Thursday, September 6, 2012

Three Examples of Great Customer Service

I recently flew from Houston to Seattle on Alaska Airlines.  I experienced three examples of good customer service from, gasp, an airline.  Yes, I know it may seem hard to believe.  There are lessons here for those of us who support end-users.  Two examples were with Alaska Airlines and one was with Delta.  Here they are.
  • The first example is with Delta Air Lines.  Temperatures in Houston were very hot, hovering around 95 to 100 degrees.  Just down the concourse from our gate was the gate for a Delta flight.  The flight was delayed and I overheard the gate agent make an announcement saying that the food for the flight had been sitting in the hot sun.  He was concerned about spoilage, so they weren't going to load the food onto the plane.  Instead, they gave each of the passengers a voucher to go get food for the flight from one of the vendors on the concourse.  He was empathetic for the passengers long flight because he put himself in their position imagining what it would be like to go on a long flight with no food, he was compassionate in that he was aware that they would suffer and took steps to prevent their suffering, and he treated them with respect as one human to another.
  • The next two examples are with Alaska Airlines.  Our flight left the gate on time, taxied out to the runway and sat for several minutes.  The captain then made an announcement that there was a mechanical problem.  He was concerned about the safety of the aircraft and wanted the maintenance crew to take a look at it.  We taxied back to the gate and were told that the plane would be there long enough that the passengers could go back into the terminal if we wanted.  Once inside the terminal, the captain himself made several public address announcements letting us know what the problem was, what was being done to repair it, and how long he thought it might take.  I noticed several passengers approach the desk explaining their situation and in each case, the crew listened patiently, offering options when they were available.  Again, the captain and the rest of the flight crew and ground crew treated us with empathy sharing our frustration at the delays, compassion and respect by being aware of our frustration and doing an excellent job of communicating status with us, and by listening to us when we approached the agent's desk to describe our worries.
  • Finally, once the plane was repaired and we were taxiing to the runway, a small child started screaming.  This child wins the award for the loudest set of vocal chords on any child anywhere!  The parents were doing what they could, but the child kept screaming.  When it became apparent that the child was going to continue screaming, the flight attendants walked up and down the aisle offering us earplugs to help alleviate our suffering.
There is nothing particularly outstanding about any of these examples.  I share them with you because they're simply examples of people in the customer service field providing good customer service in times of duress.  In each of these three cases, small gestures of thoughtful caring or communication made the difference between having an awful experience and instead having one that was tolerable.  Obviously, none of us want to have a flight delayed and none of us want to listen to a screaming infant (especially the parents!).  In the IT field, none of us want to experience a downed server, a failed printer, or a crashed hard drive.  When unpleasant things happen, our ability to be human with each other, offering empathy, compassion, respect, and an ear to listen really do make a difference.

For more on empathy, compassion, listening, and respect, watch this video: 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

How to Deliver Great Customer Service: What’s Your Empathy Quotient?

Author's note:  This is an update to a blog post originally published in 2007.

How's your empathy quotient?  Your ability to empathize may be your most important ability as a member of the IT support staff.  Empathy means providing caring and personal service. defines empathy as "the intellectual identification with...the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of another."  Empathy is your ability to truly put yourself in your user's position so you can understand his/her frustration. Once we truly understand our user's frustration, fears, and aggravations, we can start the process of delivering a meaningful solution for them. Sometimes it only takes a moment to really understand where our user is coming from. Sometimes it takes several minutes of listening combined with empathetic statements such as "I understand why you feel that way." or "I'd feel that way, too, if I were in your situation."  Regardless, until you can empathize with your user, you're not ready to start the technical aspects of the support session. Remember, it may be your technical expertise that solves the problem, but it's your skill in dealing with people that produces satisfied end-users.

As a support person, you convey empathy when you listen for the hidden meaning in what a user is saying, when you acknowledge the emotion, and when you offer caring assistance.

Empathy is especially important when dealing with a user who is irritated, angry or emotional. When users are emotional, it is difficult for them to think and act rationally. This is because of the way the human brain is structured.  The amygdala is an area of the brain involved in processing emotional reactions.  It controls the fight or flight response to emotionally charged situations.  In such situations, the amygdala in essence hijacks the rest of our more rational, analytical brain and takes control.  In fact, this phenomenon is sometimes known as an amygdala hijack.

To get someone out of the grip of an amygdala hijack and pass the power over to the analytical brain takes one of three things:
  1. Intervention of a skilled listener or support professional
  2. Effort on the part of the emotional person 
  3. The passage of time
It is important to understand this as we deal with emotional, upset or angry users. Empathy is a remedy for calming an emotional person by simply and genuinely acknowledging the emotion that the user feels. Empathy is very powerful because it diffuses emotion. If you want to be able to deal rationally with an emotional user, or if you simply want to ensure that an interaction does not escalate into an emotional one, remember to use empathy. When sincerely applied, empathy works like a charm in most situations.

This video, from my YouTube channel, is about using emotional intelligence techniques to manage emotionally charged situations.

Here are some examples of empathy statements:
  • “I can hear how frustrated you are.”
  • “I can see how that would annoy you.”
  • “That’s terrible!”
  • “I understand how time-critical this is.”
  • “I would be unhappy if that happened to me, too.”
Television personality Ross Shafer really gets to the heart of the matter when he points out that people don’t really want customer service as much as they want customer empathy.  The same concept applies to end-user support incidents.  When you sincerely empathize with your user, you convey to them a sense of caring and understanding.  There’s a quote in customer service circles that says, “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  When a user believes that you genuinely care about their particular problem, no matter how many times you’ve heard it before, you’re well on the way to creating a satisfied end-user before you even start to solve his or her problem!

This post is an excerpt from my book The Compassionate Geek:  Mastering Customer Service for IT Professionals.