Customer Service Representatives (CSRs) exist in all industries, companies and professions. Some are lawyers, some are advertising executives, some are editors, and some work in call centers. What they have in common is the need to manage their internal and external “customers” with exceptional customer service. The traditional customer is the outsider, buying a product or service. The non-traditional customer is equally important. She can be the co-worker, the colleague from another department, or the IT consultant down the hall who helps you with software.
How does assertiveness play an important role? Understanding the true meaning and intent behind assertiveness can help anyone managing challenges with their co-workers, vendors, senior managers or clients. That intent is to communicate with respect for self and respect for others. This is crucial when we run into difficult situations: For example, having to: say “no”; expressing disagreement or dissatisfaction; following up on broken promises; or setting boundaries. In all areas of business, there will be times when we need to agree to disagree. However, keeping the relationship intact should always be the primary goal. After all, we have to continue to work with these colleagues, managers, vendors-and we need to retain the client.
Learning assertive communication strategies helps directly with these confrontations. Assertiveness gives us permission to stand up for ourselves. It teaches us what to say and how to say it. We can learn how to set limits when others cross the line. We communicate in a manner that encourages others to take us more seriously. The goal is to communicate disagreement or dissatisfaction in a manner that doesn’t distance others.
In any customer service interaction when deadlines are tight, the stakes are high, and diplomacy is critical, we need to be respectful and communicate with authority. Saying “no” is difficult for many of us. Many people want to avoid the conflict or push-back that often follows when we refuse a request. It’s better if people take us seriously the first time.
Learning Tip: When saying “no” keep your tone of voice neutral, devoid of anger, frustration, or sarcasm. Repeat the request to assure the other person you understood the question. Let them know briefly why you must refuse. Then use the actual word “no” in your last statement.
“I realize the deadline is tight and you want that report today. In order to do it properly, I need to get input from several other people, which means more lead time. So, no, I can’t get that report finished by this afternoon. Let’s look at another alternative.”
Following up on broken promises or missed deadlines is another uncomfortable situation for many CSRs. How do we confront our internal or external customers without distancing them? Assertiveness training suggests stating the verbal agreement, as you understood it, followed up by an open-ended question. This is a respectful way to confront someone. It gives them a chance to speak up for themselves and explain what factors caused the agreement to be broken. This approach is more respectful than an accusation. It gives the other person the benefit of the doubt and seeks a joint solution.
Learning Tip: When you want to confront someone who broke a commitment or promise, state the verbal agreement, as you understood it. Then ask a question.
“I understood that we agreed you would get back to me by Monday. Today is Wednesday, and I never heard back from you. What happened? Where do we go from here?”
Setting boundaries is all about teaching others how we expect to be treated. If we hear lots of complaints about things gone wrong, and the call becomes ugly, it’s important to stand up for ourselves. If someone crosses the line and begins to use foul language, we have the right to let them know how we expect to be treated.
Learning Tip: When a caller starts swearing, allow them to complete their talking, no matter how long it takes. It’s important to address the abuse rather than the issue at hand.
“I want to help you with your problem and I won’t continue this conversation if you continue to swear at me. Can I have your promise to speak respectfully? Now, let’s move forward with solutions that will help you.”
Assertiveness is a learned skill. Customer Service Reps, in any job situation, benefit from learning the values, beliefs, and strategies that accompany an assertive approach to communication. Over the last 15 years that I’ve used and taught this methodology, I’ve seen many business people improve their client relationships, enhance their professionalism and reduce their personal stress by adopting an assertive approach to customer service.