Critical Thinking: The Backbone to Exceptional Customer Service

Customer service is more than a cheery voice and a smiling face. Customers today want to talk with a company rep who can analyze complex situations and solve their problems – quickly and thoroughly. You won’t make this happen by implementing more rules or printing a giant how-to-do-your-job manual. The answer is teaching your team the six steps of Critical Thinking.

Critical Thinking is the process of determining what you want to accomplish (the outcomes), evaluating what you know, and determining what actions must be taken to achieve that outcome. This process certainly isn’t a new invention and sounds fairly simple on the surface. But the reality is that in most prickly or complex situations with customers we react based on our emotions or limited information instead of with patience, compassion, and clear Critical Thinking.

There are six basic steps of Critical Thinking:

  1. Fully understand the best practices and the philosophies behind them. This information is gathered from your company principles, company documents, research (business best-practice books, magazines, websites), the experience of your co-workers, and your own life experience. If your company doesn’t have clearly articulated principles such as, “Our goal is to create a better experience for our customers,” your team is likely lacking direction.
  2. Fully understand the situation. Your employees will typically fall short here. They “go with what they know” instead of asking questions to find out what they aren’t aware of. Before a planned customer engagement, you should thoroughly review notes in your CRM database to understand their history, their current goals, their staff, and more. You also need to understand your products and services, especially the ones that would be most effective for the customer, and then ask questions to see how you can best help them. Information-gathering is key; you can’t provide effective customer service working in a vacuum.
  3. Clearly define the desired outcomes. Determine the Business Outcomes and Emotional Outcomes you want to achieve. Clear, specific, measureable outcomes are best. Most of the time we focus only on Business Outcomes – what are you trying to get done for the customer? To achieve exceptional customer service, you also need to set a target for Emotional Outcomes. How do you want the customer to feel after you engage with them? You should want them to feel less overwhelmed, taken care of, and treated like an individual. But oftentimes because we don’t focus on Emotional Outcomes the customer feels surprised, confused, and frustrated even though we completed the task they requested.
  4. Detail your action plan. A complete action plan answers specifically who, what, and when. The “what” section of your action plan doesn’t need to be painfully long. It should be a set of directions you want to take, lightly filled in with only necessary information. Determine which questions you will ask and actions you will take – just as much as you need – to achieve your outcomes.
  5. Evaluate your plan. Enemy #1 of an accurate self-evaluation is overconfidence. Don’t breeze through your plan and say to yourself, “Looks good! I’m sure the customer will love it.” Review your action plan in the order it will likely be executed and ask yourself, “What could possibly go wrong?” at each step. Be skeptical and anticipate how the customer may respond to what you say. Ask yourself if this plan will achieve your intended outcomes. Adjust your plan as needed.
  6. Develop a contingency plan. Assume that parts of your original plan won’t work. What will you do if the plan does not achieve the desired outcome? Develop follow-up questions to answers the customer might give. Prepare questions to ask if the customer responds differently than you anticipate. And again ask yourself, “Will this plan achieve my intended outcomes?” Think of this as your action plan having a range of options to achieve your outcomes vs. only one path to get there.

Now that you’ve read this, all you have to do is forward this article to your team and all your customer service dreams will come true, right? I wish it were that easy. I’ve worked for a small-to-medium sized company, a large company, and I’ve been self-employed, and each of them was a work in progress from a customer-service standpoint. We constantly strived to improve, but there was no finish line to be crossed.

The journey to exceptional customer service is bumpy and never ending. You’ll test and learn, test and learn, test and learn, stubbing your toe and earning some pats on the back along the way. If your team embraces and continually practices the six steps of Critical Thinking, you’ll exceed customer expectations more than you ever have before.


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