Customer service training has historically been focused on soft skills—teaching reps to be polite, warm, and empathetic to customers. But as our research shows, if the goal is effort reduction, simply getting your reps to be nicer to people doesn’t have much of an impact at all.

There is no statistical impact on customer effort when:

  • A rep showed concern
  • A rep was non-scripted
  • A rep understood the customer
  • A rep listened well

To be clear, if your reps are not showing concern or not listening well, it’s likely going to be a pretty poor experience for your customers. What we are saying here is that these types of “soft skills” are no longer enough—they are necessary but insufficient. Your customers expect these things, but they also expect a lot more.

And this may sound familiar but bears repeating as we grapple with the post-COVID realities… times are hard for your customers. Let’s put ourselves in their shoes. They are working from home, multi-tasking, and tired. We also know that when something goes wrong, and it always does, your team is taking the call. How should your reps handle the call? Sure, showing concern and listening well is important, but it’s not what’s needed to move the needle on effort reduction.

What your customer needs is a consultant. As one customer service leader (who is in the minority, not simply focused on soft skills) put it, “We see our best reps really taking control of the conversation—they anticipate moments when the customer is likely to have a negative reaction, and do their best to get ahead of it.”

So how do we help customers get what they need, while also empowering reps to take control and actually resolve issues? How can reps behave like consultants? It’s demonstrating advocacy, which can take many shapes depending on the customer or the issue at hand.

Let’s take a look at how this plays out. As we did our research to better understand what drives customer effort, we conducted experiments to test customer reactions when there is a typical service response and when a low-effort skill is displayed. Here, we’ll examine the advocacy experiment.

Imagine you are the customer, and you have a new bike. Unfortunately, your new bike has an issue with its break cable. When you contact customer service, the rep says:

Rep Response A: “It’s really difficult to tell what’s happening over the phone. You should just bring it into one of our certified repair shops to have it looked at.”

Now imagine the rep handled it like this:

Rep Response B: “I know that can be frustrating, so I’ll definitely pass your feedback onto our engineering team. Okay, let me check to see if other customers have had a similar issue with that bike model—that should tell us if it’s a repair issue or it if it just requires a break-in period. Okay, I’m not seeing many instances of customers having the same issue, so I’d recommend bringing it back to the shop and having them take a look at it, especially since it’s still under warranty.”

It’s the same answer from both reps—you are going to have to bring that bike into the shop—but the difference is the degree of advocacy shown. Did you notice how that second rep indicates what they are going to do (pass along the feedback) and also how they make a value-based recommendation (“what I’d recommend,” “especially since it’s under warranty”)? THAT is what being a consultant looks like in action.

The difference may seem small, but the impact on the customer experience is dramatic. Remember, customer effort is in the eye of the beholder. Even though in both situations, the actual effort of taking the bike to the shop is high, one of these interactions has the perception of much, much lower customer effort.

This skill, advocacy, needs to be taught early. It’s hard to have a successful customer service exchange (one that is reducing customer effort) if the rep isn’t making a connection with your customer right from the start. And while simple phrases like “I’m going to take care of this for you” or “We’re going to figure this out together” can go a long way and sets the stage for the remainder of the call, it’s also important to help your reps see that there are frequently many ways to demonstrate the behaviors you’re asking them to perform. In our approach to teaching your reps how to deliver low-effort customer service, we emphasize the key components of a skill without dishing out a specific script or call flow that mandates a single right way to, in this case, be an advocate for the customer. Service interactions are as dynamic as the customers we are helping, so why would we expect them to be anything other than dynamic conversations?

Emily Campbell

Emily Campbell is a Manager with Challenger’s Effortless Experience team. In her role, Emily helps client organizations grow in their journeys to becoming low-effort customer service organizations.