand it, Saxby says. "Make certain that the customer knows what's going to happen and when it's going to happen," Saxby explains. "This simple step can prevent further miscommunication and unfulfilled expectations."

Deliver on the solution. "Follow up with the customer to make sure they received what was promised and that they are satisfied with the solution," Saxby says. "This is another simple way to let your customer know that you care."

Saxby also offers the following suggestions on what utility management can do to handle difficult customers:

Mistakes happen. "If the error was the fault of the utility, send the customer a small gift certificate or note to acknowledge the mistake and apologize for the inconvenience," Saxby says. "Again, this tells your customer how much you care about them."

Train CSRs to deal with difficult customers. Dealing with difficult customers is a skill, Saxby says. "Role play a variety of difficult-customer situations to help your staff become more comfortable with learning how to maintain their composure, how to ask open-ended questions and how to create solutions," Saxby suggests. "Experience is critical to maintaining a cool head when dealing with an emotional customer."

Measure the customer experience. Send a survey to a sampling of customers who called in with a problem, Saxby says. "How would they rate the way they were treated during their interaction with your utility?" Saxby asks. "What could have been done differently to improve that experience? What happened that caused the customer to become emotional? This information can be valuable in helping CSRs work with difficult customers in future interactions."

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