Friday 17 July 2015

Using The Power Of Silence; Knowing when to hold back

Sometimes, there’s a lot to be said for ‘keeping it all in’. No, I don’t mean like this.

What I’m referring to is the moment when you’re trying to emphasise a point by not doing or saying anything, because you have a strong feeling (or hunch) that it’s the right thing to do. It could be anything from trying to explain a valid and alternative viewpoint to someone who is heading for trouble, to trying to get the best customer service in a situation that is potentially tenuous at best or already strained at worst. In effect, by not saying anything more than has already been said, you can turn the tide in your favour.

The ‘Express Raider’ approach to customer service (not a good idea) 

Earlier this week, I had to make a number of phone calls to various customer service departments in different companies in order to get updates on situations, and also to renew subscriptions. Only one of them delivered what I could call a timely and praiseworthy service, with a warm telephone manner. In effect, they went the extra mile and I was given extra discount on the renewal with next to no fuss. As a thank you, I asked that person to send me an email or give me an email address of a manager or superior so I could feed this back, for them going the extra distance meant a lot to me. I do this as I’ve always felt that great service should be given precedence and hopefully, rewarded in some way.

But I only do this occasionally.


Because in the main, my experiences of customer service on the phone, varies from good to diabolical. Or more pointedly, it can be like playing the 1986 arcade game, Express Raider.

As you may have surmised from the short premise above, our hero (or heroine) has to battle their way from one side of the train to the other, in order to get to the loot at the end. There are various villains, thwarters and other incumbents on the train, who are resolute in stopping you from doing this.

But ultimately, persistence pays off at the end. Providing of course, that you can be smart, resilient and patient enough to reach the end of the game.

That’s what it feels like when you’re going through a bad customer service experience. It’s like you’re fighting to be heard, whilst being switched around various levels and scenarios. It’s painful, potentially embarrassing and unpleasant.

The embarrassment can come from somehow feeling like you’ve done something wrong by staying on the phone for so long whilst being seemingly ignored, and also by repeatedly ringing back and feeling the same, only it’s more amplified with each successive call. In effect, it’s akin to feeling rejected.

For the record, I’ve never shouted at anyone when ringing these departments, cause I’ve worked in a similar role myself (more on that later). But it can become a test of endurance, when it should be as smooth as hypothetically driving to a branch of the place (or a storefront) and talking it over in person.

Bend Me, Shape Me, Anyway You Want Me

In particular, one of the aforementioned occasions had me switched four times in 20 minutes, and I repeated the details I gave before the phone was picked up by a human operator (the automated voice system prompts are easy to follow in most instances, and that’s what i initially had to deal with each time) twice. After this, I then asked the third and fourth person i dealt with, to read the notes that the previous people had left on the screen, back to me.

I was told that there were no notes left on the system. No one had bothered to make any notes of any previous calls and it was effectively a time wasted scenario both for the company and me.

I’ve worked in a call centre in my younger days, and I wouldn’t be able to do to a customer what I’d been through here. I don’t understand how that level of interaction is allowed, or even deemed acceptable.

In any event, I laughed (half-heartedly) and then said I will ring back in 40 minutes and if my original call hasn’t been monitored or found anywhere in note form, I will file a complaint and no longer use this company’s services. I also added that this really isn’t what I wanted to do but I will do it nonetheless. I then said nothing more, and stayed on the phone.

The silence on the other end was akin to listening to John Cage’s 4′ 33″, only it wasn’t as atmospheric and nor did it last as long. It was the longest 15 seconds (approximately) of dead air I’ve heard in a while. There was some paper shuffled, but I can’t be sure it was paper. It could even have been the operator’s soul.

The ‘sound of silence’ approach above did the trick. The operator told me that someone from management would call me back, so I took a name and team details, and pithily (but politely) said thanks. Not only did I receive a call-back within 20 minutes, but I received a lengthy apology and details on the person who was responsible for taking my original call. I was also told that action would be taken against this person, and that I was entitled to file a complaint if I still wished and that it would be deemed actionable. And to think that all I did was to stop talking, and keep hanging on in silence for a little longer than usual, twenty minutes earlier.

End Of The Line

The plethora of conclusions one can draw, are that there are potential problems either/or in the training, monitoring and ultimately the managing of staff and their output, as well as their expectations of the job at the call centre. For instance, if you’re feeling like ‘the hamster on a wheel’ and there is not enough personal satisfaction in the role, it’s likely you won’t care enough to deal with a slew of queries, no matter how simple, time and time again. You may start to bristle at work, and look for shortcuts within the system. And eventually you just won’t care at all.

But the other main conclusion to draw is one I’ve long suspected is the real ‘fuel to the fire’ in these sorts of situations, which is saying too much. But having to courage to not talk as much and even keeping silent at the right moment for longer than you think is possible can yield a remarkable turnaround.

However, it’s a challenging thing to do, and can be difficult to gauge. The tension you can feel, is palpable. But it can mean the difference between getting a positive, affirmative result and missing the mark by a fraction, all because it felt too hard to keep quiet for just that little while longer. All it requires, is a smidgeon of extra self-restraint..

A beefeater, any day of the year

If he can do it,  then I can do it.

And so can you. 


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