Customer Service Week: three opportunities to build, maintain, or break trust


Trust is emotional, and is built transactionally

Customer Service Week is being celebrated around the world this week, and the theme is “Building Trust.” And while trust is certainly an emotional concept, it isn’t completely immune to training, practice, review, and reward.

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How do you measure and improve in a nebulous area like trust? I’d like to go through three opportunities that are typical “trust points” for most service-oriented organizations. In each case, I’ll suggest how this moment can either build, maintain, or break down trust between you and the people you serve.

1. Simple questions and concerns

This is the kind of everyday customer service interaction that we all know so well. You don’t know how to use a particular feature of a product. You need to ask about the status of an order. Maybe something went wrong and you want to know why.

  • To build trust: ask, ask, ask. Find out what the real goal of your customer is. Ask about how the problem is affecting them. Dig a bit. This shows long-term caring, which is a huge trust builder, and may lead you to solve a problem deeper than what the customer articulates.
  • To maintain trust: treat the symptom. Yes, if you take care of the specific concern, put a check in the box; you will probably not lose trust. But you won’t gain any, either.
  • To break trust: make assumptions. Don’t listen to what the customer is saying, and don’t probe for more details. Use your ideas and beliefs—rather than theirs—as a guide. Even if you’re right, this approach feels wrong to the customer.

We manage hundreds of these calls a day at OCLC. We have metrics about call times and satisfaction. But we also remember that each is a chance to build, maintain, or break trust.

2. Times of crisis

By “crisis,” I don’t necessarily mean a hurricane or other life-threatening event, but where your core service or product fails. This isn’t a minor issue or a concern. This is more like your electricity is out, your flight was cancelled, the “waterproof” item isn’t.

  • To build trust: be as transparent as you can. When something bad happens, many people want to know “why” not just “what.” Being in the dark about a bad situation is almost always harder and less comfortable, and it doesn’t allow the customer to plan for the future. Is this a one-time issue or a human error? Will I be spending the night in the airport?
  • To maintain trust: acknowledge and apologize. Trust, as we said, is emotional. It is very powerful to hear someone say, “I know we screwed up, and I’m very sorry.” It’s easy to do, and it’s almost always the first step if you want to maintain trust when something goes wrong.
  • To break trust: deny responsibility, shift blame, gloss over. Don’t try to convince someone that their problem isn’t real. And even if someone calls you about an issue that turns out to be not your issue, help the customer get where they need to get. Lastly? Use real language. Talk to people like people. Sounding “official” never helped anyone get their bags back.

How you respond during a negative experience can greatly improve a customer’s view of you. Look at problems as an opportunity to really improve trust.

3. Inside your team

A large percentage of service calls and emails are questions and complaints, not compliments, right? And that can take a toll on staff. Customer service is a tough gig, as librarians certainly know. What can be done to increase trust between employers and customer service professionals?

  • To build trust: celebrate! Getting to a great resolution sometimes feels like a marathon since we are dealing, almost exclusively, with problems and issues. So take time to really reward, recognize, and emphasize the things about your team that are wonderful. When someone goes above and beyond, don’t miss the opportunity to point it out.
  • To maintain trust: have fair expectations. Your staff can’t fix all of the problems. Don’t expect them to. Expect them to rely on their training and on goals that are reasonable and specific to what they can accomplish.
  • To break trust: create fear. Drive your best reps away by overreacting, blaming, pointing fingers, and avoiding responsibility. They can’t be more afraid of you than of disappointing the customer. If that’s where their focus is, you’ll not only lose their trust, but your customers’ as well.

As you go through Customer Service Week, think about trust and what you’re doing to build more and break less.