Customer Perceptions Can Make or Break the Service Experience

Two key steps service leaders can use to help their reps tackle customers’ emotional baggage.

The start of a new year is both exciting and stressful for many service and support organizations. A new year means new customers, and the prospect of growing your customer base can be thrilling, but it usually comes with an initial spike in live contact volume as customers try to get familiar with the new service or product they purchased.

Customers have emotional baggage that affects their perceptions of service

Although many believe new customers come with a blank slate, CEB, now Gartner, research shows this isn’t always true. In fact, only 47% of what happens in a live service interaction determines the customer’s perception of that specific encounter. What determines the other half of that interaction?

“Our relationships with customers, like any relationship, come with baggage. Customers come into each service interaction with the remnants of their past experiences, whether from our organization or others they’ve interacted with in the past,” says Pete Slease, principal executive advisor at Gartner. “And let’s face it, while some of those previous experiences are pleasant, most aren’t.”

The inevitable truth about customer baggage

In other words, customers have emotional baggage that affects their perceptions of service. The research shows 53% of the customer’s service rating is driven by something that happened before the actual interaction — whether it’s the customer’s perception of your company’s service capabilities and value, or previous interactions they have had with your company. In fact, 92% of customers report having “customer baggage,” according to Gartner.

“Customer baggage isn’t pretty, but it is the reality that service organizations have to face,” adds Slease.

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Deal with the baggage

Some service reps handle customer baggage naturally, but most actively avoid it for fear of surfacing negative experiences and thus bearing witness to a customer’s latent wrath.

However, Gartner research has found that handling customer baggage actually improves the customer service experience, lowers customer effort and often avoids callbacks — all of which are a win-win for both your company and the customer.

For example, in a conversation, a service rep may pick up on, or probe for, cues that indicate a customer has baggage, acknowledge that the baggage exists, and then quickly move things forward by taking ownership of the issue and building the customer’s confidence in the next steps.

Baggage handling has a profound impact on the customer’s perception of the interaction and often creates a more positive interaction

Gartner research found that the Customer Interaction Outcome Index (a compilation of several customer metrics including customer effort, customer satisfaction, Net Promoter Score and quality of service) shows meaningful improvements when customer baggage is handled effectively. Specifically, baggage handling resulted in a 48% increase in the Customer Interaction Outcome Index, and customers reported a 14% reduction in perceived effort in the next interaction.

“We’ve also found that baggage handling has a profound impact on the customer’s perception of the interaction and often creates a more positive interaction not only for the customer, but also for the rep,” Slease points out.

Reinforce baggage handling on the front line

Gartner analysis shows that leading service organizations follow two key steps to better address and handle customer baggage

  1. Enable front-line reps to handle baggage: It’s important to make it easy for all reps to handle baggage effectively. Some tips include identifying reps who naturally manage baggage and help others emulate their specific behaviors, incenting reps to record customer baggage surfaced during an interaction for future use, and designing systems and tools to help highlight that known customer baggage for a rep during an interaction.
  2. Reinforce baggage handling as a standard activity for reps: Baggage handling must be integrated into training, coaching and measurement so that it becomes part of the frontline reps’ workflow. It’s important to not only initially train on baggage-handling behaviors, but to follow that up with individual coaching and consistent measurement systems that reward high-quality baggage handling. Understanding the value of baggage handling is fairly straightforward for reps, but delivering on it consistently and successfully takes practice.

“When service organizations are aware of customer baggage and address it effectively, they can reap considerable improvements in valuable customer outcomes,” says Slease.

Gartner for Customer Service & Support Leaders clients can read more in Handling Customer Baggage.