Skepticism: The Secret Ingredient to Exceptional VAR Customer Service

By: Jim Roddy, VP of Marketing at the RSPA

Excellent customer service is grounded in reality, not in presentation tricks or flowery language. “A suit and hair product isn’t a value-add,” is one of my all-time favorite VAR quotes because it’s blunt, hilarious, and spot-on all at the same time.

When I talk with VAR and ISV teams about how to elevate their customer service, we go far beyond generic advice like “smile when you answer the phone.” Instead, we dive deep into real-world tactics like skepticism, getting specifics, and validating the information you receive from a customer. Let’s do a crash course on those topics today.

Skepticism is an attitude of doubt. It’s basically saying, “I’m not sure I can believe you,” but that’s not exactly what you state out loud. And please don’t confuse skepticism with cynicism, which is much darker and harmful to relationships (e.g. “All customers are liars because they’re trying to get one over on me!”).

Effective customer service reps embrace healthy skepticism by holding out for facts as opposed to vague explanations or words that only convey feelings. This is important to make sure you’re addressing the real problem. Many resellers I’ve talked with tell stories that follow this unfortunate pattern:

  • The customer complains about their system not working and says, “The XYZ is broken.”
  • The VAR pulls together their techs to figure out how to fix the XYZ.
  • After several hours, the techs realize XYZ actually isn’t what’s causing the problem; it’s ABC that’s malfunctioning.
  • The VAR goes to work fixing ABC, cursing to themselves about the time they wasted and regretting their lack of skepticism about the customer’s original claim.

When problem solving for a customer, ask open-ended questions that help you fully understand the underlying reasons. Then ask follow-up questions that thoroughly drill down and prove the customer’s claim is true. Don’t reveal your skepticism to the customer. Ask questions in a friendly, non-threatening manner. Make it clear that you’re on their side – you’re happy to find the right answer whatever that answer may be. Palatable ways to ask skeptical questions include such language as, “Can you help me understand …”, “I’d like to get some more details from you on that …”, and “Can you explain this aspect to me?”

In their book Decisive, authors Dan Heath and Chip Heath (Chip keynoted RSPA Inspire in 2015) say skepticism and validation help you avoid Confirmation Bias, which is developing a quick belief about a situation and then seeking out information that bolsters your belief. The Heaths write, “Asking tough, disconfirming questions can dramatically improve the quality of information we collect. The best ideas come from close-up investigation of a situation. How can you improve something you don’t fully understand?”

During your fact-finding process, avoid giving undue credit or casting undeserved blame. One fact or one instance of a specific behavior does not constitute a trend. Do not finalize your opinion of the situation based on one or two data points. Don’t make the mistake of filling in the blanks with your assumptions. Yes, your experience is important, but don’t let it blind you to the facts in front of you. Be skeptical that this service call could be different from your previous calls.

As a customer, co-worker, or supplier provides answers or information about a situation, and as you conduct research on your own, continually ask yourself:

  • Do I have the full story?
  • Do I need to know more?
  • Do I believe what is being presented?
  • What holes can I poke in this?

Remain skeptical until you receive proof or validate the truth of any answer. Ask deeper questions, based on the customer’s prior answers, to draw out all the information. Get specific factual details — times, dates, names, places, order of events, etc. — until you confirm all the important details. Many people are good at talking around a subject without divulging the facts.

Getting specifics requires initiative and persistence on your part. Good To Great author Jim Collins wrote, “Any exceptional enterprise depends first and foremost upon having self-managed and self-motivated people. The best have an incurable compulsion to vacuum the brains of people they meet.”

For additional VAR and ISV customer service best practices, be sure to attend these customer-centered breakout sessions at RSPA RetailNOW 2019, scheduled for July 28-31 in San Antonio:

  • The Voice of the Customer, presented by Ansley Hoke of ScanSource
  • Enhancing the Customer Experience at the Point of Sale, presented by Stephen Bergeron of APG Cash Drawer
  • Highjacking Customer Success, presented by Butch Langlois and Jake West of Vend
  • Merging Payments and the Ideal Customer Experience, presented by John Arato of MagTek
  • Practical Customer Service Tools, presented by Andrew Bourne of Octopi

Jim Roddy is the Vice President of Marketing for the Retail Solutions Providers Association (RSPA). He has been active in the POS channel since 1998, including 11 years as the President of Business Solutions Magazine, six years as an RSPA board member, one term as RSPA Chairman of the Board, and several years as a business coach for VARs, ISVs, and MSPs. Jim is regularly requested to speak at industry conferences and he is author of Hire Like You Just Beat Cancer. For more information, contact