Name? Account number? Zip code? Mother's maiden name? Sort of sounds like a prison movie, doesn't it? 

Well, it's not. It's the start of a pretty average call in many a call center. Why? In most cases, the call center agent hasn't been shown another way to answer a call. 

his next story illustrates why it's important for agents to gather information from callers without sounding like Wanda the Witch or Warren the Warden! 

My wallet was stolen a few months ago. Fortunately, I remembered the names of the credit cards I was carrying. Unfortunately, my wallet with all the credit cards also had my checkbook. 

My first response was to list the cards that I knew were in my wallet. I then began the daunting task of calling each of the major credit card companies to report the loss. Perhaps because of the type of work I do every day and because of the horror stories I've heard, I have become "Mrs. Perfect Customer." I don't yell, I don't belittle, and I don't get angry. I smile and try to help the call along. I'm really a good customer. 

With this in mind, I picked up the phone and made my first call to one of the credit card companies. "Hi, my name is Nancy Friedman," I said. "I'm in Orlando,Florida, and my wallet with all my credit cards has just been stolen and I wanted to report it right away." 

"NAME?" said the agent with the voice of a warden. 

I always give my name up front, as I had this time. Obviously, the agent who answered the phone didn't hear it, didn't write it down or didn't remember it. So I repeated my name and spelled it for her. (I don't like to get mail to Nancy Freeman.) 

"ACCOUNT NUMBER?" 

I thought one of us had better have a sense of humor, and I could tell it wasn't coming from the other end, so I said, "Well, I have my phone number, address and birthday memorized. I never got around to memorizing all my credit card numbers, and if you recall, my wallet with that information was stolen." 

Dead silence. Then I heard, "PHONE NUMBER?" 

Well, it went downward from there. I won't burden you with the rest of the conversation. Suffice to say, I was disappointed. There wasn't one word of sympathy or empathy from this agent. She sure didn't have what I refer to as the 'care gene.' She had a job to do and by gosh, she was going to do it and in record time, too. 

I had six credit cards in my wallet. When I called to report the loss of each one of them, none of the credit card companies acknowledged my problem. It was hard for me to believe, too. Probably the worst experience I had was when I called the bank concerning my checks. When I told my saga to the bank, the woman I spoke with asked the questions as though I had been the one who stole the wallet.

What does the behavior of the agents at the bank and the credit card companies say to me, the customer? It says that maybe I should take my business somewhere else. 

To keep customers satisfied and loyal to your company, it is crucial that an agent build rapport with every customer at the beginning of each call, whether the customer is calling to discuss a problem, a concern or an inconvenience. 

The agent who answers the call should acknowledge what the customer is saying and use the same words that the customer says, as in the following example: 

Caller: "I just lost my wallet." Agent: "Your wallet? I'm so sorry. Let me get your name and we'll see how we can help." 

Learning how to build rapport is an art, not a science.

You may recall Yul Brynner, the great actor, who appeared in the musical "The King and I" in more than 2,000 performances. He said the same words, night after night. Yet each performance was award winning. Why? Because each performance he gave was to a different audience.

I imagine he got tired of the script sometimes. Yet because he knew the audience was new each night, he made his lines sound fresh every time. 

For call center agents, the telephone is the stage and the mouthpiece is the curtain. One of the best ways agents can be sure to convey empathy is to practice the lines they say most often so that they sound different every time. 

I sympathize with agents who work in centers that receive enormous numbers of calls. But I also hear all sorts of excuses. One of the most common is: "Gee,Nancy, we have to say the same thing over and over. It gets so boring." Or "Nancy, we're limited for time for each call." Or "Our policy is to get on and off the phone as quickly as possible." 

These are excuses. Not reasons. Although an agent may say the same thing over and over again, it's probably the caller's first time asking the question. And it isn't enough for agents to know the answers. They also have to reassure customers that they're ready to help them. When customers reach call center agents, they don't care how much they know - until they know how much they care. 

# # # 

Nancy Friedman, president of Telephone Doctor, is a keynote speaker at association, franchise and corporate meetings. She is the author of eight books on customer service and sales, has appeared on Fox News, CNN, Oprah, and dozens of other radio and TV shows. You can talk with Nancy at 314-291-1012, email her at [email protected] or visit www.nancyfriedman.com.

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