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The Problem with Courtesy 

by Rich Gallagher, Point of Contact Group

I recently had the privilege of being at a conference with close to 100 of the best and brightest minds in customer support. At the end of the first day, they opened the floor for questions and answers with a panel of senior support executives, user group representatives, and thought leaders. I raised my hand and asked them the following question: 

"Most people still brand their customer experience in terms of their interactions with people. What kinds of changes have you seen in the way you approach soft skills for your agents?" 

Here is a sample, heavily paraphrased, of the responses I got: 

-"We are discovering that courtesy is pretty important."

-"It's important that people be polite to our customers."

-"We try to screen people for attitude as well as technical skills when we hire them." 

Listen to the words these senior people chose to use: Courtesy. Polite. Attitude. And more important, nothing new in terms of training people how to communicate. 

The next day at this conference, I led a workshop on how to improve customer sat levels, and its focus was this: there is a science to how you communicate in high-volume customer contact environments, and it has nothing to do with being perky, happy, or having a great attitude. Let me give you some examples: 

-When you use someone's name and paraphrase their issue within the first 30 seconds of a transaction, you build a very powerful connection. (This is NOT the same as repeating a customer's statements word-for-word, as has become fashionable with some remote call center operations.) When I last managed a 24x7 call center, having a tightly scripted greeting that used these two elements unleashed a flood of positive comments about what great people we had answering our phones - even though we had just added over a minute to the intake process to track their calls in CRM! 

-When a customer demands something you cannot provide for them, a structured process of acknowledgement, validation, and providing alternatives sends the vast majority of these customers away measurably happier. 

-When customers dominate the conversation and make calls go on for a long time, a simple technique combining enthusiastic acknowledgement with binary questions will give you control of the dialogue nearly 100% of the time - AND make the customer feel good. 

When I do live training programs, people often come up to me and share that they are perky "people persons." I completely respect that. But more often than not, when we role play challenging customer situations, they usually react the same way everyone else does without training: like deer frozen in the headlights. Until they learn and practice the mechanics. Then everyone, perky and grumpy alike, suddenly starts sounding incredible. 

Take everything that happens in a high-volume call center operation - not just anger and frustration, but everyday routine transactions - and you will find there are mechanics to making people feel really, really good and turning them into raving fans. A lot of these approaches date back less than a decade or two, to studies like the Harvard Negotiation Project or bestsellers like Crucial Conversations. And there is a small but growing fraternity of companies who brand their service around these skills, and profit incredibly from them. 

So here is my respectful advice to the thought leaders I heard last week, and to everyone in the customer support profession: stop equating good service experiences with courtesy, and start looking at them in terms of trainable skills. Benchmark the practices of service experience leaders, and get to a bookstore once in a while and see what's new in terms of the science of good communications skills. And then watch your support operation take your company to another level. 

About the Author
Rich Gallagher is a leading national authority on communications skills. He is the author of eight books including What to Say to a Porcupine (AMACOM, 2008), a national #1 customer service bestseller and finalist for 2008 Business Book of the Year, and his latest book How to Tell Anyone Anything: Breakthrough Techniques for Handling Difficult Conversations at Work (AMACOM, 2009). Visit him online at