What is the most annoying thing you can hear from a customer services representative? Chances are, you have your own examples of unhelpful, obstructive or rude behaviour that put you off contacting the company again. For me, an example that stands out is ‘I understand’.

A few years ago, France Telecom instructed all of its call centre operators to listen to customers’ complaints and concerns, and then respond by saying ‘I understand’. It must have seemed like a simple, box-ticking method of building rapport with the customer by showing that the company as a whole cared, and did so consistently across team members.

In practice, and rather predictably, issuing a standardised response to individual grievances produced the opposite effect. Instead of feeling acknowledged, customers were left uncertain of whether they’d even be heard. The response ‘I understand’ by itself offered nothing. And worse, it meant that the company’s employees made no attempt to step into the customer’s world at all, to meet them in a real interaction. Instead of creating empathy, ‘I understand’ effectively became a way of silencing the customer: disastrous for a call centre.

The value of the human touch in customer service is particularly up for discussion now that Artificial Intelligence promises to automate many of the interactions that customers have with companies. Already, it’s possible to consume products and services without dealing directly with any person to do so, and reducing manpower has positive cost implications for businesses as well. However, separating employees from customers is likely to carry a big hidden cost.

Right now, it’s easy to observe that the most innovative companies rely on the direct interactions they have with customers. Truly understanding what people think of you as a service provider is about developing the insights into your practice that can help you improve on them. It’s the other half of the picture, which only the customer has.  

Truly understanding what your customers think of your brand and your business – and even of you – provides the data you can use to see where there’s room for improvement. These are the insights that can help you prototype and innovate, and they only come from asking your customers directly and then listening carefully to the answer. It’s an opportunity to open yourself up to criticism, which is scary. It’s also an opportunity to use that feedback to fail fast, iterate around your work and keep improving.

Making it personal with your staff is key to iterating around your work as a leader. When it comes to the customer, making it personal is the key to relationships that last. The latest eBook in our series is about how to work with your customers to drive change that works for everyone.

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