QA is a Human Enterprise

I was grieved to recieve a call yesterday informing me that one of the young operators at a client's call center was in a tragic car accident and is being removed from life support.

For all the numbers and data, Quality Assessment is, at the root of it, a human enterprise. Contact Centers become family. I have always attempted to treat every person I coach and train with dignity and respect (even when, in the moment, individuals may react in angry, disrespectful ways).

It's a sobering, but worthy reminder today. Life is fragile. Let's endeavor to treat each other with care.

The Worst Presentation Habits

Blah, blah, blah, blah. Mike Sansone linked a great post through Twitter last night. From SmartLemming: the 10 Worst Presentation Habits.

Here are my favorite three from their list (disclaimer: at one time or another I've been guilty of all of them!):

  • Reading from notes: you might just as well have emailed it to me and let me read it at my desk.
  • Failure to rehearse: bear with my while I get this to work, oops, sorry about that, I'm not sure why it's doing that. Hold on a sec.

  • Reciting bullet points: Dude, that's quite a bald spot on the back of your head. In fact, it's the most interesting thing in this presentation as you turn to read the paragraph off your slide.

Which presentation bad habits drive you crazy? Any others that didn't make the SmartLemming list?

Creative Commons photo from Flickr and photo mojo

Prioritizing Goals for Improvement

Making the list of my goals. Through years of helping struggling QA programs and training/coaching CSRs, I've found an opportunity for improvement that is consistently overlooked within the organization. The opportunity is found in the setting of performance management goals or QA improvement goals.

CSRs and front-line supervisors will often go down the QA report quickly and pick out the lowest scoring elements to place as the highest priorities for improvement. However, years of crunching QA data reveal that the lowest scoring elements on the QA form are usually those behaviors that rarely apply and, therefore, carry relatively little weight in the customer's overall service experience.

For example, hold etiquette and transfer elements typically apply to a relatively small percentage of calls. Because these elements are required less frequently, they tend to be easily forgotten and CSRs in the contact center usually score poorly on them.

When setting goals for improvement, I'll hear CSRs quicky say, "I need to work on thanking the caller for holding!" because their score is so low. But, they only put the customer on hold on 8 out of every 100 calls. An element that applies far more often, like apologizing for the caller's unmet expectations, may have a much higher score but represents a higher priority for improvement. It applies more often and will have a much greater impact on the overall customer experience.

When setting goals for improvement, be sure to consider applicability and relative impact on the customer experience as well as the QA score itself!

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and anitacanita

A Different Take on Difficult Customers

Call centre helper A few weeks ago I was fortunate to be in London for a few days with my wife, and I met up briefly with Jonty Pearce who edits Call Centre Helper magazine in the UK. Jonty and I enjoyed a follow up conversation over the phone. If you're unfamiliar with his on-line magazine, it's worth bookmarking and making frequent visits.

I loved their current article on how we respond to difficult customers. After writing a few posts of my own on some practical ideas to use with difficult customers, I appreciated Christine Knott's psycho analytical take on the subject. I believe we can learn a lot from looking at the same subject from different perspectives and disciplines.

Christine shares that, when faced with a difficult customer, we often unconsciously revert to one of three "ego states":

Parent ego state: represents the occasions when during conversations we respond in a manner that copies the behaviours and actions of parental or influential figures from our lifetime. Can you recall instances when you’ve heard yourself thinking ‘I sound just like my mother/father/teacher’? You are reflecting and copying their behaviour.

For example, during a conversation a person may display anger by shouting at someone because they learnt from an early age that when the parent shouts the child takes notice.

Adult ego state: represents the occasions when during conversations we draw on our lifetime of experiences as an adult to guide us objectively to a positive outcome. When we are in our Adult state we see, hear and respond to people as they really are, and have an understanding of why they are reacting as they do, rather than accepting at face value the way they choose to communicate.

For example, if during a telephone call our organisation is criticised we would respond with a calm, logical response which aimed at reducing or removing the emotion from the discussion in order to resolve issues in a logical and factual manner. We would adopt this state having learnt throughout our lifetime that shouting, sulking, answering back or other emotional states will detract from our ability to reach a solution, and extend the time needed to reach it.

Child ego state: represents the occasions when during conversations we revert to behaving, feeling and thinking similarly to how we did in childhood.

For example, during a conversation a person who receives criticism may react as they did in their childhood when they were reprimanded. This reaction may take on an emotional form, crying, sulking, answering back or perhaps feeling ashamed or angry.

I'm reflecting on conversations I had yesterday, and I can identify all three ego states in my reactions to different people.

How about you?

Personality and Quality Assessment

Personality Types. I think a few people in my pre-conference workshop were surprised when I started the session with a brief personality test. After all, what do personality types have to do with QA in our call center?! Believe me, the longer I spend in this field the more I come to understand that personality often plays a huge, unrecognized role in a company's QA program.

The structure and function of Quality Assessment appears to be a nuts and bolts proposition complete with data, metrics, charts, graphs, sample sizes, and statistical methodology. The goal of QA is to objectively measure what takes place in phone calls. A good QA scale will allow you to quantify these "moments of truth" in very clear, systematic ways. Nevertheless, the program is built and administered by people. The results are communicated by people and used to coach and train people. Quality Assessment is about people, and the personalities of those people affect QA in a very real sense from beginning to end. If you're not careful, personalities can skew or derail the QA process altogether. A good QA program will provide a balanced measurement that minimizes the effect personalities may have on the process.

How are the personalities of your management team, your call center manager, your supervisors, and your CSRs affecting your QA process?

Creative Commons image courtesy of Flickrand Combined Media

Angry Customers – Part 4: Do the Opposite

Try kindness. Angry customers will often come at you with a negative tone and accusatory language. They are convinced, before they even picked up the phone, that you aren't going to be helpful. They are expecting to have to claw, bite and fight for any kind of resolution. Usually, by the time the customer has reached this point, it's because our service delivery system has already failed them, perhaps multiple times.

While it's hard not to react to the customer with the same attitude, the fact is that a similar response is only going to escalate the customer further. If the customer starts the call by being snippy and accusatory and we respond in an equally accusatory or snippy manner, the customer thinks, "Aha! I was RIGHT! They ARE going to be difficult to work with. I have EVERY RIGHT to get ticked off and yell at them!"

We can't control how a customer is going to react or respond to us. We CAN control how we react and respond the customer. By refusing to respond to the customer in a similar angry, snippy, accusatory manner, we will often give the customer no place to emotionally go with their anger. They want to get angry, scream and yell, but if we refuse to respond in a like manner, the caller will often begin to calm down.

But, we're not done.

There's an old proverb that goes like this: "Bless those who curse you, and in so doing it will be like heaping burning coals on their head." In other words, if you act the opposite of the customer by being extra nice, friendly, helpful and attentive – you will frustrate their desire to be angry. The customer begins to think, "I'm going off on this person, but they're being nothing but kind and helpful to me!"

I've heard many calls through the years in which a CSR calms and angry customer and turns them around. It is almost always because the CSR refused to react in anger, and instead they proactively "killed 'em with kindness" by being appropriately friendly, empathetic and helpful.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickrand louisa_catlover

Angry Customers Part 5 – Empathy Resolution Statement

I have written on different occasions about the importance of both empathy and resolution when the customer's expectations have not been met, and about the importance of an apology. When dealing with an angry customer, it's important to focus on resolving the issue at hand, to the best of your ability. However, if you don't show any empathy or acknowledgment for the customer's frustration, you still aren't going to provide an optimal customer experience.

I hear many CSRs say, "the customer tells me 'I don't want your apology!' so I never apologize." I have heard customers say this (though data shows it is far less seldom than usually reported), and whenever I hear the statement made it is almost always followed with something like: "I want my issue resolved!"

The problem is not that the customer wants no empathy, the problem is that the customer feels that all he/she has received is empathy and no one is fixing the problem. When the customer says, "I don't want your apology!' it should be a red flag telling you that empathy/resolution is out of balance and you need to focus on resolving the issue.

To avoid getting these out of balance, I recommend what I call a "empathy resolution statement." You offer a simple apology for the problem followed by a statement of what you are going to do to resolve it. Once done, you can usually move on to focusing on resolution knowing that you've adequately expressed empathy.

"I'm sorry that (describe the unmet expectation). What I can/will do is (describe what action you will take)."

For example:

Customer was supposed to receive a call back and didn't.
"I'm sorry we didn't call you back. What I will do is pull up your account and find out what I can do to resolve this for you."

Order didn't arrive.
"I apologize that you didn't get your order as expected. I can check the order for you and let you know what the tracking information tells us."

Customers called several times with the same issue and it hasn't been resolved.
"I'm sorry we've let you down on this issue. I will do everything in my power to get this resolved."

A simple empathy resolution statement will provide the customer with a balanced approach that leads to focus on resolution, but doesn't completely ignore the customer's need for empathy. As with all service skills, each CSR needs to find ways to make the statement conversational and incorporate a wording that is natural and comfortable. If both the empathy and resolution portions of the statement are clearly communicated, you will often set yourself up for a successful service experience.

Angry Customers Part 3 – Breathe

Just breathe. Let's take a quick trip down memory lane to Junior High science class. Mr. Perchau had a sealed tobacco can on the lab desk in the front of the class. Slowly and methodically, heat and pressure were applied to the sealed can. What do you think eventually happened?


Thanks to Mr. Perschau, I learned that when you apply heat and pressure to a sealed object, things tend to get explosive.

Fast forward to your role as a Customer Service Representative. You pick up the phone and, WHAMMO!, you are immediately attacked verbally by a customer who is incensed about some issue. You feel the instantaneous application of heat and pressure.

Do you ever feel your heart beating out of your chest when dealing with an irate caller? That's your blood pressure building. Your blood pressure builds as you stop breathing. And when enough pressure builds up, guess what often happens?


One of the keys to working with angry customers is making sure that you don't explode. Once that happens and you lose control, you will rarely recover that customer experience to a positive outcome. To keep the pressure from building, you need to consciously tell yourself to keep breathing. It sounds so simple, but the constriction in your breathing is an unconscious physical reaction, it works against you, and most people are unaware that it's happening.

When the customers heat up and the pressure builds – take a deep breath and keep breathing.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and Luna DiRimmel

Angry Customers Part 1 – No Magic Pill

Magic_pillFor the next week or two I’m training reps for a client on handling irate callers. "How do you handle angry customers?" is the most requested training topic our group receives from clients. Through the years, I’ve learned that many Customer Service Representatives (CSRs) are searching for is a magic pill that will work to calm every angry call down in every circumstance and help them elude the physical, mental, and emotional reactions that inherently come with a conflictive situation. Good luck with that. While we’re at it, here’s a map for finding the Holy Grail.

There are a lot of great tips, tricks and tactics for handling angry customers. I’ll be sharing some of the best of them in a series of posts over the next week or two. But, before start out on our journey through this topic, it’s important to understand this very truth: there are no magic pills for handling angry customers. There are very effective skills that, when applied correctly, will often work to de-escalate an angry caller and help you manage the conflict to a successful conclusion. However, there will always be those few callers who are angry, who want to be angry, and who refuse to be reasonable. The most skilled CSR can do everything in their power to turn that customer and the customer will still walk away in a huff.

It’s important, as we proceed to explore this topic, that you remember my "#1 Rule of Customer Service": "Do the best you can with what you have." If you fall back to a position of believing that "every customer just wants to be angry and there is nothing I can do about it," then you are making an excuse for not doing your job. You must approach every caller with the desire to do the best you can for him or her, believing that you can and will resolve their issue and leave them "wowed" by the way you capably served her or him. If you, indeed, do the absolute best that you can for your customer, there will still be a few who walk away angry and unsatisfied. That’s the nature of the business. Try to learn from the experience (e.g. "What could I have done differently?" "Is there another tactic I could have tried?" "Was I missing someting?"), shake the dust off, and move on.

We all want a magic formula for making money, losing weight, staying young, and finding the perfect mate. Despite what late night infomercials promise, we all know in our gut that the magic just doesn’t exist. Welcome to the reality of handling angry customers.

Now, let’s get to work….

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and mankissingbird