I can't count how many times I have called companies to ask a question or resolve a problem, only to hang up more frustrated than before I called--and this after speaking with myriad employees of the company in question.The interesting thing is that, in each case, there seem to be telltale signs or phrases used that indicate that not only did the person I was talking to on the other end of the phone not know how to help me, but also that the company itself had a problem with these three issues: clarity, training, and empowerment. If you hear (or are teaching!) your service reps to say these things, chances are, you need to come back to your core tenets and see how your company can do better.

  1. "So what you are saying is... (followed by rep saying verbatim what customer has just stated".  In everyday conversations--like those with family or friends--you never say, "let me just repeat what you just told me".  Instead, you listen, and then you ask follow-up questions to get better insight into something you weren't sure you heard or understood completely. If your reps are repeating, they aren't listening. If they aren't listening, they will never get clarity, and clarity is key to coming up with viable resolution. Service reps can only be good listeners when they are taught that the customer's, rather than the company's, perspective is the key to successful problem-solving. This means telling your reps that service is about solutions, not policy. It means asking your service reps to focus not on hearing which pre-identified pigeon-hole his problem fits into, but instead listening to every problem as though it is the first problem that has ever been brought up, and then thinking about what can be done.

  2. "I'm going to escalate this..." Escalate this is a great way to elegantly say "I have no idea how to help, so I am going to hope someone else can". It means that you either have employees on the frontlines who aren't trained on their products or processes, or that you have too much hierarchy and not enough knowledge flow. While the former is relatively easy to fix, the latter is more complicated, but ultimately it comes down to responsibility. If you task service reps not just with lobbing the problem to someone else, but following it through to completion by involving them in the resolution process, your customers and your company will get a better outcome. Each time there is a problem, the service rep can learn from the higher level staff member, and when this happens enough, the service rep becomes able to propose solutions to customers on his own and the higher level staff member starts to value and communicate more openly with the service rep. The knowledge loop, thus gets expanded, and every one benefits.

  3. "There is really nothing I can do."  Bullsh*t. There is always something that can be done. The question is, has your service rep been empowered to do it? Empowerment, surprisingly, comes from the very simple premise of authorizing your service reps to use common sense. If a service rep is asked to think about the customer's problem as if it is her own, rather than an abstract issue that should be covered in a manual, chances are good that she will figure out how to help. People do have varying levels of common sense, so it is important to roleplay common sense scenarios, so service reps feel comfortable with the parameters of what can be done to help customers without bankrupting the company--in other words, how to find the most beneficial, but least resource-intensive solution.

As the leader of your company, you have the power to change the dialogue your service reps have with your clients. Every conversation is about word choice, because word choice implies thought. When there is a problem on the horizon, reflection, in its most unbridled and spontaneous form is always more creative and more effective than canned replies.