What do you do when you can’t resolve a customer service issue using traditional means? Consider this scenario. An important customer is so upset that they’ve gone beyond cursing, complaining and trashing your company on Yelp. The conversation has escalated to a senior leader, a manager or an executive at the organization. Someone like you, for example. Congratulations and step into the barrel – you are the last stop before this conflict turns into a legal issue.
This customer service conversation isn’t about a forgotten dessert at your favorite restaurant, a missed flight or the wrong car at the rental car counter. The stakes are higher, the dollar figures are greater and the dialogue more dangerous. Before lawyers get involved, or your equipment gets ripped out of an office and thrown onto the street, executive leaders have to take action. Could you resolve this most challenging case of extreme customer service?
Customer Service Counterpoint
When engaging in a difficult dialogue, it’s easy to see the adversarial relationship between two parties. There’s the company’s viewpoint and the customer’s viewpoint. But what about a counterpoint?
1. Empathetic Acknowledgment in Customer Service: Resolution begins with acknowledgment. Empathetic acknowledgment uses emotional intelligence, or EQ, to see the customer’s point of view. In Dan Goleman’s watershed book, Emotional Intelligence, he explains that EQ is the ability to recognize, understand and manage our own emotions – as well as understanding the emotions of others. For leaders, it’s critical that you can recognize emotions for what they are, so that you can objectively find the facts underlying the situation. The facts, as presented, are leading your customer to a singular conclusion. But is that the only way the story ends? Remember the words of the rocket scientist, Roger von Oech: “Always look for the second right answer.”
2. I See Is Not the Same as I Agree: Notice that acknowledgement is not the same as agreement. When you truly understand your client’s viewpoint, your own becomes clear. If you cut off the customer before you fully hear their side of the story, that interruption can have disastrous consequences. So, what do you do when a customer is beating you up, hurling lies and insults at you, your organization, and the people you care about? The answer is simple: listen. Leaders listen through difficult dialogue, and they don’t flinch. Because leaders know that resolution is a two-part conversation, not a one-way street. You may acknowledge a point of view without accepting it as your own.
3. Permission Marketing in Sales and Service: Borrowing from Seth Godin’s bestselling book title points toward a new resolution. For an angry customer, make sure to ask, “Is there anything else?” at least twice. Permission is a powerful tool; without it you’ll be pounding a nail with your fist. Once the customer has fully expressed their frustration – and hopefully the cursing and challenges have settled down somewhat – you have a service question to ask. Restate what you have heard, without reframing, to confirm that you have gotten everything clear. “Did I get that right?” opens the dialogue for further clarification. And an answer of “yes” gives you the permission you need to change the conversation. “Would you be willing to…?” is a phrase that provides permission to look at things in a new way. So many times, executives focus on solving a problem before permission is provided. Look in the direction of receptivity: Is your hostile customer open to looking in a new direction? Are they ready to receive new input? While it may seem that you don’t need the customer’s permission to offer a solution, that buy-in is the first step towards a new agreement. Clearly ask the customer if he or she is willing to look at things in a new way. Because, if the answer is no, you’ve got another problem to solve. More listening is needed.
4. Seeing a New Story, in Service Escalations: Could the customer service journey have a different ending? Beyond your questions about who dropped the ball on your team, look at the impact of the fumble from the customer’s point of view. Are you clear on the perceptions around lost revenue? Brand damage? Collateral damage? You have to objectively see the other side’s view as clearly as your own, if you’re going to lead the conversation to a different conclusion. You understand the positions of both parties – is there another solution that you can see? A third element, or counterpoint, shifts from a “he said-she said” towards a new resolution. Counterpoint is the possibility of this story having a different ending. Rather than a lawsuit, legal fees, lost revenues or worse, negotiation is about finding an undiscovered solution together.
5. Language To Avoid: Several show-stoppers can crop up in an angry conversation. Typically, absolutes are to be avoided. Phrases like “you always”or “you never” are inherent challenges. Blamestorming is a bad idea. Making threats isn’t in anyone’s interest – would sharing that idea be of service in your next high-stakes conversation? How does a threat of lawsuit help to move forward towards resolution? Most c-suite executives I know don’t do business under threat of lawsuit. Unless, of course, they are involved in a lawsuit. Remember that defensiveness always comes from the same place: personal perspective. Look at what the customer is trying to defend, deny, protect or push. Carefully consider their words and look beyond the emotions – both theirs and yours – when you tap into your executive presence. Because hurling insults doesn’t serve anyone. Respect is the first thing you have to offer the customer – even if they won’t give you theirs.
Finding a counterpoint to conflict is the key to negotiating past a customer service disaster. Perhaps the only resolution can be found in a courtroom and maybe you don’t care about preserving the relationship. But if you do, remember that if-then statements can help test the waters for a resolution. If we did x, would you agree to y? Offering solutions using two choices can provide the customer with what they lost in the first place: choice and control. I’m not suggesting you play Santa Claus, or turn into a genie and begin granting wishes. Unreasonable requests, without entertaining new viewpoints, are hard to overcome. Resolution, at this stage, is about client satisfaction as well as a business decision. So, what’s yours? Leadership is a balancing act – and taking action is what’s needed. Giving your customer new ways of looking at the problem is the first step toward solving it.