Filed Under:Claims, Education & Training

Overcoming Roadblocks to Customer Service

There is a tale of a medieval monk who persistently spoke a phrase in Latin Eucharist wrongly -- the correct word was "sumpsimus"; the monk's version was "mumpsimus." As a result, the word came to be applied to someone who sticks obstinately to his or her old ways, in spite of the clearest evidence that this behavior is stodgy and antiquated.

In the business world, some customer service representatives make blind choices to continue to operate with stale, dated attitudes and behaviors, such as "customers don't really count" and not really listening when dealing with customers concerns. The danger of clinging to an obstinate behavior is that it blocks the development of customer loyalty; destroys long-term customer relationships, and prevents businesses from achieving their full potential.

In my experience, "mumpsimus," is rooted in fear. At birth, everyone is born with two fears: the fear of loud noises and the fear of being dropped or falling. All other fears are learned and then developed over our lifetime. Fear can be the most negative force in our lives, creating unintended consequences. Its many forms can include situational fear (such as fear of failure) or emotional fear (such as fear of being judged). Over time, this sense of dread is hotwired to our brain as an automatic disconnect.

Fear: No One Will Listen

How many times have you started to share an experience of a difficult time with someone only to be interrupted, even before you finished your explanation? One of the most significant fears your customers have when filing a claim with your company is that you will interrupt them without allowing them to express the concerns and issues relating to their experience. If this does occur, then their fear of having their claims rejected will escalate. They may be reminded of other uncaring people in their lives or of a previously rejected claim.

The consequences of an old mumpsimus behavior are that disgruntled customers stop doing business with your company without ever conveying their disappointment. It's also true that claim adjusters have their own set of fears: of a hostile customer or one who may be unwilling to listen or respond to attempts to help resolve a stressful situation.

Claim Adjuster Attributes

To answer this question, I cite the example of a company with which I have had personal experience: Allstate Insurance. I have purchased six different kinds of policies over the years from Allstate. It is the nation's largest publicly held personal lines insurer and a Fortune 100 company with $133 billion in total assets, so I feel I am with doing business with a quality company. Of the company's 70,000 professionals, 7,500 are claim adjusters.

For this article, I spoke with Jose Cornejo, an Allstate market claim manager who lives in Albuquerque. Jose said he had been with Allstate in New Mexico for 25 years and was clearly enthusiastic about his opportunity to serve customers. Here are some of the questions I asked him:

Q: What has kept you motivated for all these years?

Cornejo replied that a claim adjuster's day spikes when there is a hail storm, snow storm, wind storm, automobile accident or death of a loved one. "My customers at the time of a claim are tuned to the radio station WIIFM (What's In It for Me)," he said. "But I know that my focus and message need to be tuned to WIIFT (What's In It For Them)."

Q: How do you accomplish staying tuned to their needs?

"I listen," said Cornejo, who believes that paying close attention and understanding the power of words enable him to put his customers at ease.

Cornejo is in good company. Psychologists from Freud to Jung have observed that people who listen past the words to uncover hidden messages gain greater insight and understanding of not only the self but also others. Cornejo also makes use of what I refer to as "power phrases." This entails framing a request in a way that makes it easy for others to give you permission to get what you want.

Would You Object?

In the Allstate family, power phrases are used to enhance relationships with customers and co-workers, provide superior service, and even coach new claim adjusters to develop the skills to elevate the level of their customers' experience. Cornejo uses power phrases to demonstrate his empathy to customers, and asserts that "it is a privilege" to do so because it puts him in the position of being a helpful advocate. He recounts a recent car incident with one of his customers:

"I know how frightened you must have felt with a brick hurtling toward you on the freeway as your car was going 60 miles per hour," he said to the customer. "I 'm really happy you weren't hurt, and that the damage to the bottom of your car wasn't serious. Would you have any objection to sharing exactly what happened, in your own words?

Cornejo then listens; his "would you have an objection" power phrase question allows the customer to relay his or her experience of the accident, with the fear, relief, and all of the other emotions attached with such a distressing occurrence. Only after actively listening is a claim adjuster able to assist the customer through the claim process. The expression of appropriate empathy instills customer confidence.

The "objection" phrase provides the claim adjuster with a communication tool that builds a bridge of connection and a bond of loyalty that can last a lifetime.

You may say that a power phrase such as this one is not for you. However, it's important to remember that mumpsimus feels like being-stuck in an obstinate, antiquated behavior. When we instead set out to learn and implement a new skill set, we start to move in the direction of long-term, loyal, and committed customers.

Mary Lou Dobbs is owner of Executive Benefit Strategies. This article is adapted from her book, "Repotting Yourself, Financial-Emotional-Spiritual Flow" (London: O Books, 2010). Before establishing Executive Benefit Strategies, Dobbs spent eight years working for Wells Fargo, coaching and training bankers on customer service. She may be reached at 505-688-6703;;

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