Yesterday morning, I had a 10:00am appointment and left a few minutes early in order to mail a package at the post office. Since time was an issue, I was glad to see only one person ahead of me at the counter. As I waited, I overheard the customer talking with the postal employee about her busy weekend, her husband's travel schedule, and her plans for the upcoming Fourth of July holiday.
Generally speaking, these types of conversations are positive because they establish rapport between employees and customers. Rapport precedes trust, which is required of relationships that inspire loyalty, future spending, and referrals-all of which are good for business.
But problems arise when these conversations negatively impact waiting customers. In my case, I was mindful of my impending appointment and would have appreciated the postal employee steering the conversation toward a conclusion. Sure, I could have cleared my throat or sighed loudly to draw attention to the delay, but this should not be the customer's dilemma to solve. Employees must assertively manage these types of conversations.
Rather than placate a talkative customer by listening to her or, worse, encourage her by asking open-ended questions or offering their own commentary (while other customers wait in line or on hold), employees should take steps to assertively manage the conversation, such as:
Express genuine interest in the customer. This may seem counter-intuitive (i.e., Why invite conversation with a customer if it may get out of hand?) but when employees initiate the dialogue, besides appearing interested and engaged, they establish control of the conversation. Doing so may include asking a question such as, "How is your day going?" Most customers will respond appropriately with a brief reply recognizing that the question is not intended to be an invitation to monopolize the employee's (or waiting customers') valuable time.
Control periods of silence by restating relevant information.Again, initiating the dialogue during the interaction cedes control of the conversation to the service provider. At the post office, this might include repeating information pertaining to parcel measurements, weight, shipping methods, delivery time frames, pricing/service options, etc. For example, "Shipping the package first class, it's expected to arrive within 2-3 business days. In addition to first class postage, would you like to add any additional services such as insurance or delivery confirmation?"
Summarize the conversation by repeating back the customer's order. Aside from reassuring customers, this provides a subtle cue that the exchange is winding down. Effective restaurant servers do this well: "So, that's a large pizza with half pepperoni and mushroom and half Italian sausage. Is that correct?"
Conclude the conversation by asking a question such as, "Will there be anything else?" Many supermarkets offer scripting to their employees that facilitate this, such as: "Do you need anything else-like stamps or ice?" and "Would you like help out with your bags?" (Recall that saying "Next?" is not an appropriate way to conclude the conversation.)
Redirect the conversation when necessary. When employees find themselves in protracted conversations with customers who appear aloof to their other responsibilities-or the lines of restive customers forming behind them-employees should redirect the conversation by saying something like, "It's been a pleasure speaking with you." (Now, the first rule of providing exceptional customer service is to be genuine. If it hasn't "been a pleasure" then don't say that. Say something else like, "Thank you for coming in today.")
There's a healthy tension between delivering transactional customer service that is efficient (doing more things faster) and providing relational customer service that is effective (doing fewer things well). When there are no customers waiting and employees have some margin in their schedules, by all means, invest more time in building rapport with customers.
However, as customers continue to wait in line or on hold, employees have a responsibility to assertively manage their conversations with customers. This includes redirecting the conversation when necessary. When done tactfully, with grace and professionalism, employees can provide exceptional customer service to all customers.
About the author
Steve has 20 years of experience between hotel operations, sales and marketing, training and development, and customer service roles working for Marriott International, one of the premiere customer-focused companies in the world.