Building Rapport with Callers

By Nancy Friedman, Telephone Doctor

Name? Account number? Zip code? Mother’s maiden name? Sounds like a scene from a prison movie, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not. It’s the start of an average call in many call centers. Why? Because in most cases, the call center agent hasn’t been shown a different way to answer a call. This illustrates why it’s important for agents to gather information from callers without sounding like an interrogator!

My wallet was stolen a few months ago. Fortunately, I remembered the names of the credit cards I was carrying. Unfortunately, my wallet with all the credit cards also had my checkbook. My first response was to list the credit cards that I knew were in my wallet. I then began the daunting task of calling each of the major credit card companies to report the loss. Perhaps because of the type of work I do every day and because of the horror stories I’ve heard, I have become “Mrs. Perfect Customer.”  I don’t yell, I don’t belittle, and I don’t get angry. I smile and try to help the call along. I’m a good customer.

With this in mind, I picked up the phone and made my first call to one of the credit card companies. “Hi, my name is Nancy Friedman,” I said. “I’m in Orlando, Florida, and my wallet with all my credit cards has just been stolen and I want to report it right away.”

“Name?” asked the agent with the voice of a warden.

I always give my name first, as I had this time. Obviously, the agent who answered the phone didn’t hear it, note it, or remember it. So I repeated my name and spelled it for her.

“Account Number?” the agent continued.

I thought one of us had better have a sense of humor and I could tell it wasn’t coming from the other end, so I said, “Well, I have my phone number, address, and birthday memorized. I never got around to memorizing all my credit card numbers and if you recall, my wallet with that information was stolen.”

Dead silence. Then I was asked, “Phone Number?”

It went downward from there. Suffice to say, I was disappointed. There wasn’t one word of empathy from this agent. She had a job to do and she was going to do it – and in record time, too.

I had six credit cards in my wallet. When I called to report the loss of each one of them, not one of the credit card companies acknowledged my dilemma. It was hard for me to believe. The worst experience was when I called the bank concerning my checks. When I told my saga to the bank, the woman I spoke with asked the questions as though I had been the one who stole the wallet.

What does the behavior of the agents at the bank and the credit card companies say to me, the customer? It says that maybe I should take my business somewhere else.

To keep customers satisfied and loyal, it is crucial that an agent build rapport with every caller at the beginning of each call. The agent who answers the call should acknowledge what the caller is saying and use the same words that the caller says, as in the following example:

Caller: “I just lost my wallet.”

Agent: “Your wallet? I’m so sorry. Let me get your full name and we’ll see how we can help.”

Learning how to build rapport is an art, not a science. You may recall Yul Brynner, the great actor, who appeared in the musical “The King and I” for more than 2,000 performances. He said the same words, night after night. Yet each performance was award winning. Why? Because he gave each performance to a different audience. I imagine he got tired of the script sometimes. Yet because he knew the audience was new each night, he made his lines sound fresh every time.

For call center agents, the telephone is your stage and the connect button is the curtain. One of the best ways agents can convey empathy is to practice the lines they say the most so that the delivery sounds fresh each time.

I sympathize with agents who work in centers that receive enormous numbers of calls, but I also hear all sorts of excuses. One of the most common is “Gee, Nancy, we have to say the same thing over and over; it’s so boring.”  Or, “Nancy, we’re limited for time on each call.” Or, “Our policy is to get on and off the phone as quickly as possible.”

These are excuses, not reasons. Although an agent may say the same thing over and over again, it’s probably the caller’s first time hearing it. It isn’t enough for agents to know the answers. They need to reassure callers that they’re ready to help them. When customers reach call center agents, they don’t care how much they know – until they know how much they care.

Nancy Friedman is president of Telephone Doctor, an international customer service training company, based in St. Louis, MO. Nancy is the author of four best selling books.

[From Connection Magazine April 2006]

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