The quickest way for any organisation to radically improve their customer experience is not to invest in some convoluted change initiative but rather to focus on ensuring their customer contact staff refrain from making the most common mistake made in sales and customer service. More than any other factor this mistake inhibits achievement of key business drivers such as first contact resolution, sales conversion and customer advocacy.

So what is it?

Staff who make assumptions around customer needs within their customer interactions.

Assumptions are the killer of good customer experience and negatively impact buying behaviour, advocacy and customer retention and yet after measuring and analysing multi-channel customer interactions in the 10s of thousands over the last 20 years, they continue to clearly be the #1 behaviour that limits success and achievement of desired business outcomes. And they occur on the majority of customer interactions, especially with inbound sales calls where the direct impact on likelihood to purchase, in the moment, is significant.

So why do so many assumptions get made within customer conversations more times than not when the negative impacts for doing so are so clear? It all stems from inside-out thinking.

When you work within a frontline, customer contact operation, you are consumed by those things needed to execute the fundamentals of service delivery to customers on a daily basis. You know the stuff – systems, process, policy, product information etc. etc.

There’s the inherent challenge of repetition within the volumes of calls or walk up customers to contend with and the myriad technical, transactional and operational processes and considerations that are essential for the business and which continuously consume thinking and focus.

In the moment of a customer conversation however, it is these very same things that often just get in the way. Whilst they seem (and are) so important to the staff member, they are counter-productive to actually influencing a better than average experience that drives first contact resolution and buying behaviour.

Such an internal, operational mindset creates a natural disconnect between the staff member and the customer in those key moments of truth. The psychological filters and perspective that someone working inside an organisation has versus those of the customer are so radically different that it’s completely underestimated by most how difficult a challenge this is to overcome and how it manifests itself within a customer dialogue. It is this disconnect that causes so many lost business opportunities and benefits that flow from delivery of consistently great customer experience.

Consider this. A customer might only contact you once every 12 months (or longer) yet for the staff member who takes their enquiry, it could be the 20th interaction they’ve taken that day. Let alone how many contacts that week, month or year. Let me take a conservative estimate that approximately 5,000 customer interactions are handled in the same 12-month period since a single customer last made contact. That is 1 interaction for the customer vs 5000 for the staff member! Such repetition does strange things to people’s thinking and perceptions of what’s really important.

It’s no wonder so many staff struggle to stay fresh and avoid making assumptions. The sheer repetition within customer contact operations makes this almost impossible – except for the best. 

A common trait with the best sales or customer service practitioners (despite the many differences between them) is their ability to treat each customer as if it’s the one and only customer they have dealt with that day or even that year. In essence, the best make no assumptions and deal with each and every situation on its merits and reap the rewards for doing so.

Over time, when working within an organisation, all staff at all levels naturally struggle to be able to ‘see the forest for the trees’. This is why within my role supporting clients as an external provider of customer experience measurement and transformation – ultimately what they buy from me is a customer perspective, because I’m not entrenched within their operation on a daily basis. There is inherent value in leveraging an outsider’s perspective within the context of valuable services they provide for the business. The best organisations, managers and frontline personnel are also able to bring such a customer perspective to work every day from within, even though it is very, very hard to do.

It’s a constant and continuous battle that you have to fight because the operation will continually try and suck you in to its natural state of inside-out thinking. 

It therefore cannot be a surprise that most organisations struggle with balancing their internal needs with having a strong customer perspective and that they subsequently deliver poor to average experiences as the norm.

But fight this internal, inside-out mindset you must!

In every job and position we all have to find ways to rise above this natural threat because that is what your customers are craving from you whether they consciously realise this or not. After all, it’s all about them and not about you.

Your customers just don’t care about your products or services like you do. They don’t care about your operational processes, constraints and struggles… and nor should they! It’s your job to deal with your internal challenges and constraints and it’s also your job to shield and protect your customer from the back-end so they can stay focused on what matters to them.

Remember this. A customer only ever cares about themselves.

So how is your offering and the interactions they have with you going to enhance or add value to their lives in some way? This is the customer’s filter and how they will evaluate every interaction with you instantly and automatically. We all do it, all the time. You already know this because of course we are all customers ourselves but somehow can easily forget this when we’re entrenched on the business side of the fence.

The best sales and customer service people understand this customer perspective. They continuously strive to have conversations that facilitate a focus on what is important to the customer, not themselves. They seek to establish what an individual wishes to achieve in their interaction with you, both in that moment and beyond, without any assumptions being made. They are able to deftly make the connection between their product and service features and benefits and the individual needs and aspirations of their customer. In effect, they join the dots between their service and the customer needs.

It is when this connection is made within a conversation that it ‘clicks’ in the customer’s mind. When a customer can process and see in their minds eye what is being advised by the staff member but in the context of their own lives then magic happens. They make decisions with trust and confidence in terms of purchasing, buying additional services, renewal or by just having emotional validation of the value of their ongoing service with you – which is the hallmark of customer retention.

Avoiding assumptions basically requires skills inhow to engage in effective, needs-based conversation.

The discovery of what customers want to achieve through you is the key skill to develop to be effective in frontline sales and service. It requires an ability to ask great questions in an engaging manner that builds trust and confidence. This is important so the customer is comfortable to open up and reveal personal information about themselves and what they want to achieve. A specific, practical technique to help this process is to avoid a classic mistake in Contact Centres, which is an obsession with looking at a screen, which I’ve written about in a previous blog post.

So to avoid making the #1 mistake in sales and customer service, seek to master the art of managing conversations with your customers and you will be in a great position to deliver better than average experiences that positively impact them and your bottom line. And if you manage to do this, it’s also just a lot more interesting and fun than having the same assumptive, boring, repetitive conversations day-in and day-out.