Customer Service for Science.

Travis Nielsen is the founder and CEO of Azurigen Management and Consulting Solutions Inc. A STEM project management firm that specializes in linking conservation based science to business and government. He is a published scientist specializing in Marine Biology with 10 years experience in STEM, and 10 years of experience in management and leadership. He has been responsible for projects with budgets up to $500,000, working with multiple stakeholders, large public engagement mandates, and with staffs up to 100 people in locations all across the globe.

Walking into the airport one morning, my mind was still addled by the fog of waking up at 4am. I was heading to a conference for work and as I get to my ticket counter to check-in for my flight I am politely told by the counter staff that the flight had been cancelled. Confused, and curious as to why the flight was shut down, I enquired around until I found a friend that was on shift as a TSA agent, I asked what she knew, and it turns out that the flight was cancelled because one of the flight crew didn’t show up for work. The rumor was the crew member had a little too much fun at the pub and was nursing off a self-inflicted illness… I sighed and laughed to myself about how it was just my luck. This led to a magic adventure of cancellations and bookings for multiple flights and waiting for hours, just to leave the airport.  The reason that this cancellation is now a funny story and not a vivid nightmare – the airline that cancelled the flight went out of its way to help me when things went sideways, giving me vouchers for food and hotel stays, helping me as best they could to get where I needed to go, and generally doing all it could to help.  This help is what the business world calls ‘customer service’ and it is a critical part of every business out there, and for many small businesses, it can be the difference between success and failure.

In science, even though we deal with businesses daily, we rarely realize that we engage in customer service constantly! From professors dealing with the students they teach to the post-docs searching for in-kind services and grant money. To restate the cliché – Science is not done in a vacuum. Scientists should consider themselves an unconventional type of business entity that doesn’t sell a product or service, but instead deals in data and discovery – this is an invaluable product and service that keeps many industries going. As a result, customer service is an integral part of how we do science, and it should be obvious we need to keep our customer service skills sharp.

So, let’s talk customer service. What is it? There are dozens of business courses and resources out there that have studied and defined customer service. My personal definition – of the broadest concept of customer service – is being nice, responsive, and hard-working for the people that need things from you, and those you need things from. If you are nice, responsive, and work hard for the people that need things from you, they will keep coming back to you, because they will trust you to be nice, responsive, and hard-working! In Science, as it is in Business, trust is key.

The greatest hurdle we face in Science is that the public stereotypes us: We are the absent minded, the white-lab coats completely out of touch with regular people. At its worst, fictional scientists and experts in movies/TV are given a free pass at being cold jerks lacking social skills. These stereotypes have resulted in the public being mistrustful of scientists because they don’t want to be made to feel inferior. Customer service skills are an opportunity to change this. If scientists apply the basic principles of customer service to their daily interactions with others we can begin to gain trust, build strong relationships, and change the stereotype. Leading to many opportunities that otherwise might not be realized.

So, how do we approach customer service as scientists and researchers? It’s not difficult, but the biggest hurdle for the scientists I have worked with is defining “Who is the customer of my science?” To address this, I have come up with a simple set of questions to utilize to determine if a person is one of your customers:

Question 1 – Do I need something from this person/organization?

Question 2 – Does this person/organization have some stake in the work that I am doing?

Question 3 – Does my work have the potential to indirectly change the way a person/institution does things?

If you answer ‘Yes’ to any of the above questions, then the people in question are a customer. They are a customer because the work you are doing will result in a them having to engage, either directly or indirectly, with the consequences of your work. While working on research, be aware of what you are doing, and think about the potential customers that will get wrapped up in your work. By looking at it proactively and asking these questions you will begin to understand who are influenced by your work and how.

Learning how to treat people like customers and provide them with good service is also not difficult. Customer service is a series of social skills that can be learned and practiced. With time you can become quite excellent at these. I will now go into the basics of the skills of customer service, and give some of my own tips and tricks to help you on the path to science customer service.

BE ACCESSIBLE – the hardest part of customer service for many scientists to understand is that you need to be accessible to your customers to provide good service. If you really want to be accessible, providing people with the means to contact you is not enough, you need to proactively reach out to potential customers and talk to them. Keeping open channels of communication and show your customers that you are sincere about their satisfaction. Being proactive can prevent issues and challenges before they start. In my experience, lack of access leads to more trouble than it’s worth. Protip here: get outside your comfort zone – include as diverse a group of customers as you can when promoting your accessibility, ask people that have never even heard of your science questions about how it can help them. This will open up insights that you never knew you needed to know, gives new avenues for your work to go, and makes things easier over time.

LISTEN – Good listening can be broken down into three steps. First, keep your mouth shut – don’t interject or add comments while the person is talking. Second, actively think about and try to understand what your customer is saying. Think meaningfully about what they are trying to convey, ignore your own thoughts/opinions and only try to process their words. Finally, restate and clarify. After the customer has finished speaking restate the issue, or ask questions. Examples of these restatements and questions would be

“What I think you’re saying is that X is an issue?”

“I am not sure I understand what you mean by X?”

“Could you explain what you mean by X?”

Note that much of the communication in customer service is initially very superficial, it’s very common to have someone approach you and say, “I have a problem with your project.” The complaint is so open-ended that it’s impossible to know the specific issue, and will most likely require some probing to understand better. It takes time and effort to get to the heart of an issue, so be prepared to take the time. Sometimes, listening is what a customer primarily wants from you, and it can result in a huge amount of goodwill.

EMPATHIZE – Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Try to see things from others’ point of view, and try to understand the emotions behind what people are communicating. If someone is obviously upset or passionate about something, do not tell them to calm down or try to change their attitude. Though this may take you out of your comfort zone, that’s okay, as long as the other person does not threaten violence, let them be impassioned. Try to share in the customer’s emotions, if someone is telling you a happy story, be excited for them. If they’re sharing a sad/angry story, sympathize with them. Sometimes saying “I’m sorry, that really sucks.” can make a huge difference to a person, because connecting emotionally with someone gives a person a sense of importance and validation for the feelings that are being expressed. Most importantly, if you empathize, be genuine, do not fake it. Fake empathy is almost always noticed, and your customers will lose trust in you for faking. Despite what academia has tried to instill in scientists, we can’t be cold and unfeeling about things, science is a human endeavor, emotions will always be a part of it.

RESPOND QUICKLY – once you have figured out the issue at hand, respond to it as quickly as is possible. Be considerate, and do not wait to respond. If the person makes a post publicly on social media, be sure to respond to it on social media. As the post now has an audience, how you respond to it will influence your public reputation, and silence can be damning. If the person messages privately via an email, text, or phone, keep the conversation private. Quick response is especially important with complaints, the faster you respond the more likely it is someone is willing to work with you, and leaving a person hanging can make a private complaint go public.

PUT THE WORK IN – it is of the utmost importance that you take the time to work with the person to determine a way to help them. Customer service will usually fall into one of the following broad categories:

General Questions, Concerns, and Complaints.

General questions make up the bulk of customer service, the best way to be of help in this case is to be knowledgeable and helpful. NEVER ANSWER A QUESTION WITH A LIE OR POTENTIALLY FALSE STATEMENT! If you do not know the answer, admit that you do not know, and go out of your way to find out the answer. This is how we show that we are willing to put the work into our potential customers.

Concerns are a slightly different from a question, and not quite a complaint, and are usually based in worry or anxiety about the work being done. For example, I was helping a researcher collect dogfish sharks in an area by using hook and line fishing, and a boat came up to us and was quite certain what we were doing was illegal, and we needed to stop, or they would have to call the authorities. The person was concerned we were doing something illegal. It was unfounded concern in that case, because we had permits for the work, and after we explained what was being done, the person was satisfied and eager to know more about the work. Please note that not all concerns are unfounded, be mindful of your own research, put thought into these concerns and determine ways to mitigate them.

Complaints usually have a very specific issue that they are asking to be resolved. This is where the listening comes in, listen to their complaint, ask questions to define the specifics of the complaint and how it can be fixed. Work with the customer to determine a good solution. Always enter discussions with a customer if the customer has good intentions. ADMIT ANY AND ALL MISTAKES AND APOLOGIZE THAT THE MISTAKE HAPPENED – do not be defensive, or try to explain the issue away. Owning up to mistakes will make people respect you much more than if you use vague language and try to shirk responsibility. Once the issue is admitted, make sure to ask as many questions as you need to get to the heart of the matter, and do your best to make sure they are satisfied with the outcome.

BE CONSISTENT – Eventually, customer service comes down to a series of conversational patterns. Similar questions, concerns and complaints will come up repeatedly. Do your best to answer questions with the best most current information you have. Make sure that you address concerns with consistency and show people any changes you make because of their concerns. With complaints, remember that customers communicate with each other, if you offer one person a solution and then give another person with the same complaint a better solution, both customers will eventually find out and you will have another complaint on your hands. For repetitive complaints, learn from the patterns and use the information gathered to determine the complaint’s root causes and fix the root cause to stop future complaints. Always try to maintain composure and a have a consistent attitude. Many times, the issue at hand will be an unassuming question, which gets asked repeatedly by different people (e.g. “Where is the bathroom?”). Though these questions can become tedious, make sure you are answering the question as if it is the first time you have been asked, no matter how many times you must answer it. Remember the person asking the question doesn’t know the information, and doesn’t know that you have had to answer it a thousand times.

The customer service skills I have laid out in this article are not special. These are social concepts most people have heard in the past –  Listen. Be Kind. Empathize. Don’t procrastinate. Say what you are going to do. Do what you say. If you can manage to do that in all your interactions with others as a scientist, you will be providing excellent customer service and garnering goodwill amongst those you interact with, taking you farther than you imagined possible.