Tough Customers? No Sweat!

Singaporeans love sounding off about poor service, but don’t make great customers themselves. Two award-winning customer service officers share experiences on dealing with difficult customers.

“My wife is comfortable with the way I talk. If you are not comfortable, then you do not service me!” Hearing this in a loud, brutish voice would intimidate most customer service officers (CSOs).

But Ms Lee Hsui Jane (below), 31, did something most people would not: she parroted her client’s way of speaking.

The former career consultant at Central Singapore Community Development Council (CDC) was making a point. When the man objected to her raising her voice, she said: “Sorry, I’d like to relate to you. I need you to hear me.”

Hearing how he sounded made him change his tone and adopt Ms Lee’s usual pleasant manner instead.
Tough Customers? No Sweat!
Award-winning CSO Lee Hsui Jane has met many difficult customers. She advises other CSOs to keep calm and take the opportunity to build trust in such situations.
Now Assistant Centre Manager for Employment Services at the career centre, she has met many demanding and unreasonable job-seekers.

It is important to keep calm and build trust, especially with the most challenging customers, she says.

Once, a client made repeated trips to the CDC despite securing a job. He wanted to quit as he could not afford transport fares to work and requested for CDC help.

Ms Lee reassured him that the CDC could assist if she could confirm with the employer that he was gainfully employed. At this point, the client slammed the table and raised his voice. He was angry as he thought he might lose his job if the employer knew he was seeking financial assistance.

Even as he got louder, Ms Lee refrained from getting male officers to intervene. She had promised to be the key person handling his case.

“If I were to get another officer in, it would be like a bodyguard staring at him, and I didn’t want to breach the trust.” So she made sure not to appear scared, though she was, and even offered a cup of Milo to calm him down.

CSOs should be flexible enough to offer alternative solutions. For this case, they reached a compromise when Ms Lee suggested the client call his employer on speakerphone.

“Just to clarify about your job; you need not even let the person know that I’m around,” she explained. With his job and payment details confirmed, Ms Lee was able to provide the necessary interim assistance.

Mdm Shaik Amina, 56, also meets difficult customers as an Environmental Health Officer with the National Environment Agency.

Checking for mosquito breeding sites requires that she enter the homes of many reluctant residents.

Some refuse to answer the door. “I know they are inside, but we cannot keep knocking because it’s not nice,” she says. So she would return another day or inform her superiors to send a notice letter.

Sometimes, residents criticise the need for inspection and comment on unrelated matters. “I let them say whatever they want first, then politely explain the purpose of my visit. If they have any requests, I will try to just do them.”

Why are some customers so confrontational? Mdm Shaik Amina says “the resident feels that they may be fined. $200 is a big sum to them.”

Central Singapore CDC’s Ms Lee says:
People are frustrated either because their expectations are not met or they are really at their wit’s end.
Even pleasant customers can be perplexing. Faced with an amiable client who was “clueless” about what job she wanted, building rapport and a stroke of luck helped.

“Usually when customers say ‘anything’, I will joke with them: ‘If you don’t want to be a cleaner, how about being a dishwasher?’ We try to play around with words to lighten the mood.”

The client, a Mandarin-speaking cleaner with limited English skills, had mentioned she liked to talk. While chatting, Ms Lee came upon a sales promoter position in her jobs database. She was excited to share this opportunity, but the client was afraid to fail the interview. In the end, Ms Lee managed to convince her to go. “The employer liked her so much that she got the job instantly. She’s a very friendly person to begin with.”

Since being promoted, Ms Lee no longer handles clients directly. She has this advice for her staff: “What I have learnt is to always be tactful, and always relate myself to the customer with my own expectations. For myself, I expect to be heard, understood and surprised: Can they exceed my expectations and go the extra mile?”
    Mar 16, 2011
    Siti Maziah Masramli
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