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Q: Sorry for the lengthy question, but I recently had an interaction with a female customer (I’m male) that was rather embarrassing and I wasn’t sure how to handle it. Here’s what happened.

I work for an ISP help desk, and a woman called about a problem with her Internet connection. She was already upset, and I guess all the security questions we have to ask pushed her over the edge. After her account number, social security number and a couple other questions, she blurted out “Do you need my bra size, too?” Unfortunately, her sarcasm didn’t instantly register, and without thinking, I replied “We already have that.” The silence that followed seemed to last forever, but I eventually got back to my service script and got her connected. Even though she thanked me for my help, I wasn’t sure whether to apologize for my brain fade or just keep my mouth shut, so I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to make matters worse. What would you have done?

A:[Chuckle] I’m usually quick to answer the questions for this column, but yours isn’t a typical question. In fact, it’s probably the most outrageous question I’ve ever received. Anyway, here goes: Having been a contact center agent myself, I’ve had some similar faux pas — as have most agents — and all I can say is they’re often bad news/good news situations. In your case, bad news because you certainly didn’t qualify for the “Best Customer Service” award, but good news since it’s not like you broke any commandments of the Customer Service Handbook. I would like to know one thing, however. Was that period of silence because you were trying to pry your foot out of your mouth?

For many agents, it’s easy to switch to auto pilot at times, especially when they’re asked the same questions day after day and track one account number after another. “Brain fade,” as you say. Still, are embarrassing slip-ups acceptable when someone’s brain momentarily disengages? It depends on how the situation gets handled.

With your customer, all I can say is thank goodness you didn’t initially process what she said. At least you didn’t crack up laughing or respond with something like, “Your bra size would be great if you have it handy...” Given my own experience, you did the right thing by stopping to reengage your brain and realize your response wasn’t exactly appropriate.

As for the silence, not immediately saying anything more after your gaffe also worked in your favor. Mostly it allowed you to catch your breath and regain your composure. At the same time, though, it allowed your customer to gather herself — to realize that, while her bra size made for a good (and potentially effective!) security question, she probably could have come up with a better example.
Once you resumed the interaction is where you came up short. Staying professional enough to get her Internet connection fixed was beneficial, but it would have been wiser had your customer also heard: “Ms. Smith, I’m very sorry for my remark. I obviously wasn’t listening and didn’t realize what was said. I’m equally sorry you find our security measures to be a burden, but they’re in place to protect your account and keep anyone else from accessing it.”

No script, just a heartfelt apology that would have eased the uneasiness I’m sure you both felt. Supervisors should stay objective in such cases, too. Had Ms. Smith requested a supervisor and called for an apology, I’d say one was warranted, even considering her own thoughtless comment. But any further discipline like writing you up? I’d say no.

The way I view the industry in which we work, people experience a momentary lapse now and then that can make any interaction a little outrageous. After all, we’re human.

The “Outrageous Interactions” Promotion
Ok, it’s a shameless plug, I admit. But stories like this are why we launched the “Outrageous Interactions” promotion. For contact center agents and managers, the contest is an outlet to tell your most outrageous stories, and to win a five-day/four-night trip to Hawaii if your story is selected as the most unusual. Or win $500 if our panel of judges selects your “referral” story of another agent or manager as being the best one. Submit your entries before August 31, 2008; we’ll announce the winner on September 30, 2008. For more details and to enter online, visit the “Outrageous Interactions” Web site at www.outrageousinteractions.com. Good luck!

Tim Passios is Director of Solutions Marketing for Interactive Intelligence Inc. and has more than 17 years experience in the contact center industry. Interactive Intelligence is a leading provider of IP business communications software and services for the contact center and the enterprise, with more than 3,000 installations in nearly 70 countries. For more information, contact Interactive Intelligence at [email protected] or (317) 872-3000.

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