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Keep Your Foot Out of Your Mouth: Sure-fire Strategies to Handle Customer Communication Problems

Customer satisfaction has never been more important to the growth of a company’s bottom line. Today’s corporations deal with an increasingly diverse customer base and so in turn are faced with more complex and challenging customer service issues, complaints and disputes. These developments confirm what customer service professionals have always known but seldom admitted: the customer may not always be right.

If not carefully managed, customer service disagreements can escalate into more severe confrontations, possibly resulting in negative effects including workplace violence, lawsuits and litigation and diminished productivity.

What causes conflicts to escalate? Here are the most common communication pitfalls that can cause a well-meaning manager to further enrage a customer:

  1. Attacking the person rather than the problem. Making personal attacks or statements, which belittle the individual, instead of working to solve the issue.
  2. Over-control. Wielding authority, using your position of power to intimidate or push others around without attempting to solve the problem.
  3. Cultural ignorance. Disrespecting diverse cultural communication patterns; folding arms or staring in a defensive manner when approached by someone with a foreign accent or different dress/appearance.
  4. Reescalation. Causing a person’s anger or hurt feelings to resurface after the original disagreement has been successfully defused.
  5. Lack of audience awareness. Ignoring a crowd of curious onlookers who may have gathered at the scene. This can prove extremely dangerous if people become hostile.
  6. Counterproductive language and phrases. Focusing on unalterable past events or negative imagery, using inflammatory trigger words or discussing events that are likely to cause the client’s temper to flair or anger to increase.
  7. Failure to listen or allow the person to vent feelings. Interrupting or preventing an angry person from completing a thought or expressing his or her side of the story. This only serves to bury the real fear or issue and often results in increased frustration and an escalation of tempers.
  8. Appearing disinterested or judgmental. Wandering eyes, preoccupation with other tasks, body language such as keeping arms folded or shaking the head in disgust or disbelief.

Action steps:
What can managers do to improve managerial communication with difficult or angry customers and to keep a bad situation from becoming even worse? Here are some useful conflict management strategies that can make a significant difference in effectively resolving disagreements and disputes.

1.  Establish a connection. Managers should use verbal and nonverbal language to create an atmosphere of interest and genuine concern. They should avoid negative imagery-generating phrases (“red” words) such as “What’s your problem?!” or exhibit body language that sends a message of disinterest or disrespect. Managers will find greater success by using positive power phrases such as:

  • Tell me what happened.
  • How can we work together on this?
  • Let’s solve this together.
  • I’m sorry that you had a negative experience.
  • I’ll be happy to assist you.

2.  Acknowledge the other person’s feelings. Managers should acknowledge a person’s perspective and feelings of stress, anger or fears—even if the customer’s way of viewing the situation may not match theirs. In fact, the person yelling the loudest is often the person who feels the greatest lack of control and, deep down, is seeking someone who will understand his or her pain. This strategy is particularly useful in dealing with irate, irrational or delusional individuals for which rapid conflict resolution is desirable for everyone’s personal safety and security. Best practice phrases include:

  • I respect how you feel.
  • You are absolutely right to feel that way.
  • I’d probably feel the same way if that happened to me.
  • I really want to work with you to resolve this situation.

3. Explore options. Conflict resolution must be a partnership. This is why it is critical for managers to always include the customer in the decision-making process. Rather than assuming what the customer wants, ask. Often, the actual solution is quite simple. If the customer’s need or want is unrealistic or counter to company regulations, explore and offer additional choices and let the customers take ownership in their decisions:

“Although this television brand is out of stock, I would like to show you some of our new upgraded entertainment centers that I believe will meet or exceed your expectations. Would you like a small, medium or large screen?”\

When managers explore solution options by asking questions and eliciting customer feedback, the communication process is more likely to move toward a productive course of action.

4. Negotiate a resolution. Once the customer has agreed to a course of action, the manager should document the decision and give a copy to the customer. This cements the agreement and partnership in the problem-solving process and gives feelings of control back to the customer. Although this give-and-take process requires time and energy on the part of the manager and customer service personnel, the rewards will be well-worth the investment.

When managers help customers make choices they feel comfortable with, managers have done more than simply to defuse a conflict. They have increased the likelihood of establishing a loyal, long-term client relationship—and isn’t that what customer service is all about?