by Bob Barleen
Date Published - Last Updated February 26, 2016

Okay, everyone, let’s have some fun. Grab a pen and paper and make a list of your top five most annoying, most cringe-worthy experiences. I’ll wait.

Done? Good.

I’m willing to bet that somewhere between having a root canal and being subjected to a Teletubbies marathon is the time you had to call customer service or the help desk. It was an experience that left you with the feeling that, instead of your time being well invested, it was time you were never going to get back...ever. You felt like the experience was a combination of condescension, patronization, and bad script reading, in which the only thing that was resolved was your reluctance to call back the next time you had a problem. It’s a dark, depressing feeling, isn’t it?

Now, take that same feeling and apply it to each and every person who calls your help desk.

I sit on the front lines of a level 1/1.5 IS support help desk, and every day I hear customers apologize for bothering us, or say they don’t want to be made to feel like they’re stupid and don’t know what they’re doing. This prompted a visit to our quality manager (QM), to see how customers rated their previous calls. I wasn’t the least bit surprised to see low scores and negative comments.

What made things more interesting was the fact that, in follow-up conversations with the QM, the analysts didn’t feel they’d connected with their customers. They attributed this to miscommunication, assumptions, or sometimes even misinterpreted organizational policies. This inspired me to come up with a system of guidelines, tips, and tricks analysts could use to create the ideal customer experience. I call it the 5 E’s: empathize, enlighten, educate, empower, and entertain.


This is the actual script that’s mandated for each incoming call:

The phone rings.

Me: Thank you for calling the IS Support Center, this is Bob. Can I get your employee number, please?

Caller: (gives number)

Me: Thank you. How can we help you today?

That’s it. Beyond that, everything else is 100-percent improvisation.

There are lots of different ways things could go from this point, but most of the time, this is when the customer will start explaining the issue to me. And this is when you have to start building a partnership, by using a rule I call the “No YOU, no ME, only WE” rule. Basically, when you’re talking to customers, never refer to yourself in the first person (“I” or “me”) or say “you” when speaking to them. Avoid statements like “Yes, I understand, but…” or “Listen to me…” or “No, you’re doing it wrong” (the most inflammatory of statements). Your customers know something’s wrong. That’s why they called.

Always use inclusive phrases that start with “we,” “us,” or “let’s” (e.g., “We’d better get that fixed” or “Let’s try doing this”). This not only gives customers a sense of empowerment and the feeling that they’re not alone, it also helps you find common ground.

After establishing a vocal partnership, start picking up cues, and not just from what they’re telling you. Sometimes they’ll start off with a frustrated sigh; sometimes they’ll say something like, “This only ever happens to me.” (My personal favorite is, “I’ve got a good one for you”.) Catching cues like this will help you understand the type of person you’re talking to; some customers aren’t in the mood to mess around and want to get right to the problem. Responding appropriately will help cement your partnership.

The key to effectively empathizing lies in relaying a level of understanding and then connecting over a common bond. In this case, the common bond is the issue the customer is calling about. One of the most effective ways to convey empathy is basically to repeat what the customer tells you, usually starting with something like, “So, let me see if I’ve got this right.” This will immediately make customers feel like they’re being listened to, and not just calling to listen to heavy breathing or empty silence on the other end of the line.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my life and career, it’s that you can’t control human nature anymore than you can control the weather. You’re going to get calls from hot, frustrated, angry, and disappointed customers, some of whom may not be fun to talk to under the best circumstances. The thing to do in these cases (after putting on your flameproof headset) is to grab a tight hold, understand that it’s not you they’re angry at, and let the storm rage...but not for too long. Give them a minute or two to vent, and once the wind starts to die down, move on to the next phase.


When children encounter situations they don’t understand, they get frustrated or frightened. What does it take to help them move past these feelings? Usually, a parent comes along to tell them everything will be alright, help them understand the complexity of the problem, and help them get by it somehow, if not by solving the problem then at least by understanding it. This is basically what you’re doing with customers in the enlighten phase: reassuring, refocusing, and resolving.

Remember those gale-force winds you were dealing with on that call a moment ago? Just one sentence will immediately ease that customer’s pain and turn the call around (really, it works almost every time):

“Let’s get to work on getting this fixed.”

There’s great power in this sentence (and you can end it with “taken care of,” “resolved,” “set up,” etc.—whatever fits the situation). The first thing it does is reassure your customers that you’re here for them and you’re ready to start looking for answers. The second thing it does is establish a level of professionalism; the customer can safely assume they’ve contacted the right person to get them out of their pickle. Lastly, it moves the call forward, away from dwelling on the problem and toward focusing on a solution.

When reassuring customers, calm is key. Let them know they did the right thing by calling you, no matter what the issue is, and that you would never have known something was wrong until they reported it.

Once you start to get the impression that the customer is in a happier place, refocus them on the matter at hand. Once they’ve explained the issue to you (and vented a little) and you’ve demonstrated your understanding by repeating and clarifying things, it’s time to start moving forward. If you sense that the customer is slipping back to the downside, bring them back onto the path toward resolution. This maintains your partnership, but it puts you in the driver’s seat. It’s up to you to keep the partnership alive until that glorious moment when resolution is achieved.

Resolving an issue is like winning a prize. You may not be an instant winner, but you’ll eventually win (and better late than never!). This is something you should always relay to your customers. Let them know that, regardless of what happens now or later, this issue will be resolved, whether it’s a fix, training, information, or a workaround. Every customer is a winner, every time!


So, your customers are in a happier place, and their problems are more or less on their way to being resolved. What should you do now? Educate them. Show them where things zigged when they should have zagged.

One very important thing to keep in mind is something my mother-in-law told me when I first began my career in IT support. She said, “Do us all a favor and dumb it down when you’re talking to us.” This doesn’t mean you should speak slowly or condescend to your customers. The person you’re talking might not have the same understanding of the issue as you do, and they’re not going to understand a single thing you say if you can’t relay it to them in terms they’re familiar with.

It’s important to maintain the connection you established at the beginning of the call, because what comes next could very well save the customer from having to call back for the same issue.


We’re probably all familiar with this proverb: “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for life.” This also applies to technical support. If you show the customer what to do to make sure the problem never happens again, then they won’t have to call again (not for that problem, anyway). Is it a dropped shared drive? Show them how to map to a network drive. Is it a password issue? Show them where the self-service reset portal resides. Empower your customers to fix their own problems. It’ll pay off in time and emotional energy saved in the future.

Now, one caveat: If the fix is something that could be potentially harmful to the customer and/or other customers, then don’t share it. You might be comfortable with making registry key changes or installing certain applications, but these same actions could spell disaster in the wrong hands. There’s a very good reason why some areas of a PC are restricted to administrators.

If you’ve followed all the first four E’s, then you should have created a close-to-ideal experience for your customer. But if you want to make the call a memorable one—one that will inspire the customer to give you high marks on customer satisfaction surveys and gush about their experience to their colleagues—then the most important thing to do is to...


I was privileged to grow up on the stage, in a family of professional entertainers. To this day, my family still thinks it’s weird that I have a day job.

One of the first things you learn as an entertainer is that if you don’t have a person’s attention within ten seconds, then you’re doing something wrong. If that same person isn’t enjoying themselves within sixty seconds, then you’re doing everything wrong. You have to be able to read people quickly to know what works for them. You have to know your audience.

If you can get your customer to laugh or share a story, you’ll know you’ve put them at ease. And if you can do that, chances are the call is going to go smoothly. The human touch is something no automated system or script can provide. When I train new analysts, one thing I always tell them is, “Your personality is a large part of what got you this job. Don’t be afraid to use it.”

At the same time, be mindful of the fact that if you choose to use humor (or song, in my case; I occasionally sing for select individuals, but they have to ask first), remember that there’s a line between professionalism and foolishness. A little goes a long way, and even a little may be completely inappropriate, depending on your customer. Again, know your audience and play to what works for them.

*    *    *    *    *

Empathy, enlightenment, education, empowerment, and entertainment: a little bit of each goes into the ideal customer experience. By following the 5 E’s, you can make life a little easier for yourself and your customers. When you partner up, everyone wins!


Bob Barleen is an IT support technician at TDS, Inc., where he works on the front lines of an award-winning help desk. Having grown up onstage in a family of professional entertainers, he uses this experience to improve customer service skills and coach others to improve the overall customer experience. Originally from Colorado, he now lives in Madison, WI.

Tag(s): customer experience, process


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