What to know about anxious customers and their effect on customer service

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Dealing with anxious customers can be tricky if you don’t know what you’re doing. For instance, did you know that, according to Microsoft, 30 percent of consumers say not being able to reach a real human is the most frustrating part of a bad customer service experience?

But the truth is anxious customers just have to be shown some tender love and care, and shouldn’t be mistaken for being difficult.

“Customers do not care how much you know unless they know how much you care,” said Damon Richards, Customer Service Expert at Forbes.

If you know how to recognize an anxious customer and understand how to engage with them, you’ll be able to transform their anxiety into a delightful and satisfying customer experience that can lead to the acquisition of loyal brand advocates.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, roughly 40 million American adults—almost one in five people—suffer from an anxiety disorder. On a global scale, the World Health Organization says that about 300 million people have an anxiety disorder worldwide. That’s a lot of anxious consumers companies must figure out how to properly engage with.

Without a doubt, anxiety abounds in our society, forcing businesses to adapt the way they view, strategize, and perform customer service to a large segment of their consumers. A poll conducted by the American Psychiatric Association showed that the most common sources of anxiety in the U.S. are safety, health, and finance. Businesses that operate within these sectors must be particularly mindful of the anxious customer and figure out how to frame and deliver its customer service in a way that will alleviate stress and angst as opposed to alienating anxious customers or adding to their anxiety level.

That same APA poll revealed that anxiety levels in the U.S. are not diminishing. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The results showed that about 40 percent of the 1,000 U.S. residents surveyed said they were more anxious than the year before.

So what does this mean for businesses and the way they deliver their customer service interactions? For starters, companies must understand how to identify an anxious customer.

Identifying the Anxious Customer
Recognizing anxious customer behavior quickly is akin to identifying an IT data breach fast. The slower a company is to react and respond, the more long-term damage will be done. Positive interactions could result in a stronger bond to a brand, while negative experiences could completely sever a relationship—the presence of anxiety is an amplifier of emotional responses, good or bad.

Here’s the tough part for customer service managers, customer interaction specialists, and C-suite executives alike. With an increase in automated customer service and a decrease in person-to-person dialogue early in the customer experience, it can be very difficult to identify an anxious customer early.

But this difficulty can be mitigated if you know what to look for while interacting with consumers. Here are some anxious customer identifiers.

  • Excessive worrying
  • Feeling agitated
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Irrational fears/concerns
  • Hesitant/Cautious speech patterns
  • Use of qualifying words such as “maybe,” “perhaps,” “sometimes,” or “I guess”
  • Disjointed ideas
  • Long pauses
  • Fidgeting with small objects
  • There are also a few things a company can do to monitor customer stress so that these anxiety warning signs are easier to discern.
  1. Run periodic focus groups. This will not necessarily help you identify a specific anxious customer, but it can inform your customer experience team about common stressors or anxiety triggers among your clientele. By conducting regular focus groups, whether large or small, online or in person, companies can keep tabs on anxiety triggers and be better prepared to handle them.
  2. Monitor social media closely. Keep a close eye on your social media platforms for anxious customers. But keep in mind that it’s a fine line between responding to every troll out there versus genuinely helping anxious customers. The comment section can be a clear indicator of stress and anxiety and could be a great opening for a person-to-person connection.
  3. Poll and train your customer experience team. Every company has real, live human beings that are part of their customer experience team. These staff members can be a great resource for identifying customer anxiety triggers. They are also your most important asset for transforming customer anxiety into positive customer experiences that build stalwart brand loyalty. Listen to your customer experience front line people, and invest in their collective professional development. 

Once a company has put in motion tactics to help its customer experience personnel spot an anxious customer, the focus must shift toward delivering the right customer experience to those who fit that mold.

Helping the Anxious Customer

Helping the anxious customer is, deep down, the same as helping any customer: make their lives easier by solving their problem in the most convenient way possible for them. The key difference is the experience becomes amplified for the anxious customer, giving this customer experience interaction higher stakes.

Automated customer service tools and technologies can be amazingly convenient for customers in many cases; these same tools and technologies can also significantly reduce costs for the companies that use them. But what about the missed opportunity for personally connecting with an anxiety-riddled customer or client? In a world of automation, how can a company that has identified its anxious customers respond effectively to deliver the customer experience they need? And what is lost when a company tosses a client or customer off to a robotic voice that’s great at providing data quickly but incapable of reading human emotion?

Unfortunately, many companies drive anxious customers away when they’re the ones that need real connection the most. Companies wrongly push these customers to robots and impersonal information centers that only increase feelings of frustration and isolation.

When a customer is stressed or anxious, chatbots, automated emails, voice recordings, and online FAQs are not the remedies they want. For all the talk about AI and machine learning, there is absolutely no substitute for real human-to-human connection when it comes to assuaging a customer or client’s anxiety level.

Michelle A. Shell, in a recent Harvard Business Review article titled, “Why Anxious Customers Prefer Human Customer Service,” wrote: “As automated service processes are being deployed to engage customers, it has never been more important to understand how to balance touch and technology to deliver efficient and satisfying experiences—ones that lead to trusting, long-term relationships. Our findings suggest that using self-service technologies in high-anxiety settings can be costly. Anxious customers left to fend for themselves are less satisfied with their choices and less trusting of the company with which they are interacting. Merely offering access to talk to a person can be enough to restore customer confidence, improve trust in the firm, and strengthen long-term relationships.”

That’s it in a nutshell: the balance of touch and tech. Tech to handle rote data exchanges; and focused touch points between your brand and customers that need your company to step up and deliver on its promises.

Interestingly, Shell’s Harvard Business Review article revealed that just the offer of human-to-human connection was enough to make the customer feel supported by a brand, regardless of the outcome of the situation.

“This implies that companies deploying self-service technologies for anxiety-provoking tasks might be able to put their customers at ease, and enhance their trust in the firm, with a relatively low-cost change in design. Just knowing that we can chat with another person—even if we don’t choose to do so—seems to make a big difference,” stated Shell.

Business is built on relationships, making some level of human interaction important within the customer service experience. While Gartner estimates that by 2020, 85 percent of customer interactions with a company will be handled without human involvement, there’s still a need to provide a human element such as a timely follow-up from a sales or service agent, especially for anxious customers.

Finding Opportunity in the Anxious Customer Obstacle

While increased customer service automation levels make it harder to rapidly identify and respond to an anxious customer, they also provide an opportunity. Time saved via automation can be reallocated to developing best customer experience practices for transforming anxious customers into lifelong brand advocates. Too many companies take a set-it-and-forget-it approach to the customer experience, missing the opportunity to use focused human interaction when it’s needed most—like when trying to appease anxious customers.

There are tried and true methods for effectively transforming anxiety into a positive brand experience. Beyond simply offering the opportunity for person-to-person dialog, strong customer experience programs also train their staff to do the following:

  • Listen first, problem-solve later. Anxious customers want to be heard and they want to know someone is listening to them before any solutions are put forward. Whether your customer experience team is on a chat, responding to social media comments, or talking on the phone, always listen before trying to solve any issues at hand.
  • Empathize, don’t sympathize. Express empathy to the anxious customer. Let them know you understand and you’ve been where they are, too. Don’t sympathize as this implies you feel bad for them and can go in the wrong direction quickly. 
  • Do what you say you’re going to do. The root of anxiety is doubt and uncertainty. Provide the anxious customer with an increasing sense of trust by delivering on your word. Trust is the key to turning an anxious client into a lifelong brand advocate. 

Blake Morgan, a senior contributor to Forbes, had this to say about an effective, modern approach to customer experience in a recent article: “Customers come to companies during all times of their lives, both good and bad. It’s up to companies to understand their customers’ situations and reduce customer stress when it matters most. After all, the customer experience doesn’t just stop when customers go through trying times. Companies need to do all they can to be a help and not a hindrance during times of stress and hardship.”

Chatbots, AI, and voice recognition can certainly make customer service easier to deliver and very convenient for the customers themselves. These same technologies can also make companies lazy and customers increasingly anxious. Automation tech allows easier data and information sharing and can save companies a lot of money. However, these same technologies can drive a wedge between the customers you serve and your brand.

In the end, AI and automated customer service tools have their place and actually create the space for customer experience teams to have more highly targeted and highly impactful one-on-one interactions with customers. Companies that are able to identify anxious customers quickly and can achieve the delicate balance between tech and touch will keep happy customers happy and will transform anxious customers into loyal brand advocates.

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