Customers service teams are the original -- if often overlooked -- analytics engine in many organizations.

Although there are now highly sophisticated applications to crunch through data and derive insights about how a company is performing, customer service agents have a direct relationship with those who ultimately decide if a company succeeds or fails - the customers. The use of tools like Service Cloud can harness much of this information and provide recommendations on where service can prove, but the next step is ensuring agents are ready to act on those recommendations in a creative way.

At first, “creative” might sound like an odd or even dangerous word to apply to customer service teams. After all, these are groups that need to be trained on very specific rules and processes that must be followed if business is expected to run smoothly. Yet as the smartest companies know, customer service agents also need to be highly innovative in how they react to unexpected questions, complaints and other issues. They also need to do so quickly, across an increasingly large number of possible touch points.

Why not pair the power of the technology with an effort to harness the innate ingenuity of service agents? In other words, get the best ideas from the people closest to customer service issues and encourage them to collectively improve the way they handle everything from a confusing phone call to an angry tweet.

At your next team meeting, use any or all of the following questions as jumping-off points to stimulate some creative thinking:

“What Can We Say Other Than ‘Can’t?’”

Customers may not always realize the limitations of a particular product or service, or what’s involved in returning or exchanging an item they’ve purchased. After some haggling, agents might feel they have no choice but to say, “I’m sorry, we can’t.”

Instead, challenge the team to think of other responses that aren’t such a dead end. You want to hear things like:

  • offering alternatives to their request

  • offering additional information that puts their problem in context

  • offering to pass on detailed feedback to the company to possibly influence new ideas, products, policies and procedures.

“What Would You Do If You Were In Charge?”

Sometimes service agents will be honest -- even brutally honest -- about what they think is working or not working in terms of the company’s approach to dealing with various kinds of issues. On other occasions, though, they might remain silent -- even when they might act in a way that’s game-changing if they had the authority to do so.

Discuss what kind of tactics agents might use if they didn’t have to go through the process of getting approval from their manager or someone even higher-up in the company. Some obvious examples include a discount on the customer’s next purchase, a free add-on to something they already bought or even a full refund.

Even if the team doesn’t come up with something revolutionary, you may be able to spark an important conversation about making judgment calls and the level of autonomy staff are looking for.

“What’s The Worst That Could Happen?”

Agents are pretty savvy when it comes to difficult customers. They know there are certain phrases or approaches to listening that make tense situations more manageable. Of course, mistakes happen from time to time, but hopefully if an agent says or does the wrong thing they can recover.

In this scenario, however, ask a team member to give an example of a poor choice of words in reaction to a question or complaint. It could be something that shows the agent wasn’t listening or was just insensitive or rude. Write it on a whiteboard. Have another team member play the role of the customer, and have them react as realistically as possible. Then, ask the rest of the room to suggest the next worst thing the agent could say. Then the next worst thing.

Take this scenario to its logical conclusion -- will the customer simply disconnect in a huff? Will they ask to speak to someone higher up? Will they report the whole, terrible story on social media? All of the above?

Even if the dialogue verges on the far-fetched or ridiculous, exploring what not to do can help everyone reimagine what they should do.

“What Would Be The Ultimate ‘Thank You?’”

Customers don’t always convey a lot of gratitude in service situations, even when a situation has been resolved to their satisfaction. That might only be because they’re in a hurry to get off the phone, or they don’t want to bother sending a follow up email.

In this case, though, have your team role-play the character of a customer who truly feels as though the company has gone above and beyond to help them. Have each person write out a thank-you email, or perhaps even a short social media post, that captures specifically what they liked.

While these will be fictitious examples, the exercise can accomplish two things. It may jog some agents to recall a particularly successful moment when they were solving a customer’s problem. Secondly, by making them channel a sense of gratitude, it may reinforce the kind of impression the company wants its service department to make on each and every interaction.

“What kind of data should we be paying attention to?”

Service Cloud allows companies to paint a highly detailed picture of what’s happening, but agents may be particularly adept at identifying the specific kinds of data that can be turned into action. In some cases a more top-down approach to analytics is necessary, but think about where you could bring employees into the process a little earlier so they feel a bigger part of whatever solutions or standards you land upon. There have already been big shifts in how organizations need to not only listen to their customers when they call in but what they say on social media, for example. Your team should be constantly thinking about all the other new and emerging channels where customers may seek help.

Brainstorming questions like these may not lead to immediate answers. That’s not the point. Instead, think of this as an ongoing effort to foster a collaborative, engaged workforce that always keeps customer service experiences top of mind.