Tom Roach and John Harrison, both partners at BBH, went beyond advertising to look at the coal face of customer service. Their conversations with call centre workers – the undisputed experts in building instant rapport with even the most demanding of customers – resulted in 5 fascinating insights that also apply to the world of brand communications.

1. Confidence builds rapport

Call centre workers, John explains, rely on tone of voice and language to forge the immediate relationship: “The first 10 seconds dictate the rest of the call.” 

It’s therefore essential that the workers immediately convey their expertise: “The response you get from the public is one of immediate relief – that what they’re calling about will be resolved,” says Tom. He also emphasises the power of using the word “I” in conversations: “So often we talk about brands as ‘us’ – but there’s a lot of power of in saying ‘I’ and taking ownership of a problem.”

2. People want instant gratification

Talking to the call centre workers made it clear that customers have increasingly high expectations of what they’re going to get from businesses. “These expectations being set not just by customers but by other businesses – especially Amazon,” explains Tom.

John found that this attitude is part of the reason behind the high staff turnover at call centres: “Constantly dealing with these expectations can be exhausting.”

3. Aim for empathy, not just sympathy

It’s essential for call centre workers to reassure their customers: “They need to personally believe that you will make things better for them,” explains Tom.

Since call centre workers can’t rely on body language cues, John noticed that they “overcompensated” by paying extremely close attention to small changes in how people speak. Tom observed that call centre workers are “attuned to tiny changes in tone – like a dog or kids in the background. This gives them an instant picture of that person and lets them respond in a way that builds more trust.”

On the topic of building trust, one call centre worker explained: “Showing real empathy is the fastest way to build trust. You do that by listening and taking an interest in your customers’ lives. Start by asking a simple question that you can then use to build up a bigger picture conversation.”

Another worker advised against non-apologies: “Never say: ‘I’m sorry you feel that way.’”

It’s also essential to understand the difference between sympathy and empathy is also essential. In the words of another call centre worker, “Sympathy is saying ‘I’m sorry that happened to you,’ which doesn’t get a big reaction. Empathy is saying ‘I know how you feel – that happened to me.’”

This matters for advertising because, as John explains, “building empathy is something we’re constantly looking to do with our brands.”

4. Make things easy

From their interviews, John and Tom’s main takeaway is that the most important thing is to reduce the customer’s effort. “It relieves tension and anger and makes them trust you. It’s an antidote to an increasingly complicated world,” says Tom.

However, John also advises against being patronising – call centre workers make a point to avoid words like “basically” and “essentially.” 

5.  End on a peak

Speaking to the call centre workers, John noticed they think a lot about how they want people to feel at the end of their communication – they want people to leave happier than before they called. We should learn from this, John argues, as “in advertising, we don’t ask that question enough.” 

So can brands and advertisers do that? For Tom, the key is giving customers the feeling that they matter, because “leaving people on a high emotional feeling means that brand experience is more likely to be remembered.”

Do let us know what you think, and we’d love to hear from you if you have ideas or suggestions for future investigations. You can find us on Twitter @bbhlabs or leave a response in the comments below and we’ll get back to you.