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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Day Shaniquah Saved the Day

Today I am sharing a memory, a little professional advice, and an affirmation that the most difficult interaction can be overcome with a little humor. Always.

Customer service depends heavily on the rep’s ability to communicate with what is often an angry, frustrated, confused, or harried customer. This means that they are not on fine listening mode. Under those circumstances, effective customer service becomes the chore of breaking through whatever is preventing those customers from hearing what you need to communicate to them.

There are best practices to get there, and any business concern worth its mettle properly trains the people who communicate with their clients and try to resolve issues for them. Bad customer service can cause a business serious money.

These days, despite efforts to contain globalism, one of the biggest efforts in customer service is simply the transfer of information. Diversity means that you will communicate with people in a variety of demographics—from place of origin to educational level, to name but two. It's hard enough to break through the strata when nuances of culture and language put up additional hurdles in the process, but that's beyond the topic at hand.

For a variety of reasons, you may need to give out strings and combinations of letters and numbers (because you need to spell something out or because you are giving people a confirmation/tracking number).

I always trained staff by telling them that they needed to enunciate clearly (which I admit did not always render the desired effect).

I also like to rely on standard/uniform solutions that everyone could implement easily and understand just as well.

For numbers, I always suggest breaking down by the digit. Digits have their own specific sound from zero to nine, but if you start combining numbers, the possibilities for misunderstanding increase exponentially--especially with the elderly whose hearing may be impaired.


When spelling out words, I generally rely on the NATO phonetic alphabet. It has been in use for over 50 years, and even if you are not military or in aviation, it is part of popular culture. Who doesn’t know what Alpha, Bravo, Charlie represents?

Make no mistake, you will run into someone who doesn’t know or will feign ignorance, and you’ll have to work around it.

I love words and always have. I used to read the dictionary for fun, and playfully skim through a thesaurus because I loved the way it added a funky taxonomy to the process! And word geek that I am, I'd sometimes write lists for fun (something I recommend to keep your mind sharp).

One of the things I tried to stress to my staff was that if you could connect to a customer on a human level, it made the whole exchange better and easier. But the aforementioned anger and frustrations sometimes presented a tough wall to crack; if you could make them laugh or connect to something they cared about, you were more than halfway there.

So I use spelling to disarm their emotional state. The NATO Phonetic Alphabetic remains a standard but I supplement it. If I have any piece of personal information, I related each code word to a specific topic of interest to customer. For instance, at Professional Press Books I used medical terms because my client base was composed of students, professors, doctors and surgeons in ophthalmology and optometry. 

Sometimes there is nothing you can do to make them happy. And sometimes folks reject the codes, for spite or in spite of their popularity, in which case you are free to substitute. You can try simple words (A as in apple, B as in boy) like a kindergarten lesson plan.

I just can’t do that, it’s boring and uninspired, so instead I opt for lists of related words (often food-related, from herbs and spices to pasta shapes). I have used the Roman pantheon of gods, candy bar brands, countries of the world, superheroes, cheeses, international currencies, colors beyond the rainbow, dog breeds!

Most people tend to find it easier to relate to when you use first names--with Juliet, Mike, Oscar, Romeo and Victor setting the precedent. But then, I have taken the opportunities to blow up their expectations by using Spanish names and pronouncing them correctly (A for Alejandra, B for Belkis), or Italian names with a Brooklyn accent (A is foh Ant-knee, B is foh Bobo)…

My personal favorite was the crabby old man who made every step of the process a living hell but whom I made cackle by delivering his payment confirmation code as nine-zero-four-four-A for April-six-eight-D for Daniela-nine-S for Shaniquah…

The double take dislodged the pole he had stuck up his behind, and that was the day Shaniquah saved the day.