When I took over the small records center at my local municipality over eight years ago, the digital landscape was very different. Most of my customers still walked in with pens and paper to record information or requested print-outs of drawings and letters rather than emails and CDs of PDFs.
The other thing that was missing? Cell phones. Nearly a decade ago, they were not seemingly glued to people’s hands or ears as they are today. As my career at the records center progressed, so did the ubiquity of cellphones. Thus, my customer service practices had to evolve. As a public entity, I could no longer be expected to require my customers leave a personal possession behind, especially one that occasionally aided them in their searches. While customer service in the age of the cell phone might seem like second nature, it’s surprising how best practices changed. Here are some tips.
No really. It sounds silly to reiterate the tenet of patience to government employees who have likely been serving the public much longer than I ever did, but that’s also part of my point. I worked with another employee who served the same customers I did and who had been with the municipality for over 20 years, long before cellphones. She truly didn’t understand why people wouldn’t put down phones to interact with someone from whom they needed information.
A research presentation given by Rosellina Ferraro and colleagues helps us understand what has changed people’s behavior as cell phone usage has increased. In their presentation, Ferraro and her colleagues discussed an experiment conducted on two groups, one that got a cellphone, and one an educational toy.
The first group, providing a product which possessed communication capabilities including internet access was found to induce greater impatience in its possessors as well as a greater sense of entitlement. By the end of their research, they had concluded that cell phones increased peoples’ perceptions of the value of their time, thus decreasing their desire to give up that time to something the didn’t feel was necessary. How then does this apply to customer service? Oftentimes, we are helping people with something they truly don’t want to do, like fill out a permit application or renew a passport. Customers will generally begin with the assumption that their time is more valuable than yours. You are getting paid, after all.
At the same time, just because your customers may not value your time, don’t undervalue your time either. There are many ways we show people, especially our public, that we undervalue our time as much as they do. When I ran the records center, I responded to emails immediately, and thus my customers came to expect that.
When it comes to cell phone usage, if your organization has a policy about customer cellphone usage, make sure it’s posted. Transparency is one of the keys to making your customers happy, and that includes being clear about what you expect from them and vice versa. If your customers don’t know they’re supposed to leave their cellphones holstered, you cannot fault them for that.
If those phones do come out when they’re not supposed to, or you have been occupying yourself with other tasks for five minutes while a customer finishes a call, it’s time for a little tough love. First, make eye contact as best as you can and smile. We often forget that nonverbal cues often communicate more than our words can.
Words can be ignored, especially by someone who’s on a phone, even if it’s to check email or Facebook. Movement and facial expressions, including a quick smile, can get people’s attention better than a swiftly uttered, “May I help you?”
If you are ignored for more than five minutes, though a customer has come to you for help, it’s time to interrupt politely. This can backfire on you, but more often than not, your customers will realize that they are simply wasting their own time by not using the resources that you provide.
On the other hand, don’t forget to be tough on yourself about unplugging, especially at work. If you are involved in customer service at all, it’s your job to focus on your customers. You can’t do that if you have your nose in your cellphone.
The basics of customer service will never change. Yet it will always involve adapting to the changing manners of the public; because those do indeed change. It’s okay to change with them.