As I have explored before, customer service folk tend to have very warped fight-or-flight responses, and there are two main ways that we deal with this. One is to detach and try to become as objective as possible about the whole scene. The other is to become a balled-up fist of rage. Both have their pros and cons.
There is, however, a slightly better Third Way, which is a lot like Bruce Lee’s style in 1973’s Enter the Dragon. “When the opponent expands, I contract; when he contracts, I expand; and when there is an opportunity, I do not hit. It hits all by itself.” Among other things, Bruce had an expert knowledge of semicolon usage.
But how do you tell when your customer is expanding or contracting on the phone, or even via email? You have to draw from emotional memory. You watch the storm clouds gathering or clearing, and you listen to the wind rustling the grass.
Sentences that begin with “You…” are expanding. Sometimes, this is a misunderstanding of our service, and the customer comes out swinging because they’re hungry and upset. Still, in general (relationships, marriages, friendships, business partnerships, etc), beginning with “you” is generally taken as an aggressive act because whatever comes after is unloaded upon the other person. Maybe there’s a misunderstanding, and one person feels hurt. Maybe there is fault. Coming out aggressively immediately puts the other person on the defensive, which significantly lowers the chances of a satisfactory resolution. Even if the intent is just to unload baggage and vent anger, the likelihood of the other person actually listening to the complaint and noting the important parts for future reference is pretty close to nil. They’re probably just waiting for it to be over so they can think about just about anything else. “You” is a tornado warning. Typically, it goes the direction of, “You need to fix x right now, or I’m going to file a complaint with the BBB.” Occasionally, phone monkeys will occasionally get, “You are awesome! I love you guys!” It’s rare, though, and it throws us off our game.
A more neutral stance begins with “I…” and continues on about the things that affected the customer. It seems counter intuitive–that a more objective approach would be a more contracted stance–but “I” is self-indulgent, and as such, can go either way. Much like a cloudy day, if you take an umbrella out with you, it’s probably not going to rain, but the one time you forget, you’re guaranteed to get soaked to the bone. Think about this fairly typical complaint: “I found something wrong with my order.” Ominous, but not a threat. No fight or flight.
But follow from that… “It arrived without the crispy chicken, making me very sad.” They contract, and we expand, immediately reaching out to the right people to right the wrong.
But the alternative… “[T]he whole order was wrong. [N]ot impressed, very disappointed.” It’s subtle, but see the difference? Specificity and a shrugging off of a sense of entitlement really do go a long way. A little sense of humor helps, too. Can you guess whose issue was resolved first?
Customers rarely use the contracted stance. I attribute this, so far, to a misconception that asking for help is equivalent to begging. While we don’t want customers coming to us with axes and pitchforks, we don’t want them groveling, either. It’s embarrassing for us and for them. We’re in a relationship of trust. There’s something deeply wrong if either party has to worry about being rejected. Far from being a form of weakness, the contracted stance is open, like a clear sky, and allows us in to investigate and troubleshoot. “Here’s what happened…” it might begin. And like many once-upon-a-time stories, it’s more than likely to have a happy ending.
When the solution to the problem is clear to all involved, we won’t need to fix it. It’ll fix itself.
(For Day 12)