Secret to exceptional customer service

Q. I'm a manager of a customer service department and have spent hours training my team both internally and hiring outside customer service consultants. The problem is that many customers seem to think being a jerk is an interpersonal technique. The worst line we hear is "This is unacceptable." Is there anything we can do to train our customers to not act like snotty 2-year olds?

A. Yes, you are right that when people are upset they often deteriorate to the level of preschoolers. Customer service workers see more of this behavior than probably any other profession. When I train customer service employees, the most common question they ask is how to deal with abusive or alienating customer behaviors.

Start out by realizing that your customers actually do think their hostile, adversarial techniques will get them what they want. Your employees' job is to help the customer see that the best route to success is collaboration, not acting like an attack dog.

When a customer starts acting like a jerk, they often start to blame the person who is trying to help them. Make sure your employees say two things to the hostile customer immediately: 1) "I know you know that I did not personally write these policies," and 2) "I know you know that I am here to help you navigate these policies so that together we can get you what you want."

Hostile customers completely forget they are actually talking to someone who wants to help them and usually can. A reminder that they are speaking to a problem solver, not a problem, can do wonders.

The next move is to squelch yelling, name calling or personal attacks. No one should have to put up with being a punching bag, and everyone loses their ability to think when they are being bullied. It's not in the customer's best interest for your employees to allow the customer to escalate.

Your employees can calmly restate: "I know you are trying to figure out how to get X. I am here to help you get X. If you speak very loudly, use 'that' type of language, or continue to express concerns about my personal performance, I will be less able to think clearly to create solutions for you."

Make sure your employees know that most customers who act badly are so flooded emotionally that they actually are not thinking about their choices. Emotionally flooded people simply want to inflict pain. If your employees can remind customers about the actual goal they have (refund, better product, repair, etc.), they will take the customers out of their abusive mind set.

Prepare your employees to anticipate that they will have a completely normal human reaction to a charging bull customer: They'll want to give that bad attitude right back. Unfortunately, this normal response is a lot like throwing a match on a puddle of gasoline. The customer will just become dramatically worse.

If you can train your employees to keep their heads when the customer has clearly lost his, your employees will usually have the power to get the conversation off an abusive track and back to problem solving. No one wins in the workplace when raging becomes the focus.

The last word(s)

Q. I have a coworker who complains about everything nonstop and always wants me to listen to her issues. Is there an easy way to shut her up?

A. Yes, conversation is a two-way street. Get distracted and busy, and she'll stop choosing you as her favorite venting buddy.

(Daneen Skube, Ph.D., executive coach, trainer, therapist and speaker, also appears as the FOX Channel's "Workplace Guru" each Monday morning. She's the author of "Interpersonal Edge: Breakthrough Tools for Talking to Anyone, Anywhere, About Anything" (Hay House, 2006). You can contact Dr. Skube at http://www.interpersonaledge.com or 1420 NW Gilman Blvd., #2845, Issaquah, WA 98027. Sorry, no personal replies.)

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