If one more company answers my customer support call with a warning “wait times are longer than usual,” I’m going to lose what is left of my mind.

Clearly, waits of 30 minutes or more are the new normal, and not unusual at all. So why pretend some unexpected thing has just happened — something of such epic proportions that it’s creating massive phone congestion and delays?

Just admit you have too few people to provide excellent phone support in your customer call center.

Customer Phone Support Issues

In the past few weeks I’ve noticed increasingly poor phone support, both from the usual suspects (airlines and cable providers) as well as some of my favorite retailers. (Seriously, Costco: What’s going on?)

While making a phone call may seem passé, I have no desire to video chat about an incorrect bill or undelivered merchandise. I’m too impatient to email, and it takes me too long to text.

So I end up here, waiting on the phone … frustrated and anxious because there are other things I’d like to do, thank you.

But to channel some California Zen into my edgy East Coast attitude, I’m trying to make the best of this (wasted) time. “How,” I wondered, “could companies improve their brand experiences when conducting business over the phone?”

Handling Customer Phone Support

Of course, the best solution would be to quickly answer the phone, listen attentively and resolve my problem. Failing that, here are some suggestions that cut to the heart of effective brand experience.

  1. Honestly estimate my expected wait time. Ideally, use a virtual hold system that replaces hold-time with a return call. These systems reserve a caller’s “place in line” and reconnect the call when an agent is available.
  2. Speaking of hold times, avoid getting too granular. It’s less annoying to be told the call will be answered in less than 2 minutes than to promise the call will be answered in 1 minute, 27 seconds. Because once you make that promise, I’m looking at my stopwatch.

Once The Call Is Answered

  1. Don’t make me repeat information I have already provided. There should be a seamless handoff from your automated phone tree to the customer service representative.
  2. Listen. Start the conversation by asking “How can I help you?” Don’t presume you know the reason for my call.
  3. Don’t make me play 20 questions. While I want companies to be respectful of my data, it is annoying to have to answer endless security questions to verify my identity. If my phone number matches your record, that should be a good start.
  4. Don’t assume I was the one who made a mistake. Maybe the error was on your end.
  5. Don’t explain the obvious, like “phone calls cost more in foreign countries.”
  6. Be alert to increasing agitation, and pass the call to a supervisor when asked to do so. Sometimes it takes someone with more experience or authority to resolve an issue.
  7. Never, ever tell me there is no one higher up in the organization to resolve my problem unless you are the founder and CEO.
  8. Act human. Nothing is more maddening — or more contrary to the philosophy of great brand experience — than scripted responses that lack even trace amounts of empathy, understanding or compassion.
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What Not to Say on Customer Calls

A few years ago, John A. Goodman — the man who literally “wrote the book” on Strategic Customer Experience — caught my attention with his guide to words and phrases to avoid in a customer focused environment. He had me at the title: Shut Your Mouth!

A customer experience researcher, innovator and entrepreneur, Goodman is the founder of CX Act, formerly TARP Worldwide, a Rosslyn, VA-based customer experience improvement firm.

He worked there for 40 years before moving on as vice chairman of Alexandria, VA-based Customer Care Measurement & Consulting, a company that helps Fortune 500 companies get a better return on their investments in customer experience.

Goodman and Crystal Collier, then CX Act CEO, think there are words and phrases you should erase from your company’s vocabulary.

Avoid These Common Phrases

Goodman and Collier suggest staying clear of these phrases:

  1. Sorry for the inconvenience. Characterizing something important to the customer as a mere inconvenience shows a lack of respect
  2. It’s our policy. This suggests “rules” are more important than the person with the problem
  3. That could not have happened. You don’t earn customer loyalty by calling someone a liar.
  4. May I put you on hold for just a moment? Be honest. Tell the customer she should expect a three or four minute wait — or longer.
  5. You can get faster service by going to our website. How happy will this make a customer who has already called you? Now you want him to hang up and navigate to your website?
  6. Is there anything else I can help you with? Do not, repeat, do not ask if you can help with something else unless you have resolved the customer’s first problem.
  7. I can’t.  Better to say something like, “I’m limited in my ability to do what you are asking, but I can offer three alternatives.”

Noreen Seebacher is the content evangelist at Arke, where she researches, writes and continues her long career in news reporting as a brand journalist. Noreen lives in Beaufort, South Carolina with her husband, her dog and four formerly homeless cats.