Updated: Nov 12, 2022
I can remember it well. I was in charge of a contact center a few jobs ago and we were having our second outage in as many days. After service had been restored, I got a call from a customer. It just so happened to be from a customer to whom I had issued a service credit just a day earlier in hopes of restoring his confidence in our company.
Hearing of his disappointment for the second day in a row, I fumbled around in my managerial bag of tricks for the right words to say along with the appropriate level of compensation for the continued issues. I desperately wanted to restore the customer’s hope and trust in our service and to keep them from canceling — if at all possible.
When I began to make my offer, the customer responded with something like:
“Look. I don’t want your money. I depend on your service to run my business so I need it to work. I need to know what’s going on and I need some assurance from you that this issue is being corrected once and for all.”
Up to this point, it was my assumption that most customers were looking for some form of compensation when our service failed them. But what I learned from this encounter was that, more than anything, customers want a level of transparency that tells them what happened and what we’re going to do to prevent it from happening again. Transparency from a company builds and maintains customer trust and can often help to weather the inevitable storms that will arise.
The Fear of Oversharing
It’s impossible to talk about transparency without addressing the topic of oversharing. If you’re new in the world of handling escalated customer issues, it’s a good idea to talk through some scenarios. Tell me if any of these fears around the topic of transparency sound familiar:
If I give the customer too much information, can they use it to sue our company?
If I tell the customer what happened, could I potentially get in trouble with the “legal department” and lose my job?
What if the customer posts the information I give them on social media and it goes viral?
What if the customer cancels their service because of something I said or didn’t say?
I’m sure there are more concerns to list here. But let me just acknowledge that these are all valid concerns. This definitely adds a level of stress and pressure to our jobs, doesn’t it?
Depending on the nature of your business, there may indeed be things that you can and cannot say to customers. That being said, when you’re pulling out all of the stops in hopes of keeping the business relationship alive, you may have more freedom to share than you realize.
Transparency is critical in these situations. It’s a key ingredient in building a meaningful connection with your customers, and it may be the difference between keeping and losing their business.
5 Tips To Improved Transparency
With the idea of finding the right balance between transparency and oversharing and building strong, authentic connections with your customers, here are five tried and true tips that will help.
1. Work within the parameters of what you can and can’t say
The amount of information you’re allow to share with a customer may vary widely depending on the type of organization — whether you work in government, a publicly traded company, or a start up. In some cases, the legal department may need to vet every communication that goes out. In less strict environments, it’s still never a bad idea to get a second opinion on how and what to communicate to customers in sensitive situations. Regardless of how little or how much you can say, there’s still a lot you can accomplish as you care for your customers.
2. Put your name on the communication
Communicating with customers as a faceless brand doesn’t usually exude transparency. And where we’re communicating directly with customers in tense situations, it can be tempting to leave our name off of that signature. Resist that urge. When you introduce yourself by name to the customer you make a human to human connection. You become the face of your brand to that customer.
Remember, transparency doesn’t happen without that human connection. I know there are creepers out there but the vast majority of customers simply want their problem solved. Regardless of how escalated they may get, they will leave you alone once that’s accomplished.
In the case of mass communication like a marketing message or a letter from someone in the C-suite, the person signing that message should also be available to connect individually with customers. That goes a long way toward proving to customers that you’re being transparent.
3. Apologize to the customer
It’s okay to apologize to customers. The focus of an apology isn’t necessarily to implicate you for something you’ve done to the customer. The focus should be on an empathic response, and a heart-felt apology can help achieve this. “I’m so sorry for the hardship this has caused you” or “I apologize for this situation we find ourselves in” may work.
Certainly if you wronged the customer, a more direct apology may be in order. Regardless, this apology demonstrates to the customer that you’re right there with them, identifying with what they’re going through.
4. Give the customer the right amount of information
Have you ever asked someone to explain something to you and they proceeded to give you more information than you could possibly need or understand? This often happens when I ask highly technical folks to explain why something happened. Rather than under sharing or oversharing, your goal should be to give the customer just the right amount of information.
Your response should generally begin with a summary of what happened, tailored to their level of interest and expertise. It should then be followed up with a plan of action (wherever possible) so the customer understands that something is being done about the issue.
This is a great time to communicate an openness to questions. If you haven’t provided enough information, the customer should be free to ask for more information. A willingness to answer questions with thoughtful responses instills confidence that we’ve got nothing to hide and that you’re sincere about working to prevent this from happening again. And if you’re not the expert on the topic, it’s perfectly acceptable to say, “Let me find out the answer and get back to you on this.”
5. Walk alongside the customer until it’s resolved
Transparency isn’t a set it and forget it sort of thing. It’s not a matter of communicating, assuming everything is fixed and moving on. Instead, it’s about walking with the customer and giving them frequent updates as you see their issue through to resolution.
After your first interaction with them, you’ve likely sparked a glimmer of hope as they’ve realized there are human beings behind this faceless brand. Then, as you authentically stick with them, communicating and connecting along the way, that spark grows into a fire, not only restoring the relationship, but potentially creating a customer and fan for life.
As I conclude, I’ve personally gone through this process more times than I could ever hope to count. Does it work 100% of the time? No. Sometimes I show up too late in the journey to make a difference, or the damage is too great for the customer to stick around, or my words or compensation offers simply fall flat — and this is both in attempts at transparency in a one-to-one and one to many setting. In adverse circumstances, the hurdles are often too great. How can you blame that customer whose livelihood (at least partly) depends on your service working?
I will say, however, that there’s nothing more rewarding in this profession than being transparent with a customer and seeing a lasting relationship blossom as a result. If you’re not already practicing this with your customers, give it a shot and see what difference it makes for you. And if you have any tips you’d add to my list, leave a comment below. We’d love to hear from you.
Jeremy Watkin is a CX leader, contact center veteran, and Director of Customer Service and CX at NumberBarn. He is an avid learner, and is constantly giving back to the CX and Customer Service community through his writings. You can see his work featured on Customer Think, Customer Service Life, and now CX Accelerator!