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Communication in Customer Service - Top 5 Tricks

A lifetime ago, I was employed at a beautiful & popular Zoo, which had me positioned to interface with customers pretty frequently. One day I was carrying a heavy case of wine back to my office, a little boy shouted to me “What are you carrying!”. Without thinking too much about it, I cheerfully responded, “Don’t worry about it!” and carried on with my task. About 10 minutes later, the boy and his mother came into the office, **furious** that I spoke to her son so rudely and demanding that I be punished or disciplined in some way. I am not proud to report that hearing them come in, I promptly hid like a cowardly lion (Zoo jokes!), leaving my manager to clean up my mess. My manager, bless her, attempted to remedy the situation by saying “I’m sure she was trying to be funny!” (story of my life / title of my inevitable memoir), but the damage was done. Eventually my manager was able to calm the woman down (I’m sure the free Zoo tickets helped) and they went on their way. In short: My Bad Communication --> Bad Experience = Bad Customer Service. Even though my intention wasn’t cruel or negative, my thoughtless words and actions put a real damper on this unassuming family and what should have been their nice day at the Zoo. They were the customers, and they were not treated respectfully.

Moving right along from my past shame; friendly, thoughtful, and clear communication is the key to top notch customer service. After all, what is customer service if not serving as the ambassador to your organization? When you are on the front lines, you set the tone of strong customer service through communication for your guests experience and are positioned to guide, answer questions, and problem-solve on their behalf to ensure a good time while making sure your organization looks as fly as possible. Here are a few things to keep in mind to Level Up your Communication in Customer Service from Meh to Great:

1.Initiate It is a bizarre part of human culture (or perhaps just us millennials with anxiety?) to wait for the *other* person so initiate a social interaction, even if we are the ones with a question. When representing in customer service, it’s important to recognize that You are the one with answers, which therefor empowers You to start the interaction on the guests behalf. Allow yourself to be the accessible host of the situation and open the door to their question; you can never go wrong with the following:

  • “How can I help you!” (a classic for a reason)

  • “You look like you might have a question – any way I can assist?”

  • “How has ____ been treating you so far? Is there anything you need?”

2. Step Outside of Yourself, aka Forget What You Know aka Start at the Beginning When you work somewhere, typically you are there almost every day, immersed in the nuances and directions of your organization, so everything can start to feel obvious, simple or like common sense. It can be easy to forget that guests, especially those who are joining you for the first time, have no idea about any of that and are operating from a blank slate, which means they are relying on you to provide the information to get them what they need and where they need to go. When handling a request, get in the habit of stepping back from what you know and starting at the beginning to provide them the information they need, even if it feels obvious to you. What does this sound like?

  • Try not to rely on internal shorthand or jargon; most guests won’t know or understand. Don’t: “We’re an AZA Zoo.” Do: “This Zoo is part of the AZA, which stands for the Association of Zoo’s & Aquariums”.

  • When giving directions, use noteworthy descriptors as access points (colors, sizes, shapes) Don’t: “The bathroom is around the corner.” Do: “The bathroom is on your lefthand side, the blue building right around the corner from the lion exhibit.”

  • Assume they know nothing and build from there to bring them up to speed. If you have any doubts, over-deliver on details. Don’t: “Giraffe feeding hasn’t started yet.” Do: “Giraffe feeding will start in 15 minutes and go until 4. The line will start right here!”

3. Listen & Make Them Feel Heard With complaints, guests often just want to make sure their complaint is heard so they can release it and move on with their day. This is one of the more challenging pieces of customer service but a critical one – host a space to unload, apologize if necessary, offer a solution if there is one, and allow all parties to move on. This was something my manager handled masterfully - don't hide, like I did. This can sound like:

  • “I’m so sorry for the confusion on this and it's important to me that we fix it.”

  • I hear you, that sounds very frustrating. Is there anything I can do to make this better?”

  • “I understand where you’re coming from – I would be upset too and am very sorry this happened.”

It’s worth noting that this is not an excuse for the guest to be abusive to you, which is something I will address further down.

4. Find The Answer Have you ever been in that situation where you ask someone a question they don't know the answer to, so then they just…. Do nothing about it, so then neither of you know & nothing changes? Infuriating. It can be true bummer to be asked a question you don’t have the answer for, but it is Objectively Bad Customer Service to let the interaction stop there. Or worse, make something up, because that will always come back around to bite you. It's an unrealistic expectation that you’ll know everything there is to know on behalf of your org. But it is your responsibility to find the answer, so utilize the support and tools you have available and make sure you find it. The result of doing so is a gift that keeps giving; not only will you provide your guests the answer, but you will also appear to go above and beyond, and then you’ll know the answer for the future. This can sound like:

  • “No one has ever asked me that before! I don’t currently know but let’s find out!”

  • “That’s a great question that I don’t have the answer to, can I get back to you on that?”

5. Align your Response with Internal Values As the frontline ambassador for your organization, it is your sacred duty to respond in a way that is aligned with the company’s value structure and uphold the rules, to the best interest of both the guest and the organization. Providing accessible and reasonable context around the Why of rules etc. can make it easier for guests to buy in, reduce pushback, and present your org. as a thoughtful and stable place. Be empathetic but firm: “I know your child wants to see the penguins closer, but it is unsafe for you to hold them over the tank. I’m going to need you to take 2 steps back and be over the line.” (a real example!) Your actions and communication reflect the organization you are representing – it’s your responsibility to understand those rules, understand Why, and uphold them in a way that’s strong and clear.

Here is where I will briefly get up on my soapbox: I am staunchly against the toxicity that is “The Customer is Always Right”. It is my opinion that this mentality allows customers / guests to become short sighted and entitled which can result in the people providing customer service being bullied for situations and policies that are out of their own control. In these situations, you are empowered to speak up for yourself, your safety, and your right to be treated in a respectful manner. Good Customer Service includes handling customers who are out of pocket / wildin’ out / being unreasonable. Holding that boundary can sound like this:

  • “Please don’t speak to me that way – I’m doing what I can.”

  • “I’m sorry but I need you to understand that we can’t accommodate that request."

  • “That behavior is against our policy – I need you to stop.”

Final Soapbox Thoughts: It is the responsibility of the organization to back up and support their team against being treated poorly, and everyone’s responsibility as ethical consumers not to be shitty to employees.

Clear and thoughtful communication leads to top notch Customer Service and a positive experience had by all. Do you have a communication challenge or question? Submit to


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