When Should You Help A Coworker Struggling With A Customer

June 28, 2012

This topic came up in a discussion with a team member. She asked, “how do I know when to jump in and help someone with a customer?”

It was not a problem I had thought much about before. While I had discussed the eventuality in training, I had not given much consideration to the level of uncertainty that team members can have in these situations.

As the owner, I can easily jump into a conversation with a customer simply by saying, “Hi, I’m Adam; I’m the owner. I couldn’t help but overhearing what you were saying, and I would love to help you out.”

If you are the owner or manager, you are generally welcomed into any customer conversation as someone in authority who can “do more” to help resolve the customer’s issues. Of course, you want to be aware of not stepping on your team’s toes, but outside of those considerations, the in to the conversation is pretty easy.

However, what should someone do when they are not the boss or manager? What if they hold the same position as the person assisting the customer? How should team members be trained to handle these situations?

When To Jump In To A Customer Service Conversation

Below are 4 scenarios where you should consider jumping in to help a coworker struggling with a customer:

  • The coworker is giving inaccurate information. If you hear a coworker giving a customer inaccurate information, that is usually a strong signal to involve yourself in the conversation, particularly if that information could come back to haunt the customer and the company later. In customer service, false expectations are what team members give to pass off problems to others down the line.
  • The coworker is no longer focused on a solution. When you see that your coworker is in a reactive place and is more focused on defending himself than helping to satisfy the customer, then it can be time to step in. If you step in gently and focus on solutions, your teammate will hopefully be inspired to rejoin you on a productive path.
  • The customer is not responding well to your coworker. When it is obvious that the customer is now reacting to your coworker as much as the situation or the company, a fresh face can really help change the direction of the conversation.
  • The customer needs someone with more authority. Even if you do not technically have more formal authority, you can occasionally adopt an air of authority through knowledge or experience. “No sir, I am not a manager, but I’ve been with the company for years and I am very familiar with the product you are talking about.” This move implicitly knocks your coworker a bit — i.e. I have more knowledge than the person you have been talking to — so it should be used with care.

Feelings, Everyone’s Got Feelings

Stepping in to help a coworker is an inherently delicate business. You need to be aware of your relationship with the coworker and the coworker’s general disposition. Egos are fragile things, and stepping in to save a situation can inherently be seen by less secure coworkers as insulting or patronizing.

If the goal is to help the customer, you can only achieve that goal if your actions do not make the situation worse.

The four scenarios above will give you some fairly solid guidelines on when to consider stepping in to help a coworker, but each specific instance will be dictated by who is in the situation as much as what the situation is.

Have you ever watched a coworker struggling with a customer and debated whether or not to step in? Have you ever stepped in and wished you hadn’t?

10 thoughts on “When Should You Help A Coworker Struggling With A Customer”

  1. Ha, I see it hitting the fan and I’m hitting the door………..

    The team I work with has been together for a long time; almost like a marriage, we have a good feel when to step in and when to let it run its course.Sometimes they welcome the help because they know there is no easy resolution in sight.

    At least with the people I work with, they are not going to resist any help. However, if you jump in be ready to take it over to completion.

    1. If you run away fast enough, you don’t have to worry about stepping on toes, right?

      You’re so right Bill; this topic is much easier when you work closely with the same people. You know how to “tag-team” with the focus on the customer and not personalities.

  2. I think you can jump in aslong as after you don’t make your collegue feel like they haven’t delievered or be patronising to them, then I think it’s ok to help out a little.

  3. What would happen a lot in the retail job I worked: a customer would get frustrated and say, “Let me speak to the manager!” or–if they were already speaking to the manager–“Let me speak to her!” pointing at me. It was uncomfortable, to say the least. I wasn’t a manager.

    These are good tips to keep things from escalating before the customer escalates.

    1. See Shakirah, you must have carried yourself well if people were pointing to you! As I’m sure you found out, the good news is that it can still work even if you aren’t the manager because sometimes the customer just needs a fresh, friendly face!

  4. This whole entire issue goes beyond the workplace. When there is an accident, do you help someone in need or roll on by? Do people want to stick their neck out when someone is in trouble? Years ago they did; times have changed.

    Great tips for the workplace, though, Adam. No one is trained in these issues; good thing you’re doing a great job to help.

    1. That’s a whole different can of worms there Jayme! But you’re right, the world has definitely changed in that regard since I was young. People are much more hesitant to help a stranger.

      It’s actually an interesting bridge to the workplace because in the end what enables someone to feel comfortable stepping in (besides training) is the culture — whether of society or the company.

  5. With a colleague who you aren’t meeting eye to eye or simply having a not good enough relationship, expect the worse reaction when you step in. However good or gentle you push your way to the situation, be ready to receive the flak of irritation or condescension. Of course there are those who are mature enough to recognize and thank you for the effort of helping them with a customer but some could be simply childish and arrogant to appreciate it.

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