Dumb questions are driving me crazy.
March 31, 2012 11:36 AM   Subscribe

Help me learn how to help people come to their own conclusions and learn from their previous experiences in a friendly manner. (Warning: super long explanation inside)

I work in a customer relations department. Part of my job includes being a resource to other employees; answering questions and helping them determine what their next course of action should be. Unfortunately, 99% of these questions are completely unnecessary. They're usually situations where

a) we can't do anything about it and my coworker "knows there's nothing we can do but it doesn't hurt to ask" (yes, yes it does - you're wasting everyone's time.)

b) they have the solution/answer available to them as part of their resources, and are choosing not to look it up.

c) they should know the answer, it's black and white, and they asked me five minutes ago. In our company, there are a few ALWAYS and NEVER situations; and they are non-negotiable. For instance; we can't change the payment on an existing order. It's simply not possible. They know this, but they ask anyway.

These questions take up a huge part of my day and are extremely frustrating. If someone contacts me unnecessarily, I am supposed to submit all sorts of details about it so that they can be "coached" on the situation. This takes up a ton of time, as well, and it is clearly not having any effect.

The problem is, there are probably 15 people who make up 90% of these contacts. There really isn't an incentive for them to improve, except that it will save them a call to me.

I lack people skills. I don't know how to instruct them on how to do things differently in the future without sounding rude, condescending, or sarcastic, so I usually don't say anything. An example of a typical conversation:

Coworker: "I know that we can't do _________ when ________, right?
Me: That is correct.
Coworker: Okay, well this customer is really upset about it, so is there any way we can do ________ anyway?
Me: No. (what I want to say is "You just answered your own question, didn't you?" but I really want to keep my job)
Coworker: Okay cause I was really hoping there was some kind of exception we could make.
Me: There isn't.

I'd really like to discourage the whole second part of the conversation, if possible (and going forward, the first part as well). How can I explain in a kind, polite way that my answer is not based on feelings or my own judgement; it is based on policies I have no control over (they know this). Therefore, no mater what you tell me about the scenario, my answer will not change. Period.

Another problem I face is when someone contacts me for a perfectly legitimate reason, and it spirals into nonsense. For example:
Coworker: "do we have any more information about ________?
Me: Not yet, sorry. Tell the customer we'll get in touch with them as soon as we know more.
Coworker: Oh, what, so I just have to tell them they have to wait longer now? They're already upset!
What I wish I could say: Yes, that is exactly what you have to tell them. That's your damn job. For the love of God, figure out how to do it and STOP ASKING ME STUPID QUESTIONS.

My thinking is that maybe, MAYBE, I can condition these people to use their brains since their managers certainly are not helping them figure out how to do so. I like my job and it pays well, but this part of it drives me insane. The most frustrating part is that it could be avoided.

TL;DR: Is there some kind of jerry-rigged socratic method I can use to help people help themselves when they consistently ask pointless questions with obvious solutions, thus wasting your time and making your job far more difficult?

(I know it sounds like I'm overreacting, but I swear that six hours of my day are spent dealing with this. I can't afford to quit my job, but I'm starting to feel like I might do so in an irrational attempt to resolve this.)
posted by nataliedanger to Human Relations (24 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Some ideas:

-Set up an informational workshop where you [probably for the 100th time, but whatever] go over again exactly what you have the authority or ability to do.

-Publish a guide that these folks can refer to before even calling you. Maybe put it into the form of a flowchart or FAQ?

-If possible, ask for all contact with you to be via email. Then you have a canned series of responses already typed up that you can paste into your reply. This doesn't really address the underlying problem, but it might save you time.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 11:53 AM on March 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

2nding making a Job Aid!
Create a Flowchart or FAQ style job-aid and distribute it to the whole department.
posted by LittleMy at 11:55 AM on March 31, 2012

These people are not stupid. They are asking you these questions because they were unable to be assertive enough on the phone with the customer, so the customer has backed them into a corner and forced them to try and solve this problem even though they have no tools with which to do so.

Things that you could do:

- Assess whether there is anything the company could do to provide better service so that the customers are less annoyed. Are these customers expecting something that everyone else in your industry does? Maybe you can present the case for improved customer service to management, who may be unaware of how annoyed the customers are and how much time everyone is wasting with them. Maybe it's just that the company doesn't set up the customers' expectations well in the first place. This is a solvable problem.

- Assess whether the customer relations people are suffering from insufficient training on how to stand up to angry customers. If that's the case, either stir it up privately - sending the ones who are finding it difficult to talk to the ones who know how to handle it - or talk to someone who has the power to train everyone better.

- Assess whether the company is able to support these people in standing up to the customers. If they get in trouble for telling customers No when there's no credible alternative, no wonder they are flapping around asking you for magical solutions. This is also potentially a solvable problem.

One or more of these things is causing your problem, and if you fix the underlying issues, your annoyance will go away. If you're honestly spending six hours a day on this stuff, it's in everyone's interest to band together to sort it out.
posted by emilyw at 11:59 AM on March 31, 2012 [20 favorites]

You're probably going to have to deal with different scenarios differently, but a couple of ideas:

1. When someone asks you a question that's in their material instead of looking it up, instead of answering the question directly, say that the answer is in the manual, and ask them if they checked that and didn't find it. If they didn't find it, mention where it is / how to find it. Then answer the question.

2. Keep a light tally of the questions you are most commonly asked and send out periodic reminders to all of the team about what the answers to those questions are. Say, once a week do a summary of that week's most asked questions and the answers that go with them.

3. Give everyone permission to pretend they talked to you if they already know the answer to the request for an exception is no. "I know you want your customers to feel you went to bat for them, so feel free to pin the blame on me and tell them you talked to your subject matter expert and they said an exception wasn't possible. I am happy to be the bogeyman on this. You don't have to actually talk to me again since you already have."
posted by jacquilynne at 12:16 PM on March 31, 2012 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks guys,

@SuperSquirrel and LittleMy - they already have those resources in place. In fact, there are *multiple* flowcharts, faq's, etc. I do, when possible, direct them to look up the answer while I wait.

The fact that the resources are available is my biggest frustration, unfortunately.

@emilyw, I agree with all of your points. Unfortunately (fortunately?) our company is VERY progressive in improving their customer support - the vast majority of the time, our customers are upset about something that was a) out of our control (has to do with their bank, for instance), b) their own fault and now we have to fix it for them, or c) due to misinformation given by one of our coworkers - usually due to the fact that they aren't using their resources.
posted by nataliedanger at 12:19 PM on March 31, 2012

emilyw speaks wise words. I have spent years in CS and being shouted at on the frontline is very frustrating and draining.

So I'd definitely second her suggestions of providing better training to these reps to help them stand up to customers in situations where you genuinely can't do anything.

It is also important to give them enough information to work with, e.g. "we're unable to change the payment method because this is now with our external payment processor and we do not have access to that system". Why should the low-paid CS rep be the one to have to come up with a reason/excuse why you can't give the customer what they want? Plus this will also explain to them why it isn't possible, and they won't have to ask (because frankly, a lot of the time "we can't" is synonymous with "it would take too much time and money").

Thirdly, if it's a training issue - and from what I can gather you're not in charge of training) - then take if up with whoever is. Again, if the reps were fully trained and confident in their jobs, they wouldn't be asking so many questions.
posted by ClarissaWAM at 12:20 PM on March 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I should also mention that a lot of these issues don't actually involve a frustrated/upset/angry customer; many of them are simply standard procedures we have to take care of on our end and that's when I get contacted. I wish it were as simple as improving the customer experience, thus avoiding these contacts in the first place.
posted by nataliedanger at 12:22 PM on March 31, 2012

Response by poster: @ClarissaWAM - thanks for your suggestions. No, I have nothing to do with training, but I'll see if that department can help us out at all.

A big part of the problem is that all of the employees *know* why we can't do things - they have access to all of this information. I was in their position for a long time, and I know that most of the employees can handle all of these scenarios on their own. It's just this handful that can't handle it... it's 80/20, really. 20% of the people are causing 80% of the problems.
posted by nataliedanger at 12:26 PM on March 31, 2012

Best answer: What would you be doing with your time if you weren't helping those 20% of the people? What are they keeping you from and how valuable is that to your business? Articulate that to your manager and make it clear it's a small percentage of the people causing the problem and who they are.

Those people may need remedial training. Or stricter targets so that they don't have time to bother you about shit they already know. Or to be fired and replaced with people who aren't lazy, incompetent jackasses.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:33 PM on March 31, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: SORRY to keep posting comments on this, but this is hopefully the last one:

To clarify my question:

Much of this stuff is out of my control. I do a lot of the things on the "external" level that you're all suggesting - making suggestions for reminders of the biggest policy errors, making sure their resources are up to date, etc.

Now what I want are ways to improve my interactions with my coworkers so that they learn how to help themselves. I'm obviously not very good at it right now, because I usually get an attitude from whoever I'm speaking with.

Maybe phrasing is what I need? Something diplomatic like "I understand your frustration but this is the third time in this conversation that you've asked the same question."
posted by nataliedanger at 12:33 PM on March 31, 2012

Response by poster: @Jacquilynne, I completely agree with that. If I were higher up on the food chain, I would definitely implement stricter targets. I would also implement remedial training. I would enforce the consequences for repeat-offenders so their laziness isn't reinforced.

Overall, business is really good. We run things really efficiently. It's kind of a catch-22, though, because my department wouldn't need so many people if we didn't have to put up with this crap. If my bosses took any of this seriously, a lot of positions would be eliminated.
posted by nataliedanger at 12:39 PM on March 31, 2012

Best answer: I had a job like yours and it was very frustrating.

What I ended up doing was setting up a procedure (it sounds like you already have something like this) by which I tracked the number of times someone asked a question to which they had the answer.

The thing that I did that made a difference was that I didn't publish the report just to the direct leaders of the people doing the time-wasting crap you're describing, I rolled the results up by THEIR leaders and published that report to the second level managers. Because what is happening is that the people who SHOULD be stopping this needless waste of time, the first-line leaders, are letting it slide because they have other things to focus on. You need to advise those leaders' leaders, so there can be some conversations had around 'Why are your people contacting customer support for things they should be looking up themselves - have you not trained your staff on the correct procedures?'

I warn you that this will not make you friends among any of those three groups: the line staff, their leaders, or their leaders' leaders, but it should stop some of it. Not all, unfortunately, but some.
posted by winna at 12:42 PM on March 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is there a way you can change the conversation with them? For example:

Coworker: "I know that we can't do _________ when ________, right?
You: You tell me.

Full stop.

It puts the proverbial ball back into their court by getting them to answer the question themselves, and hopefully thereby skipping the whole second part of the conversation.
posted by lulu68 at 1:15 PM on March 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

I guess I'm a little confused... isn't being a resource like this your job, too? Like, when they ask you questions, even when they're stupid questions, they're asking you to do your job?

If this is true, it seems like reminding yourself of this will help you not get to the frustrated "What I Wish I Could Say" part.
posted by spunweb at 1:19 PM on March 31, 2012 [6 favorites]

Why aren't they using the job aids? Is it really just infuriating laziness, or could the job aids be redesigned to be more appealing, easier to use, etc.? I had a similar job and used the "stupid" questions to power the redesign of reference materials, and it helped.
posted by ceiba at 1:43 PM on March 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure they're stupidly asking questions they know the answers to so much as they're stating that they know the rule, but they're asking for an exception. Exceptions to rules exist in the world, and they aren't stupid for thinking that perhaps - with an especially irate client, for example - exceptions may be granted. If you're frequently being asked for exceptions to rules that are never bent or broken, it would help them if you clarified this to everyone. You can't blame them for trying if they don't know this, and now you get to be helpful by letting someone further up the chain know of problems people are frequently running into.
posted by moxiedoll at 2:40 PM on March 31, 2012 [6 favorites]

I agree with moxiedoll.

It sounds more like they are "subtly" attempting to ask for exceptions. The question is merely an opener before they attempt to talk you into breaking the rules "just this once". Is there a survey that customers take that says how well a CS rep helped them? Do the results affect a rep's pay? If so, there is your culprit.

Try changing the conversation to:

Annoying Employee: We can't do _____ right?

You: That is correct, and no exemptions can or will be made. Have a nice day! *click*
posted by Shouraku at 2:54 PM on March 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

Is there a reason you care if they have an attitude with you?

Because the attitude stems from you not bending the rules for them. Not your tone of voice.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:29 PM on March 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

The thing is that your job is to be "customer support" for the employees as well as being the next line of support for the customers. The problem is that you're treating your coworkers as adversaries. The employees are catching hell from the customers. They're trying to take the heat off themselves by escalating the problem to you. In part, your job is to be the backstop on the escalation to issue those denials.

I suppose in theory the frontline CS employees should be the ones to issue the denials to the customer, but it is hard to expect them to do that. It might help to be more assertive to the CS employees. All they want is to be able to say to the customer, "I'm sorry, I spoke to management, and they can't make an exception."
posted by deanc at 4:39 PM on March 31, 2012 [5 favorites]

I think you need to accept this as part of your job and try to find a way to make these interactions more pleasant for yourself. I suggest empathy. When they say whatever they are frustrated with, say, "I know, you sound really frustrated. Go ahead and tell them you checked and there's nothing that can be done (or whatever). Thanks for having these hard conversations--I know we all want to make the customers happy."

Just try to turn it around. They are frustrated, they are calling you and making you frustrated, the customer is of course frustrated... Isn't good customer service mostly just about being nice and soothing no matter how frustrated people get?

Anyway, good luck. I do wonder, though--you say that if people got their act together some jobs might be eliminated. Might one of those jobs be yours? Be wary of trying to eliminate your own work. I imagine you are paid hourly no matter what you are doing with your time. Just try to make it a more pleasant interaction for everyone involved.
posted by tk at 5:29 PM on March 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

Your Version

Coworker: "I know that we can't do _________ when ________, right?
Me: That is correct.
Coworker: Okay, well this customer is really upset about it, so is there any way we can do ________ anyway?
Me: No. (what I want to say is "You just answered your own question, didn't you?" but I really want to keep my job)
Coworker: Okay cause I was really hoping there was some kind of exception we could make.
Me: There isn't.

My Version:
Me: That is correct.
Coworker: Okay, well this customer is really upset about it, so is there any way we can do ________ anyway?
Me: Gee, I really wish there was. You see we really can't because our system won't allow (whatever it is here) because there really is no option for it (or whatever). Yeah, I remember being in your position, but the only thing you really can do is tell them that. Oh, and next time if someone asks again, you can pretend to call me about it if it makes them feel any better and pretend you are asking me about it. (smile or something to let them know you're not beating them up about it, but still keep an assertive tone of voice)

Also, I've found that saying something like, "I mean, even if there was a way around it, my boss would be really mad at me for doing that." works in a lot of situations like this to remind them that you could get in trouble for doing something and it's not just some stupid rule.

Also, some of the things you are complaining about is simply just part of the job, really. I don't know where you work, but if it's retail, understand retail is a revolving door and a lot of times you can't keep on to good employees long enough so you have to deal with incompetence here and there.

Also, 2nding the need for better training with irrate customers. Being on the front line when someone blows up at you is a startling experience and your employees really need training to deal with that.

Good luck.
posted by eq21 at 6:05 PM on March 31, 2012

I thought moxiedoll had a good answer, there are lots of times in life that rules get broken.

I think the conversational "trick" you're looking for is to remind your 20% callers what exceptions are possible. Such as, "no CR, we can't discount the price just because we're waiting on a late delivery; you know the only time we can do that is if ... It's covered in bees."

Try to remember that even the annoying 20% are your allies in this fight and give them extra tools & sincere sounding support to assuage the customer.

Tk and others are also right that you get paid to do what you're doing. You might be cheaper than retraining a new 20% over and over again.

You've already taken steps to change the environment with you messages to others about the situation.

In the end, the only thing you can mostly control is how you react to what's happening to you.

/I've had a few glasses of wine & some cough meds this evening. Apologies for any over thinking/dramatizing your situation
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 6:20 PM on March 31, 2012

I think other people have given good suggestions. What I have to add though is that the trait you see as dumb/annoying/inefficient is actually a serious moneymaking trait, albeit a bit misplaced here.

I work in editorial with a great sales team. For years they have regularly asked me to do things they should know I cannot do according to our ad/edit guidelines. Yet they ask. Regularly. I used to get upset that they were not respecting my integrity.

Until I realized...this fuzzy relationship that they have with the concept of no is actually remarkable persistence and what makes them really good at their exhausting job of pitching clients and agencies over and over to get business and ultimately money for my paycheck.

All I have to do is say no every so often. They don't flip out. They say "well can't hurt to ask" and move on. Sometimes I use humor to say no, and if it is the third time that day I will say "put a sticky note on our guidelines okay?". But really...now I get that for them, all the clarity in the world won't dent their orientation to "just ask." And the world needs a bit of that...not just for money-making but for fundraising and injustice-ending too.

Not to be preachy...if it interferes with your work it is annoying. But you may have to escalate it so that someone else makes it clear it is not a "just asking" environment & that outweighs other things.
posted by Zen_warrior at 7:30 PM on March 31, 2012 [8 favorites]

You need to delegate. Appoint a "team lead" for every shift. Tell the other CS reps that they can "escalate" angry callers to the lead, and all questions can be directed to the lead.

Pick people to be "team leads" who know the black-and-white material, know how to put out fires if angry callers are "escalated" to them, know when to pass the buck up to you, and who are absolutely fine telling their coworkers gently but firmly, twenty times, "no. That is not possible because [truthy thing]. There are no exceptions."

If possible, actually change the team lead employees' title and pay. It's only right. Also alter their targets to account for the extra three hours per day (or whatever) they spend doing this crap instead of taking calls so you don't have to.
posted by jsturgill at 7:46 PM on March 31, 2012

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