3 things upset customers don't want to hear

Sara Yonker

September 26, 2022

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Trying to calm customers down? It can make things worse.

When an upset customer contacts you to sort out their problems, you fight an uphill battle. If your customer service agents keep doing what they’ve always been told to, they’ll lose.

Our research revealed that common responses to frustrated customers - including things many of us instinctively say to anyone upset - end up making things worse. 

We recently released a new ebook that spotlights our research, how we conducted the analysis,  and explains how to coach your agents to respond in the way customers want.

The groundbreaking findings: Stop trying to empathize, don’t apologize, and don’t offer long-winded explanations without action. 

All of these responses fall under a category that we call acknowledgement. Acknowledgement seems like a positive response, but when we analyzed how these types of responses affected overall call scores, we realized otherwise.

Customers don’t want you to make them feel better. They want you to fix their problem.
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Acknowledgement comes in three forms (and some of them are worse than others). 

1.  “I’m sorry” Customers don’t want your apologies

Apologies include statements such as I’m sorry for your inconvenience, I apologize for the delay, I’m sorry to hear you feel that way.

Offering an apology on behalf of your company or just for a customers’ unfortunate circumstances seems like it could diffuse a situation. In reality? It seldom makes the situation better and more often, frustrates them more. 

This goes along with what researchers uncovered about apologies in other customer service settings. Apologies can make customers angrier instead of resolving the issue.

2. “I understand” Customers don’t need your empathy

A wealth of information, training materials, books, and agent evaluation forms emphasize the need for empathy in customer service.

But empathy can backfire. When agents spend time in a conversation offering platitudes instead of working to address the problem, it doesn’t help the customer experience. 

The research can seem contradictory. Customers surveyed say they value empathy and expect it. But even when customers appreciate an agent’s good nature, they ultimately want their issues resolved, not their emotions understood. 

Empathy statements, such as “I understand how frustrating this is” mean little when customers doubt their problem will get fixed. 

Our research found that repeated empathy statements end up increasing a customers’ overall effort during a conversation. That means it's harder for them to resolve their issues when agents commensurate and support instead of taking action.

3. “Let me explain:” Customers want actions, not explanations

We have a third type of acknowledgement that we looked at in our research. Explanations - or giving customers information in response to their problems - can end up increasing their effort (and hurting their overall customer experience).

If you pair explanations with action, however, customers respond positively. It’s the difference from an agent at a hotel that lost your reservation telling you “Our computer system crashed” with no other commentary and the same agent saying, “We’ve had technical difficulties with our booking system, but I’m checking right now to see where I can book you.”

Want more information about our research into apologies, empathy and explanations - along with a coaching guide for how to make the switch that customers want? Download the ebook now.

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