Customers don’t want to hear: “I don’t know….”

Here’s a technique to help you deal more effectively with customer enquiries – especially from upset customers.

After facilitating a Customer Service Excellence program for the post-sales technical support team of a major computer manufacturer, I was conducting side-by-side phone coaching with one of the support technicians (we’ll call him John – names have been changed to protect the innocent!). John received a call from a customer who was obviously on a speaker phone. The following dialogue took place:

“This is John – how may I help you today?”

“Yeah – we’d like to know if such-and-such can be used with a whatsit?”

“Hmm. I don’t know, but if you’ll give me a couple of minutes I think I know where to find the answer. Do you mind holding?”

With a somewhat cynical tone, the customer replied: “No – I guess not.”

John started to take his headphones off so he could go and find the answer. As he did that, we realized he had forgotten to actually place the customer on hold. The customer didn’t know they weren’t on hold either, and were oblivious to the fact that John could still hear them.  We heard the following exchange between the customer and another person in his office:

“Oh great – this guy doesn’t know (bleeping) squat.”

“Wonderful. Bleep, bleep.”

John looked at me and mouthed: “What should I do?”

“Put them on hold.” I mouthed back.

John did so, and then asked me how to proceed. I told him this was the perfect situation to show some empathy:

Ignore their remarks – it’s not personal. They’re obviously upset and need an answer as soon as possible. Do you know where to find the answer?”

“I think so.”

“Okay – just go and get it as quickly as you can and come back and give it to them.”

John was gone about 45 seconds, and came back waving a piece of paper with the answer on it. After re-connecting with the customer, he said:

“Okay – I’m back. You were right. I didn’t know squat about this before. But I do now and I have your answer.”  With that, he paused. (Note: This is not the kind of behaviour we teach in our programs, but given the circumstances, I thought this was a novel and somewhat amusing way of dealing with the situation.)

After a couple of seconds of stunned silence on the other end, the customer sheepishly asked:

“Do you think we could have it, please?”

“Of course,” John replied, and then proceeded to relay the answer to the customer. The customer then said:

“Thank you very much. Obviously you overheard us talking, and we’re sorry we were rude. We appreciate the help.”

“No problem – I was glad to help. Let me give you my direct line in case you have any other questions…..”

And with that, the call concluded.

There are a couple of lessons to be learned here:

1. Customers can get upset when they don’t receive instant answers to their questions. That doesn’t excuse their rudeness, but we need to show empathy towards customers who have contacted us to solve a problem. Don’t take their anger personally (unless of course you caused the problem in the first place!). If necessary, use the ANGRY process described in a previous blog to defuse customer anger.

2. Customers don’t want to hear “I don’t know….”  They are coming to us for our expertise, not to hear that we don’t know the answer to their problem.  Saying: “I don’t know…” not only undermines your credibility, but also, if they are already angry, it is only likely to exasperate the situation, and elevate that anger.

You do, of course, need to be honest with customers. However, as my lawyer once told me, you should never lie, but there are a hundred ways of telling the truth. An alternative to the “I don’t know…” approach is to let the customer know that you will help them and provide the right answer, even if it takes a little time. We have found the following to be extremely effective in helping customers stay calm while explaining they have to wait for their answer:

“I want to make sure you’re getting the right information. Can you give me just two minutes to double check that, and I’ll be right back with your answer?”

Phrasing it this way does not undermine your credibility, and the customer is re-assured that they are going to get the right information. They are less likely to be angry, and will be more tolerant of being placed on hold to wait for their answer. Try it – it works!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>