A Zen master’s advice for dealing with ‘difficult’ customers
If there’s one area of managing customer experiences that most of us would rather avoid, it’s following up with the people who don’t pay. For Marc Lesser, however, it provided a valuable way to learn about difficult people and how to deal with them.
Lesser, a coach and consultant who teaches about emotional intelligence, is the author of Finding Clarity: A Surprising Path To Breakthrough Communication and Professional Success. It builds upon many workshops and training sessions he has conducted with clients, as well as his own professional background. This includes his on-the-job duties at a greeting card company, where he had to call customers with invoices that are past due.
“I actually saw it as an opportunity to tell the truth, and ask for accountability while leaving my more difficult emotions side,” Lesser told 360 Magazine. “I’d say, ‘Your company owes this much money. When can you please pay?’ And they would go off on some story.”
Instead of going off on them, however, Lesser continued to listen. This is a difficult art for many of those in customer experience roles to master, or to help their coworkers to master. Lesser offered more details on why compassionate accountability may strike the balance they need. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Most of us don’t get formal training in emotional intelligence in school or even at work. What tends to be the tipping point for organizations to work with you to help develop them in this area?
When I started teaching and doing emotional intelligence training for Google engineers, the lightbulb was that they needed to work on that experience of listening to another person. We would set them up and say, “Okay, for three minutes, one person is going to speak and the other person is just going to listen without interrupting and without asking questions.” The a-ha was that they were never listening. They were always planning what they were going to say next. They were always reacting. You open up a whole world when you are actually listening to another person. And also, when someone is listening to you, you kind of feel yourself and your own creativity and possibility in a way you can’t get otherwise, when instead the conversation is almost done in a spirit of competitiveness.
Why do we have this tendency to label people are difficult, and how can that be addressed in an area like customer experience design? I’m thinking of contact centers and customer service teams in particular.
A lot of our strategies for working with “difficult people” are aiming at the absolute smoke, instead of the base of the fire. And to me, the base of the fire is your relationship with your emotions, and seeing that your emotions don’t define you. In the realm of customer service, your approach should be about compassion, showing that you’re really there to help this other person. And even if they’re angry, if they’re frustrated, it’s generally it’s generally not with you. It’s with the problem.
So how should organizations make sure their employees stay focused on the problem?
I use a couple of aphorisms in my book that may be useful to keep in mind. One is to be “curious, not furious,” The other is to “be hard on the problem and soft on the people.” It’s right to be hard on the problem. If we have a problem here, let’s solve this problem. But you have to be gentle with yourself and compassionate with yourself, as well as with the other person. There’s also a big difference in how we perceive an event and the event itself. You have a lot more control over how you perceive or relate to the event. If you have a difficult customer on the phone, you need to be curious about how you can relieve their stress and their anxiety. You being stressed an anxious is certainly not going to help.
You’ve written that the four most important questions to assess a relationship with is “How are we doing?” That sounds a little bit like the way companies survey people as part of a Voice of the Customer program.
Yes, but many of those happen after the fact. I think it’s really a question we should be asking all the way along. I use it a lot in a workplace example, where people are working together. Instead of making assumptions or reacting when people seem to be difficult, it’s a question that can recalibrate relationships internally as well.
So much of the interactions between companies and their customers now is through digital channels, though. How does that affect your ability to demonstrate compassionate accountability?
It’s definitely more challenging. Email and other digital communication tools are great for conveying information and content, but they’re really bad for conveying emotions, and for managing conflicts and feelings. And almost always, when possible, if you can pick up the phone or actually have a conversation with someone it will work out better. You can forget that there’s another human being on the other side of that e-mail or that digital experience. It’s the art of remembering to ask, “How would I feel if I got sent this?” It’s also a matter of being clear about what your intentions are. Are you just lobbing insults? Are you just unloading? Or am I really trying to solve the problem here?
It will be interesting to see if those leading customer experience teams or chief customer officers will wind up taking on that responsibility for building up emotional intelligence. That would make sense, given they need to work well with both customers and internally with employees.
And you know, none of this is easy. It’s not something you can just turn on. But I think it starts with self awareness. It starts with emotional awareness – noticing what triggers us and what gets to us. That gives you some more ability to not focus. Instead you’re overreacting and you’re not under-reacting. You react or respond in a way that’s just right.
Shane Schick tells stories that help people innovate, and to manage the change innovation brings. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Marketing magazine and has also been Vice-President, Content & Community (Editor-in-Chief), at IT World Canada, a technology columnist with the Globe and Mail and Yahoo Canada and is the founding editor of ITBusiness.ca. Shane has been recognized for journalistic excellence by the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance and the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.