Communication is a concept we all believe to be learned naturally, but good or even great communication is a commonly abandoned skillset. Sometimes we find ourselves in the grip of a good conversation, while other times we struggle to openly and directly convey what we need. This is especially relevant in customer service because you will come across many varying types of personalities, all with their charming and irksome characteristics. The reason one conversation is successful while another fails is because ‘good’ communication requires open and direct delivery of ideas, which isn’t always easy.
But what if I told you that there was a method to make sense of this madness?
Enter Dr. David Burns Five Secrets of Effective Communication.
By internalizing these listening and self-expression techniques, you can better communicate with your customers, your teammates, and anyone else in your life. I will provide the technique then give a realistic example in a typical customer service interaction. Let’s imagine we work for a popular digital services company that provides a blogging software service.
The Disarming Technique. You find some truth in what the other person is saying, even if you feel convinced that what they are saying is totally wrong, unreasonable, irrational, or unfair.
When a customer reaches out to customer service, it is usually because their experience was not as expected. They wanted Scenario A to happen, but Scenario B happened instead. As the customer service representative, it makes sense for scenario A to work as expected, the software is flawless! Or perhaps it is knowingly flawed but usually, acts as expected. Either way, the customer has a notion that their experience was not what it should have been. By using the disarming technique, we can find a grain of truth in what they are saying and then turn this adversarial relationship into a constructive relationship.
Question: I tried to log in, but the screen went blank. My username and password is correct, shouldn’t I be logged in? What gives?
Wrong Answer: Did you enter your credentials correctly?
Right Answer: You are correct, you should be brought to your dashboard. Let’s collect a bit of information so we can troubleshoot the problem together.
As you can see, by disarming the customer we put them in a place of mutual understanding and respect. We are acknowledging that they have a problem instead of questioning their competence. We can gauge their competence as we troubleshoot the issue further.
Empathy. You put yourself in the other person’s shoes and try to see the world through his or her eyes.
Thought Empathy: You paraphrase the other person’s words.
Feeling Empathy: You acknowledge how they’re probably feeling, given what they are saying to you.
Empathy is a basic human need but it is a skill that needs to be developed. Different people develop different levels of emotional intelligence over time, and some individuals are more naturally inclined to learn emotional intelligence at a faster rate. Fortunately, anyone can improve their emotional intelligence and ability to empathize with practice. In the next scenario, we will detail both types of empathy, ‘thought’ and ‘feeling.’
Question: I just can’t stand this new feature! Why do you always have to change things around? I just want it back the way it was.
Wrong Anwer: The new way is much better and provides a lot of great new features, would you like me to explain them to you?
Right Answer: I can see that you are not a fan of the new layout. Though it can be frustrating at times to experience such a shift to your normal routine, we take a lot of care to ensure that the changes we make are beneficial to our community. Would you like me to explain why we made the changes?
With empathy, you need to reiterate the other person’s concerns and then describe the feelings associated with those concerns. Everyone wants to be heard and understood, and by reciting back the customer’s concerns, without sarcasm, you not only correct your own understanding of the problem but also address the customer’s feelings.
Once you have addressed their feelings, the customer should become easier to work with, you can then continue to help them understand the new features from a constructive approach that communicates why the company chose to make the change.
Inquiry. You ask gentle, probing questions to learn more about what the other person is thinking and feeling.
Once you have disarmed the customer and empathized with their needs, you can then ask them direct questions about the issue and their experience, this will yield more insight and help facilitate better communication. Using these listening skills in symphony can be conducive to a better customer experience. Let’s look at an example:
Question: I entered my username and password and now I am staring at a blank screen, this can’t be right. I am sick of all these changes you are making to the software! What gives?
Wrong Answer: The new features make the service better, did you enter your username and password correctly?
Right Answer: You are right, you should be brought to your dashboard. Though it can be frustrating at times to experience a delay in your normal service, we take a lot of care to ensure that the changes we make are beneficial to our community. Let’s collect a bit of information so we can troubleshoot the problem together. Can I ask you to please check that you entered the correct username and password before we troubleshoot further?
In this example, we incorporated the techniques from the other examples to create a better answer. The customer is angry that they cannot log in, this is upsetting because they pay for the service and it is not working properly. We disarmed their argument immediately by confirming that their concern is valid. Then we empathize by acknowledging their thought that ‘they can’t log in’ and that this event is frustrating to them. We then ask to collect some information and then inquire as to whether they wrote the correct username and password.
Apart from listening skills, we also have two self-expression skills, they are I feel statements and stroking (stroking is also known as affirmation).
“I feel” statements. You express your feelings with “I feel” statements (such as “I feel upset”) rather than with “you” statements (such as “You’re wrong!” or “You’re making me furious!”).
“I feel” statements can be tricky in a customer support environment. You typically do not want to bring your feelings into the matter unless they are conducive to helping the customer understand. But since we are all human, your feelings do matter, especially if they are intuitive and can help solve the problem. “I feel” statements are not just the domain of customer support, but are also very helpful in a team where communication is oxygen. The most important aspect of the “I feel” statement is the emphasis on avoiding ‘you’ statements. By nature, using a ‘you’ statement will instigate an argument.
Question: Your customer support is absolute garbage! How can you even call yourself customer care?!
Wrong Answer: You are a lousy customer who is unwilling to learn even the basics of our service! How can you even call that trying?!
Right Answer: I may not have answered your question as well as you had hoped (disarming), you seem to be angry about your experience (thought/feeling empathy). I feel we can find a solution if you are willing to bear with me (I feel statement showing compromise). Perhaps there is a better way I can address your needs (inquiry)?
This is an example of an irate customer. For one reason or another, the customer is very angry about their experience. Perhaps the customer is a good example of a difficult personality. But since we do not know enough about the customer we must assume that the breakdown in communication is on our end as well.
We begin by disarming the customer, an angry customer is not someone who is usually willing to listen. By admitting that our answers were not sufficient for the customer, we allow them to feel validated in their feelings of discontentedness. We then confirm that we understand the cause of their anger and also the feeling of anger. We can then employ the “I feel” statement to convey our willingness to work through the problem if the customer is willing to as well. We finally follow up with an inquiry about the method that failed to answer their question originally and whether we can rephrase it in a more understandable manner.
Stroking (Affirmation). You find something genuinely positive to say about the other person, even in the heat of battle. This indicates that you respect the other person, even though you may be angry with each other
The last technique is stroking. When you are in the heat of a contentious conversation you may find yourself under attack –or– feel the urge to go on the offensive. Don’t. Anger can distort your cognitions and lead to bad communication. Stroking serves to convey respect for the other person and reminds you to treat them with compassion.
Question: I’m no computer scientist, but this should be easy! What am I paying you people for?!
Wrong Answer: This is an easy fix, I’m sure you can figure this out, we have a lot of customers who don’t have this problem.
Right Answer: Web technology is no easy feat (thought empathy), it can be frustrating for anyone (feeling empathy)! I admire your tenacity and persistence (stroking), perhaps if we walk through the steps we can figure out how to get this to work (inquiry)?
We can empathize with the customer since we have all experienced difficulty with one thing or another that we weren’t familiar with. What is easy for a customer service technician is not necessarily easy for a customer. And not all customers share the same experience. It can create a much more constructive environment by encouraging the customer, it already took a lot of work and motivation to reach a customer service agent! After affirming the customer’s persistence, you can then ask further questions to try and help them reach their goal.
Working with customers is not easy. There are a lot of different personalities, some more difficult than others. There are also a lot of bad communication behaviors that we all possess, and even our own cognitions can become distorted and affect our mood. But thoughts and mood are something we all share, and also something that we can all change in ourselves and each other. By employing these five communication techniques, we can effectively nurture constructive relationships with the customer and affect their cognitions and mood. No outlook is finalized from the start, the end result is determinant on how we approach the subject, and how we control which variables are available to us. Try practicing these techniques in your day to day life, or try writing out likely scenarios and practice at home. These techniques take practice, but even with just a few attempts, you will realize that your way of thinking and communicating has changed for the better.