Think Tank Thursday: Adapting Customer Service to fit Varied Generations

What’s good for the goose is not always good for the gander. And customer service guru Teresa Allen reminds us that nowhere is that more true than when caring for our customers.

“I was just talking with a representative of a local insurance agency who mentioned that the older clients love her. Why? Because they love the fact that she listens to them and takes time with them and will explain slowly any technology that they may not understand.

This is very instructive. I often say that in service, you must be almost like a chameleon, adapting and changing your interaction and communication style depending on the different needs of each individual customer. Now let's take a closer look at an encounter with one of these elderly customers. The insurance rep patiently listens while the customer tells her all about what has happened in her life since last they met. A great builder of relationships, the rep remembers that the last time the client was in, she mentioned her grandson was graduating from college. “Ms. Oaks, I remember you mentioning your grandson’s graduation. I hope that went well. You said he would be looking for a job ... has he been able to find one?” 

The personalized customer service and attention to detail has made Mrs. Oaks a client for life. It is not about the sale, it is about the life of her client and being genuinely interested in that life. It also recognizes that this particular client is a bit lonely since her husband passed away and enjoys having conversation with her insurance rep when she has the opportunity.

Now here is the challenge ... what if Mr. Lansford, a busy young professional, is sitting outside the office while the conversation about the other client’s grandson drags on and on. Someone in the office needs to recognize that he may not be on the same relaxed time frame as the grandmother now illuminating the rep on the fantastic job her grandson has post-graduation. As a matter of fact, Mr. Lansford is getting really irritated by being kept waiting.  nless someone steps in to offer more immediate service, he is not going to be a happy camper.

This scenario plays out thousands of times every day in every type of business imaginable in service encounters taking place in-person, via telephone and even via automated encounters. A savvy service rep knows the fine art of balancing the “spend time vs. move on and help the next person” equation. Likewise, a great customer service team knows when someone needs to be ‘bailed out’ of a too-long conversation with a customer.

One of the best things any customer service rep can do to build customer service relationships is to address not only the needs of the current individual being served but also those who may be ‘next in line.’ An astute team member buzzes in and says, “So sorry to interrupt but your next appointment is here.” The skilled service rep will be bold enough to use that message and combine it with the friendliness of the rambling customer to politely say, “Mrs. Oaks, it’s been great visiting with you. They just buzzed in and my next client is waiting. I hope you will stop in again soon!”

Here is where the chameleon needs to quickly change color. While greeting Mr. Lansford, the rep makes a few visual observations and determines that Mr. Lansford is in a bit of a hurry and may even be a bit irritated for having to wait. In a much more matter-of-fact tone than the previous conversation, this greeting follows: “Mr. Lansford, so nice to see you. My apologies for the wait, it has been a hectic day today.” Staying in full control of this close encounter, the rep gets right down to business ... “Mr. Lansford, I have your home insurance quote ready for you. Let’s review it together!”

In your next customer service training session or customer service meeting, take the time to list several categories of customers by age, product lines, personalities, etc. and identify common traits and special needs of which you are aware. If multiple staff members do this together it is likely to be a more instructive exercise. After all, as a team we can all learn from each other’s close encounters. When one rep has a certain approach with a customer, that may be a successful approach to use with other similar customers. This is also a great time to, OH NO!, discuss when you have failed with a certain customer type. Be brave enough to identify what went wrong, find the “why” behind it and explore what different approaches could be tried with similar customers in similar close encounters. The only bad mistake is one we don’t learn from!

Is being a chameleon being phony? Quite the contrary, quickly adapting to the varied needs of your customers signals that you are a true professional with extraordinary customer service chameleon-like superpowers. Use those changing colors to give exceptional service to each of your varied customers!”

Teresa Allen is a highly acclaimed customer service speaker and is the author of Common Sense Service: Close Encounters on the Front Lines. Visit her website to find more ideas on building your customer service culture. To contact Teresa call 800-797-1580 or email: