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(originally published by Booz & Company)


When It Comes to Customer Service, Don’t Say No

That’s a lot of bad outcomes just because of one word. So, of course, it only makes sense that you’d want your people to avoid using it as much as possible. Reps need to find a way to both be truthful (because the answer in many cases is, unfortunately, still no), but in a way that doesn’t trigger the negative emotional reaction and all the bad outcomes that come along with it. This is where the use of positive language can make such a big difference....

That strategy is exactly what Osram Sylvania has developed with their frontline contact center reps. But rather than try to get all their reps to master the art of positive language and completely rewire their brains about how to react when talking to customers about every imaginable scenario, the company has created a simple tool that helps reps avoid negative emotional reactions in only the situations that occur most frequently.

They started by analyzing their highest-volume incoming customer requests—the issues that come up most often—and then they listened to how frontline reps responded when it became apparent that the customer was not going to get what they wanted. What they discovered—and we think this is very likely similar for most companies—was that the top ten most frequently occurring negative scenarios represented approximately 80 percent of their total volume of “no” situations.

So if they could just teach their reps how to use a simple response substitution when these situations came up—try saying this instead of saying that—not for every customer issue, but for these ten specifically, it would have a significant impact on a customer’s interpretation of effort and a positive impact on future loyalty. This is all presented in the form of a simple chart that every rep has pinned up in front of them at their workstation....

In Osram’s case, instead of saying, “We don’t have that item in stock right now,” their cheat sheet instructs them to say “We will have availability on [date] and I can get that out to you immediately once it comes in.”

The rep acts as the customer’s advocate—she’s the person who’s on your side and is doing everything she can to make this an easy, low-effort experience. Sure, she can’t create stock that doesn’t exist and hand it to you over the phone, but here’s what she can do—create a positive conversation that moves forward rather than backward. It’s a seemingly tiny little thing, but think about how these situations become amplified over thousands and thousands of customer interactions every day, mitigating the corrosive effect of negativity and its impact on customer loyalty. It all adds up and has a meaningful impact on customers.

Osram Sylvania discovered that while there might have been a case for teaching their reps how to use positive language on every single imaginable interaction, even just providing a simple tool that covers only the ten situations that come up most frequently still had a markedly positive result. Once the tool was in place, escalation rates (the percentage of calls that required the intervention of a supervisor) decreased by about half, and the overall Customer Effort Score reported by its customers improved by 18.5 percent, putting them well above average for similar B2B organizations.

Again, this isn’t just about being nice to customers. Nor is it just about using positive words. It works because Osram Sylvania teaches its reps the best way to react in the most common situations where we are very likely to be entering into the high-effort zone, since saying no (as well as words like “can’t,” “won’t,” “don’t,” etc.) is such a huge effort trigger....

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The Reviewer

  1. Lewis P. Carbone is founder and president of Experience Engineering Inc., an experience management firm. He is also author of Clued In: How to Keep Customers Coming Back Again and Again (Prentice-Hall, 2004) and a seminal article in Marketing Management, “Engineering Customer Experiences” (PDF).

This Book

  1. The Effortless Experience: Conquering the New Battleground for Customer Loyalty (Penguin Portfolio, 2013) by Matthew Dixon, Nick Toman, and Rick DeLisi

    Matthew Dixon is executive director of strategic research at CEB (formerly the Corporate Executive Board), a member-based advisory company. He is also author of The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation (with Brent Adamson; Penguin Portfolio, 2011).

    Nick Toman oversees the global research operation and product development for CEB’s Sales Leadership Council. His articles, “The End of Solution Sales” and “Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers” appeared in Harvard Business Review.

    Rick DeLisi is a senior director of advisory services in the sales and service practice of CEB. Previously, he was director of corporate communications for Independence Air.

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