Dexcomm Blog

Improving Customer Service Listening Skills

August 02, 2018

 

Customer Service Representative

How many times have you found yourself repeating a customer service issue several times to the same agent? 

 

I believe that most people in our country are poor listeners.  It is my experience that listening is hard work and is crucially important to providing outstanding customer service to our customers. My goal for this series is to share the tools for better listening and to motivate you to improve their listening skills and to practice better listening habits.

You may have heard many times to look at the speaker, maybe even to look them in the eye.  My wife often becomes frustrated with me when we talk because I don’t make eye contact.  Perhaps you remember the scene from the movie Ocean's 11 when Brad Pitt is giving advice to Matt Damon and says, "Don't look up, they'll know you are lying. Don't look down; they'll know you have something to hide." Brad Pitt was right.

Scientifically, looking up indicates that you are accessing the creative part of your brain. When listening to a speaker you may look up as you are processing what the speaker said and trying to understand the message or mentally creating your response.  It might be a lie, as Brad Pitt referred to, or it might be an opinion, which is certainly not lying.  It can even be the next step in the conversation.  But in neither case are you looking at the speaker.  In neither case are you focused on what the speaker is saying.  In neither case are you truly listening. 

Looking at a speaker has many important attributes.  Non-verbal communication can be as much as 85% of a conversation.  Some of that 85% is heard such as a tone of voice, volume, timbre, anxiety, anger and frustration. In many occasions the communication comes not from verbal but from non-verbal signals; body language, posture, deportment.  For example, when was the last time you had a misunderstanding occur in an email exchange?  The chances are good that it was not long ago.  The written word, even carefully written, rarely matches the complete meaning of a face to face encounter.

It is nearly impossible to truly understand a speaker’s message without giving them your full attention.  Paying attention requires looking at them, listening with your ears and with your eyes.  At its best, listening is a full body experience, including the mind, heart, gut, eyes and, of course ears.

Listening Skills

The sad truth is that at home we learn terrible talking and listening habits.  We talk and listen with the TV on, music playing, and more than one conversation going on at a time, all with children running by playing. We talk as we walk away from our listener, sometimes heading to another room. We talk as we turn around to get something out of a cabinet. We talk as we pick our clothes out of the closet. How is our listener supposed to hear us as we present these many challenges to listening? The real question is how, as a listener, do you overcome these challenges?

It is easy to say, “turn off the TV or music.” But that rarely happens and communication suffers greatly for it. A lack of communication at home can lead to an unhappy household and even in some cases, broken relationships.

In a business setting, a listener sometimes has obligations that do not exist in the non-business world. Employees may be responsible for information covered at a meeting. The information could be vital to their safety or job performance. It could be vital to their successful evaluation. Workers rarely rise up the management ladder if they do a poor job of listening.

Yet the unhappy reality is that most of us are bad listeners. We rarely give the speaker our full attention. How long has it been since someone checked their email in a meeting? How long has it been since you were speaking to someone and they broke off the conversation to respond to someone else? 

The first lesson I will suggest is to keep track and notice when these things happen in any environment, but especially at work. Notice especially when you are the guilty party, but also notice those around you. How often is communication hampered by this failure to pay attention? The answer is that it is too often for great communication in our society. As a result, when communication suffers, customer service suffers.

My hope is that the comments from my previous blog inspired you to think about your own listening behavior. Most of us have great room for improvement as listeners, so today we will cover the fundamentals of listening.

The fundamentals are actually pretty simple. There are only four parts of listening which are very important to remember and include in your daily habits. These will help you to develop excellent listening skills. They are:

Pay Attention – Focus all of your attention on the speaker; not just your eyes and ears, as mentioned previously, listening is an entire body experience.

Encourage – Let the speaker know you are interested. Give encouraging nods and hand gestures signaling “tell me more” showing you are 

interested in what the speaker is saying. My experience is that everyone has something valuable to share; even or perhaps especially, people very different than me. Encouraging a speaker may seem challenging at times as their topic seems to stray from our personal areas of interest, but failing to encourage a speaker can cause you to miss many of life’s wonders.

Question – Ask the speaker “you” questions, as in questions about their topic. A “you” question focuses completely on the speaker and their point of view. Unlike engaging in a conversation, when one is listening no “me” questions are allowed. Me questions would be those that share your point of view or experience. This step ensures that you understand fully what the speaker is saying.

Reflect – Tell the speaker what you heard. Don’t add your spin(again, not a “me” focus, strictly a “you” focus allowed here), just repeat in your words the point you think the speaker was trying to make. They will let you know if you got it or not.

Using the four fundamental parts of listening; pay attention, encourage, question and reflect will help you to be a good listener. Then, add the energy and determination needed to do it right. That is all it takes to set you apart from the crowd. It is much harder than you think.  Please give it a try and let me know how your listening improves.

In a previous blog I covered the four parts to listening. The four parts include pay attention, encourage, question and reflect and are true and valid for any circumstance.  However, there are special challenges that occur when listening to someone other than face to face.  Formerly these occasions occurred with simple telephone calls.  Today, webinars and teleconferences frequently occur in a business environment. All of these occasions require special focus and concentration.

Answering Agent

Listening on the phone is a greater challenge than listening in person, primarily because up to 93% of communication is non-verbal and a great deal of communication is lost when on a phone call, teleconference, Webinar or similar listening experience.  As before, start with paying attention. You cannot look at the other party, but you can avoid looking for distractions.  In our industry, the operator sits at a computer workstation all day.  If they are looking at their computer screen they are more likely to be focused on their call than if they are looking at their neighbor.

Many people (especially teenagers) in the world today pride themselves on their ability to multi-task.  They can listen to music, text, and check on their friends via Facebook, all while they are “doing their homework.”  That may be possible for teenagers but it is not possible for an operator to be engaged with their caller while they are multi-tasking.  The same is true whether you work in a call center or simply talking on the telephone.  Computers, televisions, music, conversations, or distractions of any kind should not come between you and your caller.

In previous blogs we have covered the parts of listening and the extra challenges of listening over the phone. Once the basics of listening are understood, it is time to practice.

On my quest to become a better listener, I discovered a few drills I would like to share that are excellent for improving listening skills. A couple of years ago I read Erika Anderson’s Growing Great Employees, which I highly recommend especially the first chapter devoted to listening. Many of the listening exercises or drills that I share are credited to Growing Great Employees.

Drill 1

You need a companion and a topic that you can speak enthusiastically on for a few minutes.
One person is the speaker, the other is the listener.  The speaker talks for one minute about their topic while the listener actively IGNORES the speaker.  Do everything but walk away or touch the speaker to avoid listening to them. Do not say anything or respond to the speaker in any way, ignoring the speaker completely. After a few minutes reverse the roles. Once both participants have tried both listening and speaking roles, reflect on what each of you felt like during the drill.

When I have led sessions using this drill there have been many reactions from the participants.  Usually there is a lot of laughter after completion of the drill, so I believe it is not too cruel to the speaker to be completely ignored for one minute. Everyone has agreed that it made them more aware of the importance of looking at the speaker and that as a speaker it is very frustrating to be ignored.

Two things stand out to me after speaking to participants in the drill: 

  1. The listener actually heard some of what the speaker had to say.  Non-scientific estimates suggest there is a 50-60% success in the communication. While that is clearly poor communication, it is better than might be expected when someone is focused on ignoring the speaker.
  2. The other outcome is that frequently the listener is as frustrated as the speaker.  The listener wants to say something and have a hard time not speaking for a minute.

I really hope you try this drill with a friend.  It has had positive long term effects for me.  Today, I frequently catch myself when I am doing a poor job of listening.  Sometimes (not too often, fortunately) I realize I am using some of the techniques I used when I was the listener in this drill.  Shameful! The good news is that it has definitely made me more aware of paying attention to the speaker.

How many of you remember these words of wisdom when you were learning a sport as a child,“keep your eye on the ball”? Whether the game is baseball, golf or many other sports, intense focus on a small ball is essential to success.

Phone Skills

Intense focus.
When was the last time you listened with intense focus?  When was the last time you were so involved in listening you failed to notice the passage of time or the passage of the world around you?

Do you want to be the best in your field? Just like keeping your eye on the ball, intense focus on listening is essential to success in serving customers. Listening skills are essential to success in nearly every business endeavor.

Previously I asked you to perform a listening exercise which required you to ignore the speaker. Today I am going to suggest another drill for improving customer service that will teach the importance of having excellent listening skills.  This time the focus is on encouraging the speaker.

As before, perform this drill with a friend.  Each chooses a topic of great interest that can be spoken passionately about for several minutes.

The speaker will talk about their chosen topic for 1 minute.  The listener will encourage them in every way possible, without speaking.  Use hand gestures, body language, anything you can think of to let the speaker know you are interested in what they have to say.

After one minute, switch roles.  After you are finished, talk about the experience.  How difficult was it to listen without the opportunity to respond?  How did the speaker feel about the encouragement from the listener?

As with the prior drill, participants always express a genuine frustration at not being able to carry on a conversation – that is, that the listener cannot talk.  My observation is that we are so used to speaking and so uncomfortable with listening that when placed in a situation where only listening is required it is a real challenge.

Burger King built a marketing campaign around the slogan “Have it your way.”  In an effort to set themselves apart from other fast food restaurants they were making the statement: “we will listen to you and give you what you want”.  There are two parts to that promise: first, we will listen and second, we will act on your wishes.

PhoneListening is crucially important, whether to customers, friends, family or your spouse.  But listening is just the beginning.  In the customer service industry, listening is not worth much if you fail to process and respond to what you hear.

How well do you listen?  That is a relevant question to ask yourself every day.  But another relevant question is: How well do I respond to what I hear?

Have you ever eaten at a Subway?  Their operating model is different than most other fast food restaurants.  You tell the sandwich artist exactly how you want your sandwich prepared and they prepare it as you watch.  This model would seem to result in a perfect sandwich every time.

I happen to eat at Subway four or five times a week, something I have done for a number of years.  I listen to the orders of the patrons around me and I watch the food being prepared.  If I were not already a skeptic, I would be astonished at the number of mistakes being made.  It is a rare trip to a Subway where I do not observe a communication gap between the customer and the employee.  While the problem is sometimes the fault of the Subway employee, more often the problem is due to the fact that the customer is on their cell phone while placing their order.  Or distracted by talking to the person they are with.  Or while listening to their iPod.  Or a dozen other distractions.

The unfortunate reality is that communication requires two, or more, parties to be focused on the conversation.  Too often one party is distracted.  The result is imperfect communication.  At Subway, the result is simply a sandwich prepared in a manner different than the customer desires.  What about at your place of business?  What happens when a conversation fails?  Could it result in the loss of a customer’s business?  In an emergency room, could the result be the loss of a patient’s life?

Communication without distraction is rare in our world today.  If we are in the customer service business we must work hard to overcome the distractions, use our listening skills and be present in every conversation we have with our customers. Focus on the task of doing our jobs, which is to make the customer happy, in spite of challenges presented to us by our customers.

Want to learn about how Dexcomm, specifically, can improve your call handling with customer service? Visit our services page and read about how we can help you!


Dexcomm is a Louisiana-based corporation that provides answering services to businesses and service agencies across the United States. We have been open since 1954, employ a staff of roughly 50 people, and our average client retention rate is 10+ years.

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Read More About The Author: Jamey Hopper

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