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Last updated: Fri. Jan. 17, 2014 - 08:14 am EDT


Etiquette column: Customer service matters

Train staff to solve problems, not pass them on.

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Q.: Karen, while dealing with a company on the phone recently I found I was put on hold for a long period of time and then got forwarded to multiple departments where I had to tell my story all over again, just to have people tell me they “didn't know the answer” or it “wasn't their job or department.” After being on the phone for more than 20 minutes I hung up in disgust without getting my problem solved. What could I have done to get better service and why don't businesses train their staff better?

A.: Your complaint is not uncommon, and most of us have had the experience of being on hold for long periods of time and wanting to hang up. Many businesses outsource their customer service departments, and the people answering their phones aren't even in the U.S. However, I don't believe that's a good excuse for not being able to train and prepare people to handle problems that come up with their customers or consumers.

One thing that may be helpful when faced with this dilemma is to ask for a manager or supervisor or ask the person who does not have the answers whom you might be able to speak with who could solve your problem. Also, get names and extension numbers of the people with whom you speak.

So, regardless of whether your company is dealing with people on the phone or in person, here are some things to think about when training your staff:

•Devote plenty of time to customer service training for new employees and review customer service guidelines for existing employees. A minimum of 10 to 12 hours of specific customer service should be incorporated into the regular orientation/new hire programs.

•Do role play exercises with issues that frequently come up in your business, and make sure employees have adequate information at their fingertips to help solve problems: for instance, the names and departments within your business that usually handle certain issues.

•Teach the staff to think outside the box. There are exceptions to every rule, and customers will remember when their problems are solved.

•Empower employees to take an issue and run with it instead of always having them pass it up the chain of command.

•Avoid phrases such as “I don't know” or “that's not my job.” Those statements are very frustrating for a customer who seeks to resolve a problem. It's not the customer's job either.

Consider, “I don't the have the answer to your question, but let me help you get the answer.” or “Our department doesn't usually handle those issues, but I will see if I can resolve the problem for you.” Just making an effort goes a long way.

•Offer assistance in getting them to the person or department who can help.

•If the customer is in your place of business and needs to go to another department, have a staff person escort him or her, especially if it's a long way to go.

•Have employees get the number of the person with whom they are speaking at the beginning of a call so they can call them back in case the call gets dropped or cut off.

•Don't overlook the power of social media. Many companies today have programs to monitor complaints on sites such as Facebook and Twitter. But do be professional in how you phrase your complaint. Ranting and raving in the heat of anger doesn't make you look very good either.

Karen Hickman is a local certified etiquette/protocol consultant and owner of Professional Courtesy. To submit questions, email

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