I’ve been a fan of British science-fiction for as long as I can remember so, as I was coming up with topics related to customer service, it was inevitable that Vogon’s would come up at some point. Vogon’s are  a race of beings from Douglas Adams’ book The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and are known to be the most bureaucratic race that has ever been encountered. The book describes them as being a race who wouldn’t save their own grandmothers without an order, signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, subject to public enquiry… well, you get the picture.

I’d be willing to bet that a large number of you now have some past customer service experience stuck in your head (sorry about that) where you felt like you were merely a number dishing out hard-earned cash into some corporate coffer.

Needless to say, this type of customer experience does not make for happy customers. It isn’t uncommon for customer service professionals to get into a rut and start zoning out. Instead of engaging the customer, they’ve now become Vogons – quoting off rules and regulations rather than engaging the customer in a friendly interaction. Honestly, it’s not that they’re bad at their jobs, it’s just that – much like some customers who call in – they’ve forgotten they’re dealing with a human at the other end of the line.

Fortunately, there’s hope. Here are 5 tips to help your customer service agents (or “customer experience ambassadors” as I’ve heard them referred to) get out of Vogon territory.

1. You Can Be Nice and Still Follow the Rules

There’s a concept I call “militant professionalism.” This is an aversion by employees to engaging with a customer in any other way but what they define as “professional.” While this mindset is generally good for the company, it also doesn’t lead to an extraordinary customer experience (just a good one.) Companies that empower their employees to engage in a more informal interaction with customers will tend to develop a stronger customer relationship since the customer’s experience with the company is more like chatting with a friend who’s in the know than having to call a nameless, faceless company.

2. Bad Rules = Bad Customer Experience

Sometimes, agents who feel like the rules and regulations they have to enforce are unfair will often go into shut-down mode, mechanically rattling off these rules with little regard for the customer’s understanding. This behavior is natural. We humans hate having to follow rules we don’t agree with. When we’re forced to inflict these rules on others, we get defensive and complacent. This doesn’t mean you can only put rules and regulations into place that your employee’s agree with. What it entails is balancing the needs of your business with the needs of your customer service staff. After all, they’re on the front lines interacting with your customers on a daily basis. Of anyone within your company, they are probably the most in tune with the needs and wants of you customers.

3. Your Agents Are Almost BFF’s With your Customers

Hearing from unhappy customers all day, your customer service agents know a whole lot about your customers. If something goes wrong with a product or service, they’re often the first to hear about it (usually repeatedly.) Tapping into this valuable resource will give you a huge advantage by 

3. Keep Customer Service on your Home Planet

For many years, outsourcing your customer service overseas was seen as a way to cut costs while still maintaining a customer service presence. Thankfully, this trend is now reversing as customers were nearing revolt. The problem with outsourcing was that it alienated customers to an even higher level than just about anything a domestic agent could do. On top of the standard issues that can occur in a call center environment, an additional layer of communication issues is added due to the significant differences between cultures and languages. Also, the “militant professionalism” issues become even more profound in a country where a rigid class system is still in effect and people do what they’re told… and only what they’re told. By keeping your customer service agents “locally”, they’ll have a lot easier time meaningfully engaging customers and your customers will thank you for it.

4. Give Your Agents Superpowers

Empower your agents to resolve a customer’s issue and provide a single point of contact.