Being on the front line in a customer service role can be deeply rewarding, but it can also be challenging, especially for those who are in the unenviable position of having to call customers and ask them to settle their overdue accounts.
In most cases, a customer will only come into contact with an Accounts Receivable team member if they have an overdue debt on their account. Ideally, these account disputes are resolved upfront by a customer service representative, and Accounts Receivable only steps in if the first attempt at resolution has failed.
This can mean that by the time the Accounts Receivable team member picks up the phone to call the customer, the customer is already feeling some discomfort and tension.
This was the dilemma faced by Jaime Smith, national credit manager at REMONDIS Australia, which is part of one of the world’s largest recycling and water suppliers.
Jaime oversees an Accounts Receivable team that is tasked with collecting outstanding debts from existing customers. Being on the front-line, they encounter many negative customer conditions – a challenge that has only been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ongoing lockdown restrictions have created service interruptions outside of REMONDIS Australia’s control, and some customers felt that they were being contacted and asked to pay for services they had not received due to these interruptions. When a company is faced with lockdown, waste removal can be the last thing on its mind.
However, REMONDIS Australia runs an automated service and unless the customer notifies them that collections are not required, the collections go ahead regardless.
Waste removal is one of the essential services that continues during lockdowns.
“During the pandemic, emotions run high, and understandably so. There are many variables that need to be considered. Situations arise that we have never previously encountered” says Jaime.
The stressful situation caused by a lockdown can be compounded by another hurdle – the culturally diverse nature of the REMONDIS Australia team.
Customers sometimes incorrectly assume that their calls are being answered by an offshore call centre and the team member they were talking to is removed from the situation and therefore unable to provide any real details or assistance.
Finding a balance between customer satisfaction and business outcomes
Jaime and the REMONDIS Australia leadership team recognised that the challenges the team faced lay in miscommunication. To resolve this, they enlisted the help of Innovate Learn, a Melbourne-based training company that specialises in sales and service effectiveness.
“We immediately understood that good communication was a huge priority for the REMONDIS Australia team; 70 per cent of their day was spent on the phone, communicating with customers,” says Hazel Stewart, managing director of Innovate Learn.
“We customised a training solution that addressed the difficult balance of moving customers from irate or insistent behaviour to a place where they were open to discussing how they could settle an overdue account.”
Innovate Learn’s initial objective was to address the communication challenges between the diverse staff and upset or angry customers. Jaime had observed that when customers raised questions about the accent and location of a staff member, employees would be reluctant to push back.
Instead, they tended to limit the time they spent on customer calls out of concern that customers would claim they could not understand what the service provider was trying to say, due to their cultural background.
Hazel explains that the training sessions focused on firstly providing skills and concepts that helped with self-management, so the Accounts Receivable team felt more confident when engaging with difficult customers. They also learned critical skills so they could reach a mutually agreeable outcome with the customer and keep the communication on-topic.
“The REMONDIS Australia team learned the importance of using a consistent framework for every customer call. This included stating the purpose of the call, explaining what will be covered on the call and how the call could benefit both the customer and REMONDIS Australia,” Hazel said.
The training sessions also incorporated social style profiling so the REMONDIS Australia team could determine their own social style and understand how they interacted with others. This gave them insights into their own preferences and behaviours.
“They were then able to identify the social style of their customers and temporarily modify their own behaviour to reduce tension, move more fluidly through the call and achieve outcomes that are satisfactory to all parties,” adds Hazel.
Building communication capability and self-confidence
“The difference that these training sessions have had on our team at REMONDIS Australia is palpable,” says Jaime.
“The training was also provided to the wider customer service team, so it’s really impacted the way that our entire customer-facing division communicates.
“Social Styles has helped us to understand the ways in which different people communicate, and why they might react the way they do. This has also been beneficial for our customers, as those who had been somewhat aggressive are now more receptive and in less of a hurry to get off the phone.”
As the challenges faced by the multi-cultural staff members at REMONDIS Australia had been a core concern for the company, Jaime has been watching their development closely and is pleased to report positive outcomes.
“I could tell when a staff member was struggling with a customer on the phone just by observing their body language and the speed at which they spoke – they are now clearly more confident and relaxed, and they take their time in order to achieve the desired outcome from the call,” Jaime said.
Hazel shares that these training solutions and the skills acquired go beyond the professional context.
“Being able to communicate and respond to others more effectively can improve every aspect of a person’s life,” Hazel said.
“I was thrilled when Jaime told me that the training hadn’t just changed the way her team communicated with customers, but that it had also improved their relationships with colleagues, and their own self-confidence.”