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10 Steps to Great Customer Service

Use attitude, psychology and these actions to get service satisfaction.

It’s January and we need help! We’re looking for service and assistance with the new technology and toys we got as holiday gifts. Roughly 1 out of 3 Americans are in the process of returning or exchanging holiday gifts, and others are looking for financial services, tools or health regimens to assist with new year resolutions.

It’s that time of the year when demand is high, expectations are high, and time is short. What could go wrong?

In my work as a consumer research psychologist I interview scores of shoppers every year. One of the topics I typically cover is customer service. Over the past decade I’ve seen a growing chasm between what shoppers expect from customer service and what they actually get. Consumers increasingly expect more. In addition to sales service, shoppers have new demands for technological assistance, they expect faster delivery and want more personalization. Where technology can help, such as with shipment tracking or online how-to videos, consumers are thrilled. But when it comes to the sort of services where human interaction is required, the chasm widens. Within the past few years literally everyone I’ve interviewed has had a horrifying story of human interaction gone awry under the guise of customer service.

What is it about customer service failures that is so maddening and frustrating? A 5-minute phone call over a $10 charge can reduce an otherwise rational, peace-loving person into an angry, shouting vigilante. It’s because at their root, these failed transactions communicate a lack of respect - and respect is among our most primal human needs since it’s closely tied to security. So even though customer service interactions are relatively brief and have relatively inconsequential outcomes, they have the power to create churning, burning and frustration similar to road rage (which is also related to disrespect). The top three complaints I hear from consumers about customer service are rudeness; inefficiency or waiting; and disingenuousness or manipulation. In each you can see the missing component of respect.

To get the inside scoops on how to get the best customer service I interviewed Hayley Silver, Vice President of Bizrate Insights; a senior manager of customer service for a major telecommunications provider; and two department store managers. The managers all preferred to remain anonymous to protect their companies.

The Basics

1. Be prepared. Before you head to the store or make that call, gather together everything you can think of that will help the person you’ll be working with understand your problem and find a solution. So, for example, if you’re returning merchandise, take your receipts. If you’re calling customer service, have your customer or transaction ID or model number ready. And if you’re calling a company that’s notorious for poor customer service (pretty much every cable, satellite and wireless provider) or just about any time you’re calling for technical help, leave yourself time. Squeezing a call in between appointments will only elevate your stress level.

2. Be kind. The person you are talking with is a human being, not a company. They may be representing a company with terrible policies or one that hasn’t trained them properly, but underneath all of that remember they are a person who is trying to do their job. There is also a good chance that representative has just finished dealing with someone that’s not as polite or well-mannered as you. Sales associates and call-center personnel I’ve spoken with have described atrocious behavior from consumers - from being cursed to being spit upon.

3. Have the right attitude. Be purposeful and in control of your emotions and behavior rather than reacting to someone else’s agenda. As mentioned earlier, this is easier said than done. Though it’s understandable to feel angry over disrespectful interactions, an angry response is rarely in your best interest and it’s not going to help your situation. What helps is staying focused on your own objectives. The right attitude for the best outcomes is dispassionate, fair-minded and business-like. No pleading, placating or demanding and skip the judgment. Try your best to avoid dwelling on concepts like fairness and stick to the facts.

4. Make it personal. Though you’re going to do your best not going to take anything about the transaction personally, try to make it personal for the service person you’re dealing with. Start by stating your name and then ask for theirs. Continue to use their name throughout the transaction and be sure to note who you’ve spoken with should you need employ “next level” tactics.

5. Inspire empathy. Engage the humanity of the person you’re talking with by specifically asking for their help. After you state your problem or request ask “Can you help?” It might feel like a request for help is implied, after all you’ve called or come by the store, but it’s not personal until you ask. If you try to elevate the conversation to one that’s between two people rather than a company and a customer, everyone does a better job. Once, in desperation after a long run around with a bank I blurted out, “I know you’d feel the same way.” In that moment the entire conversation shifted as the person I was speaking with felt an empathic connection and we worked together to solve my problem.

6. Have a solution in mind. There are better, more effective ways to let off steam, affect the policies of the company or, if you must, get revenge - this is not the time. When you’re engaging with customer service personnel you should have a desired outcome in mind and stay focused on that goal. The best way to be heard? Be clear, be concise, repeat. And when you repeat, repeat exactly the same words for maximum impact. For example, you say something like, “I didn’t agree to that service, I’m not going to pay for it and I want you to remove it from my bill.” The customer service representative tries to convince you to pay and you repeat, “I didn’t agree to that service, I”m not going to pay for it and I need you to remove it from my bill.” If necessary say it again - exactly the same way.

The Next Level

It these tactics don’t work, you’ll need to take it to the next level. The next level starts by engaging higher-ups within the organization and culminates with an attempt to exert social pressure. In analyzing interviews I’ve conducted on failed customer service transactions, I’ve found that lost time and wasted effort generate even more anger than lost money. So consider if it’s worth it to continue or if might make more sense to cut your losses and move on to a different company.

7. “Escalate.” It’s a magic world in customer service - but like most magic words you should reserve it for when you really need it to avoid the “cry wolf” syndrome (just as you’re keeping tabs on poor customer service transactions, the companies you deal with are also keeping a record of your calls and interactions). When you’ve gone as far as you can with the person you’re speaking with, ask to escalate the issue and speak with their supervisor or manager.

8. Tell on bad employees. Companies don’t want rude, disengaged or passive-aggressive employees. If you’ve had a terrible transaction send an email to customer service, write a letter to the president of the company or call the marketing director. You can find these addresses on most company websites.

9. Take it to the people. Post photos of your mangled luggage (who can forget Dave Carroll’s You Tube video of his United mishap?), tweet the fact that a strange man just walked into your hotel room because it was double-booked (yep, that happened to me and my tweet was much more effective than the hotel staff), start a social media campaign and post reviews.

10. Take your money elsewhere. It’s no wonder that the companies with the most notorious customer service are typically in industries which have little competition or where it’s cumbersome to change providers. A woman I interviewed ended a description of appalling sexism by an airline by saying, “But I don’t think they really care what customers think so I didn’t bother calling customer service. I switched to Delta even though I lost my premier status by leaving the other airline.”

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