For years, an individual's main avenue of complaint when problems existed with products or services was a face-to-face meeting with a member of staff in a shop or an office. A methodology for obtaining the best results consequently arose. Skilled 'complainers' are often very proud of their ability to extract what they want from the situation, frequently boasting of product or seat upgrades, a full refund or an instant repair job.
Firstly, the practised complainer will choose a time when the shop or office is very busy and crammed full of other customers. He or she will then target the most nervous-looking assistant. The technique is usually to make the person on the receiving end feel a little uncomfortable. The complainer stands up straight, looks the individual straight in the eye and talks in a loud voice, becoming increasingly terse. The other customers in the shop will start to feel awkward, and people would see the outcome of this as an indictment on the customer service of the business.
Whatever the situation, the shop assistant will quickly want to deal with it by mollifying the customer as quickly as possible and ensuring that the potential clientele are not put off. If they are unsuccessful and a scene unfolds, you can bet your bottom dollar that the manager will be over in a flash to 'sort the problem'. As any experienced complainer knows, the latter is a euphemism for 'giving them what they want'!
However, in recent years the way we deal with customer service departments has changed. Unless we're dealing with an actual retail shop, the opportunity to go and speak to someone rarely exists. We now live in the day and age of the call centre and the 'Central CS1 Department'.
As a result, the necessary tactics to adopt in order to successfully complain have changed; unfortunately some complainers have not yet caught up with this.
The most important thing the savvy caller must realise is that when dealing with a CS adviser over the telephone, the balance of power has changed. Here are some of the reasons why.
- They are no longer in the physical presence of the person with whom they are dealing. Therefore, such tactics as standing tall and making determined eye contact will no longer work.
- The complainer no longer has the option of choosing which adviser to complain to. They might get lucky and get a meek, nervous type who can be intimidated, but it's just as likely that they will end up speaking to a battleaxe or seasoned campaigner.
- Most crucially, when phoning a call centre you are dealing with the business in isolation of other customers: nothing you do will in any way affect other customers. Screaming, shouting and making a scene just does not have the same effect when paying customers are not streaming out of the building. In fact, the person to whom you are speaking can get rid of you at the touch of a button.
- Even when you ask to speak to a manager, the likelihood is that when you do, you are not speaking to a supervisor. He or she will be just one of the normal phone advisers who may have better telephone skills, but no additional powers in the way a shop-floor manager has.
This is not to suggest that you face an impossible task when complaining to a call centre: far from it, but a change in tactics is required. The first thing is to understand the ground rules.
Call centre staff invariably don't like their jobs: the work is boring and repetitive. It is worth remembering that the average length of tenure of staff in a UK call centre is something like three months. Put simply, the person to whom you are speaking does not really care about your problem. Your task is to make them care about your call in particular - and that is really quite easy to achieve.
This person is doing a job they hate, and speaking to between one and three hundred customers a day, most of whom - having not read this Entry - will use the 'bull in a china shop' approach and start off by being very unpleasant. If you are different, it immediately makes you stand out.
Here is a checklist of things you must do:
- Remember the person's name. Almost all call centre employees have to give their name, yet hardly anyone they speak to will ever remember it. If you remember their name and address them by it they will instantly think better of you. Write it down if necessary.
- This person is bored out of their mind: all they have spoken about for the last couple of hours is problems relating to their work. Take a minute to just say 'Hello, how are you?'. You don't need to have a chat, but that simple distraction will brighten up the worker's day immensely, and suddenly they are starting to have an emotional investment in sorting your problem out. Heck, you have made a difference to their day and they are starting to like you.
- Whatever you do, never, ever, act as if this problem is the personal fault of the person to whom you are speaking. In fact, for best results, make a play of saying something like 'Hey, I know this isn't your fault, and I am sorry to get on at you, but you know this is where we have to phone to get this sorted, huh?'. You have to remember the person on the receiving end probably hates their employer and if you have not hacked them off they will be on your side.
- When you explain what's wrong, make pains to tell them how it is a difficulty for you. By now, the person should be on your side and if you can make them sympathise you are far more likely to get the result you want. Paint the problem for them: make them want to solve it for you.
Now this is the critical stage: if there is something the person can do to help, they will probably do it. However, sometimes it might be something outside of their remit. If they refuse your request, tell them politely that it is nothing to do with what they have said and you entirely appreciate they have tried their best but you would like to speak to a manager, if that's okay.
It is really important to remain nice at this point, for whenever any call centre employee passes a call to a manager they will give instructions. If you have been pleasant they will ask the manager to sort you out. If you have hacked them off they will tell their superior to give you the minimum they can get away with.
Speaking to a Manager
The first thing you have to remember when dealing with a manager is that the first 'manager' you speak to almost certainly won't be. Most call centres have management support groups (or 'call coaches') made up of advisers who are best at handling difficult customers. So all the previous rules apply, but they are usually given a degree of latitude with the rules and regulations, and can often authorise action or compensation that a normal adviser cannot.
One Researcher recalled that:
I have variously been a team leader, shift manager, head of call and an executive director. But I have never been on more than £5.50 an hour.
Follow all the rules outlined so far and you should get your desired outcome. If you don't, politely ask for the name of this person's direct superior and their position, and then ask to speak to them instead.
If you do so in this manner you will almost certainly speak to a real manager. You will probably have to wait for them to call you back, but it will be worth it. They usually won't understand the rules, and will be so busy that they will give you what you want just to get rid of you.
Things to Remember
Although this technique will usually work, success is not 100% guaranteed. Some people are less professional than others, whereas some just care so little they won't do anything to help anyone. With such individuals, your best hope is that they are on the lookout for a new job.
It might not be possible to do what you want, and no amount of pleading will be able to change that. Another researcher remembered:
When working for the TV Licensing call centre, a customer phoned up shortly after the government had introduced free licences for over-75s. This customer was 70 and felt very aggrieved that - despite his age and relative poverty - he had to pay, while his considerably more affluent next-door neighbour got his free. Much as though I sympathised with the customer I just couldn't make him understand that it was a government decision and nothing to do with us. I ended up speaking to him for over an hour.
If you are given the option of pursuing your claim by paper instead, decline to do so. Paper claims are just that. The person involved only goes by the book and has no emotional investment in your case. Also, they may find it difficult to understand your handwriting. Most call centres are 'national rate' 0845 numbers, so it is only costing you 6-8p per minute.
Of course, if all else fails you can still try the 'bull in a china shop' tactic.