Is Customer Service the New Therapy?

When Kate Lacroix was driving alone from Seattle to Vancouver for a funeral, she called AT&T to get an international wireless plan. By the time she arrived, not only did she have a new phone plan, she also had a refreshed outlook on life and death.

“I was feeling lonely and wistful,” she said, “so I shared, ‘I’m headed to a funeral for a person who was a stranger but became a friend.’” The customer service agent said, “Well, everyone’s a stranger before they’re a friend.”

Ms. Lacroix appreciated his thoughtful response. “It was something a therapist might say — wise, grounding, and it didn’t close the circle, like, ‘Sorry for your loss.’ It widened the circle at a time I was feeling super tender.” They talked for an hour and 37 minutes.

“What started out as a call to get an international plan became a help line,” said Ms. Lacroix, 44, the owner of a pantry-building service called Stocked. She goes to therapy regularly, and this exchange felt familiar. “It felt similar to a therapy session because it’s an unbiased person who’s taking time to help illuminate or provide relief,” she said.

“Many people seek out therapy for someone to listen to them,” said Rachel Kazez, a licensed clinical social worker in Chicago. And in the digital age, when many people are craving human interaction, unloading on an anonymous customer service representative who is obligated to listen has a certain appeal.

Some people who could benefit from more formal therapy avoid going because they believe there is a stigma around mental health issues. Others report factors like cost and time. Impromptu sessions during customer service calls avoid those concerns.

Of course, using customer service in this way is best for those who may not really need professional therapy, but just want someone to listen., a senior living marketplace, frequently receives calls that take a therapeutic turn. One caller was looking for care for her husband with dementia. “She began to discuss her recent diagnosis with breast cancer,” said Arthur Bretschneider, the chief executive and founder of Seniorly. “It became clear that she was so overwhelmed with her husband’s needs, she wasn’t taking care of her own,” he said. Now she calls Seniorly once a week. “We left an open line of communication for her to get angry, hear a really corny joke, or find resources.”

In customer service, being easy to talk to goes a long way. “Reps often have welcoming voices and are good listeners, and that can make us feel like opening up,” said Ms. Kazez, who founded All Along, a service that helps people find therapists via phone or email consultations.

Listening is one of the secrets at Zappos, which is frequently recognized for its outstanding customer service. “If they want to talk, we want to listen,” even if it has nothing to do with shoes, said Rob Siefker, the company’s senior director of customer service. “We don’t set out with the intention of being anyone’s counselor, but one of our biggest metrics for evaluation is whether we made an emotional connection with every customer. Sometimes creating those connections means talking about personal stuff,” he explained.

“We teach our team to listen for a customer’s unstated needs, alongside the obvious needs, to find the best solution. Our training emphasizes actively listening,” he said. Ms. Kazez said these are foundational skills she’d use as a therapist, but isn’t surprised the customer service industry uses them, too.

Safelite Solutions, the claim management arm of Safelite AutoGlass, also emphasizes empathy when it comes to customer service. “Traditional contact center management places too much emphasis on average talk time. In our operation, the emotional needs of the customer take precedence over the transactional needs of the business,” said Brian O’Mara, a vice president of customer service strategy. “We capture a more comprehensive claim that way.”

Once, a Safelite Solutions agent learned that a customer was contemplating suicide. “This policyholder was distraught having been in an accident that claimed the life of another person,” Mr. O’Mara recalled. “We listened, showed compassion, and kept the caller engaged while seeking assistance from professionals. It was an instinctive response by our representative rather than a policy or procedural approach.” The agent stayed on the phone until law enforcement arrived at the customer’s location.

Ms. Kazez theorized that the anonymity of a customer service call is one of the factors that encourages callers to open up. “A customer service agent is perfect because you won’t meet them or talk to them again. Your confessions feel safe with them,” she said. Some callers seem to see customer service lines as free help lines for all kinds of problems.

That is often the case with the organic baby food company Little Spoon. The employees on its customer care team are parents themselves, and “we encourage them to relate to and share with our customers,” said Lisa Barnett, the company’s co-founder. The chat or text conversations frequently shift from, “Where’s my order?” to “topics they didn’t want to ask their friends, families or partners about, but it’s a lot easier when you’re talking to someone who’s anonymous but can relate,” she said.

“We had a woman open up about feeling she made the biggest mistake of her life by starting a family,” Ms. Barnett recalled. The person she was talking to said she had felt the same way.

“We never give advice, but this care team member said, ‘when I was going through this, I went to a therapist and was told we have a ton of hormones going through our body at this time, you aren’t yourself. Here’s an article that was really enlightening for me.’”

Conversations like those were happening so often, Little Spoon started Is This Normal, a platform for parents to ask questions and read advice from experts and stories from other parents.

Kurt Schroeder, chief experience officer at the customer experience consultancy Avtex, thinks these companies are taking the right approach. “The customer has two needs: the functional need — what they’re originally calling about — and the emotional need — wanting to feel validated, understood, recognized, supported, honored, etc.,” he explained. “Don’t try to avoid the conversation. Instead recognize, validate and advocate for the customer. It is only when the functional and emotional needs are both met that the customer feels the most satisfied and engaged with the company.”

He believes customer service reps should be trained in what is known as “emotional intelligence” — the ability to be aware of emotions and to handle them with empathy.

[Do you have emotional intelligence? Try this quiz.]

There are dangers in treating customer service like therapy, however. “Providing advice beyond what the product or service does can and will create risk for the organization,” Mr. Schroeder warned.

Also, no matter how therapeutic the conversation, customer service agents are not trained therapists; they cannot provide the tools an actual counselor can.

“It might help tide a customer in need over, but the longer someone patches over a need, the longer they go without finding a more permanent and effective way to meet the need, the worse the issue can get,” Ms. Kazez said. “They may be doing O.K. enough but they’re not really thriving.”

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