How to Set the Right Expectations on a Call


A photo of a call centre agent pointing at the screen

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We investigate how to set customer expectations during a call, sharing lots of best practices for call centre advisors.

The Trap of Not Setting the Right Call Expectations

There is a trap that many contact centre advisors fall into – which is to tell the customer what they want to hear, rather than what is likely to happen.

This may get the caller off the phone, but will likely result in repeat phone calls. The situation is made worse if you target agents on Average Handling Time (AHT).

Under-commit and over-deliver.

Remember, it is more important to “under-commit and over-deliver” than it is to “over-commit and under-deliver”.

By setting the correct expectations, you can take control of the call and improve First Contact Resolution (FCR).

Start by Signposting

Using a technique called “signposting” is a subtle way to indicate to the customer that you are knowledgeable in a subject area and that you know best. This then helps to set the roles for the conversation in the customer’s mind; you’re the expert, they’re the customer.

The advisor is – in a friendly tone – directing them and taking control of the situation.

This technique works best when a customer calls regarding a common issue and, in response to the customer outlining their problem, the advisor steers them about what they are going to need to resolve the issue.

So, the advisor is – in a friendly tone – directing them and taking control of the situation.

Examples of phrases that advisors can use when signposting include:

  • “In a moment, I’m going to need to take a few details from you, including a reference number and…”
  • “In a short while, I’m going to share a few details that you will likely want to write down. So, do you have a pen handy.”
  • “If you could quickly bring up the email that we sent you and read out the reference number that we sent over, that would be great.”

Each of these phrases is great, because it allows the advisor to demonstrate their expertise in responding to the matter at hand. The caller’s expectations of you are therefore enhanced, so they will likely be more willing to accept the devised call outcome.

To find out more about how to use signposting in the contact centre, read our article: Signposting – Reduce Your Average Handling Time (AHT) by 15 Seconds

What to Do When a Customer Wants More Than You Can Deliver

Even when you signpost the call to highlight your authority, you will come across customers who have unrealistic expectations and demand more than you can deliver.

These situations can be tricky for an advisor to navigate, and when dealing with these customers, the advisor may find themselves in tricky “standoff” situations.

In such scenarios, the first step is to show that you understand what the customer wants and why they want it. This acknowledgement is the first step in building rapport with a demanding customer.

The first step is to show that you understand what the customer wants and why they want it…

Then, it’s time for some honest talk and to tell the customer what you cannot do for them, before quickly following up with what you can do for the customer, using positive words to frame your preferred option in the best way possible.

The use of positive words like “super”, “great” and “fantastic” are really useful in terms of adding energy to a conversation and building momentum behind your ideas.

For example, the advisor can say: “I can’t do that for you, although a great option which I can provide to you is…”

With this option, you are presenting the customer with a positive option that they have control over – so they start to believe that their request has been listened to.

If the customer still refuses to accept your proposed solution, it might then be best to highlight to the customer where else they might be able to find what they are looking for – showing them that you have been acting in their best interest all along.

For more advice on handling various types of difficult customers, read our article: How to Handle Contacts From Challenging Customers

Avoid Canned Phrases

Although it can be difficult when a customer has unrealistic expectations and doesn’t accept an advisor’s counter-proposal, there may come a time when the advisor has to spell out why they cannot deliver on the customer’s expectations.

Understandably, advisors can feel uneasy in doing that – as they become defensive about the company that they work for. Yet this is a much better option that falling back on horrible canned phrases, like those below, which only serve to rile the customer further.

Avoid These Phrases

“It’s customer policy” – There is no bigger signal that the advisor can send to the customer that they just want to hang up the phone, and the customer will think it’s very unlikely that a customer policy will go against their basic expectations.

“I don’t know/I’m not sure” – This one can be hard to avoid, but it reflects badly on the company, as it seems as though the advisor is not knowledgeable and has had insufficient training. “Let me find out for you,” is a much better response.

“There is nothing I can do for you” – Arguably, this is the worst phrase an advisor can use. It can be avoided by finding other options and creative solutions to ensure that you are being proactive in assisting the customer with their demands.

For more key phrases to avoid when speaking to customers, read our article: 15 Things a Call Centre Agent Should Never Say (But Many Do)

Setting Expectations at the End of a Call

Once you have navigated the customer’s query, it’s important to say what happens next and to give the customer a timescale.

By doing this, the advisor gives the customer peace of mind that the matter is under control, while the timescale allows the customer to plan their lives.

So, once the call comes to an end, it’s good to follow these four steps:

  1. Summarize the call
  2. Say what happens next to set expectations
  3. Ask the customer if they have any other queries
  4. Finish with a friendly call-closing statement

By following this process, you alleviate any additional customer concerns, including:

  • Am I expected to do any follow-up actions?
  • What can I do if there is another problem?
  • Who can I talk to if this problem crops up again?
  • How long will it be until the issue is sorted?
  • Do I have to fill in any follow-up surveys?

More Quick Ideas for Setting the Right Call Expectations

While we have discussed how to deal with demanding customers and the value of signposting to demonstrate authority, there are many more ways in which you can set the right expectations in the call centre.

So, let’s finish with five quick tips for how else you can do just that:

  1. Break the acceptance of broken processes as advisors should be able to “shout out” about barriers that are making it impossible for them to meet customer expectations.
  2. Coach advisors to take ownership so they don’t “pass the buck” and frustrate customers further when dealing with a customer with high expectations.
  3. Lower script adherence because sometimes scripts can constrain advisors when the customer asks an unusual question.
  4. Share call recordings with your team where the advisor has managed customer expectations so you can pass on best practice.
  5. Target callers with high expectations in quality monitoring for a one-month period, to really put the emphasis on coaching on how best to reset customer expectations.

For more on managing customer expectations in the contact centre, read our articles:

Published On: 20th Jan 2021 - Last modified: 26th Jan 2021
Read more about - Skills, ,


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