Customer Service Etiquette

In eleven days, I will have been working for Ilium Software for two years exactly. I think. I’m really bad at numbers. In those two years, I have slowly drifted towards being something of a Good Customer Support advocate. Now that we have a blog, I can actually say something about what goes on in my head.

I get to be on both sides of the fence when it comes to customer support. I’m a customer getting support from other companies, and I provide support to our customers. Some people probably don’t reconcile this state very well; I can’t imagine that spammers are delighted to sift through spam email every morning while they have their coffee and wake up, nor can I imagine that telemarketers are very pleased when someone selling vinyl siding interrupts their dinner. 

I can’t stand receiving poor service, though, and I don’t want to give it to anyone else. I also can’t stand it when other people describe poor service, or describe the way they treat customers/service reps.

As a result, I’ve come up with this guide to Customer Support Etiquette, for both sides. It’s not very complete, but it’s a good start.

Customer Etiquette

  • Be polite. You don’t have to be cheerful, but don’t be a jerk. Say, “I’m unhappy, why did this happen?” Don’t say, “What are you trying to do, rob me?”
  • Don’t call the representative names. Unleashing a string of profanity at a service rep won’t do anything except indicate that you are angry, and that you are very likely to be unreasonable. Interestingly, I have never had this happen here at Ilium Software, but I did have to hang up on someone who was screaming into the phone at my previous job. An exception to this rule is if you are trapped in an obnoxious telephone menu system – some people have noticed that if you start swearing at a phone system, it drops you to a human.
  • Know when to walk away. Sometimes, hassle isn’t worth the effort you put into it.  If you are in line at the grocery store and you are hassling the clerk about how your hot dogs came up the wrong price, and the line is fifteen people long behind you, getting your forty cents back is going to cost fifteen people their time and the anguish of listening to you complain while their ice cream melts.
  • Know when to push. It’s like that song by Kenny Rogers – know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, and I won’t go on with the rest of the song. If the answer is “No” the first time, asking a second time is probably not going to kill either you or the other person but they may change their tune. Ask a third time and you’re going too far.
  • Show respect. You are probably talking to a human being. What answers they give you may not be your own answers, but mandated by their employer. Understand this, and don’t give them too much of a hard time. I can’t say how many times I’ve read comments on websites where people completely tear up sales associates at retail stores. It might be annoying to be swarmed by sales people when you go to buy a CD, or asked to buy a service plan on something inconsequential like a small carrying case, but it’s not the actual person’s fault. This is actually a touchy issue – you might very well consider that it really is the person’s fault because they chose to work at that job. It should be somewhat evident if they are out of line, or just reciting drivel. Pity the drivel, stand up to behavior that’s out of line, and that is the meaning of respect in this case.
  • Do not treat CSRs as if they are automatically going to be a problem. Customer Service is not your enemy until proven as such. At its best, customer service is your best friend in the whole world. At its worst, it will drive you insane. It will not, however, kill you in the huge majority of cases. You will cause needless stress on both sides if you approach a service interaction as if the other person is going to try to destroy you.


Customer Service Representative (and company) Etiquette

  • Don’t insult the customer. No matter how stupid someone is or seems to be, never say anything about it and don’t throw them a line you’re not holding onto. Even if you have to stomp the floor and scream into a pillow when you get off the line, hold your tongue.
  • Break a rule to avoid making a scene. If you are faced with the choice of A) not meeting your retention quota, or B) standing your ground and ending up a figurehead for all that is wrong with customer service []  the correct choice is A. I don’t care if your boss says it’s B. It’s A. 
  • Don’t create CSR rules that only exist to help you maximize your profits. This one’s for companies – if you have created a rule that doesn’t just stem losses but tries to raise your profits with no necessary benefit to the customer, you’re opening yourself up for all kinds of ill will. See the link in the above bullet.  
  • Learn to speak. If.You.Sound.Like.You.Are.Giving.A.Book.Report.In.Third.Grade or you sound like You.Are.The.Magazine.Salesman.From.”Office.Space”, You.Might.Be.In.The.Wrong.Job. That said, by the end of the day my standard “Ilium Software, this is Kevin, what can I do for you?” greeting becomes impossible to say without stuttering.
  • Fix mistakes and apologize. If you make a mistake, fix it and say you’re sorry. If someone else makes a mistake, fix it and say you’re sorry. I recently had to talk to five different people at my cable company just to get my service properly moved from one apartment to the next. However, at the end, the rep apologized for the mess and fixed it. They didn’t blame me, they didn’t pass the buck, they said, “I’m real sorry that happened, I don’t know how they could have scheduled an appointment for before you called, everything is set up now, really, honest.”
  • Don’t give out useless compensation. “I’m sorry you had a bad time with us and now want to kill all of our service reps. Please accept this pointless gift card good only for something from the company you now despise, or this coupon that looks great but can’t be used for anything.” Bzzzt. Wrong answer.
  • Remember what a customer is. They’re paying your for something. You wouldn’t have a job without them.
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About Kevin

My dad brought a laptop home from work one day when I was in 5th grade, and it was all downhill from there. I've owned Palm PDAs, Pocket PCs, Handheld PCs, and Windows Mobile Smartphones, and finally found one that I could settle down with. Hopefully. I also graduated from the University of Michigan here in Ann Arbor, with a B.S in Computer Science.