We talk to sad, angry, grumpy, stressed, even hysterical people at work every day. But how can you help them solve their problems, shift their mood, and maintain your own mood at the same time?
Doesn't seem like it should be part of your job? If you work in customer service or in account management, believe it or not, it probably is. When a customer calls with a problem he or she needs resolved, most likely, that person is in a foul mood. People don't call customer service or support because things are going well. And when things aren't going well, people are emotional, and want someone to help them solve their problem.
Somehow, you need to provide them with a great experience. And that experience includes emotional support, too.
What's also difficult is that these types of interactions often happen over the phone, and virtual interactions are hard. You can only hear their voice; you can't see their faces. That means that it's easy to hide emotions. Further, only solving their problem may not calm them down. That's one part of it, but there may be more to it.
Success in these situations lies in exercising empathy. Here's how I handle these situations so that I can build a connection, develop a relationship, get an issue resolved, and resolve the emotional distress:
Step 1: Build rapport and a relationship with who is calling me. Before we get to business, we learn a bit about each other, talk about the weekend, our hobbies, and similarities. We build some social common ground. Although it sounds trite, talking about the weather or a movie can create a connection between people. If the person calling me for a solution is upset, this tactic can diffuse the tension a little bit, distract the person from their emotions for a few minutes, and changes the dynamic to go from someone needing help to two humans talking to each other. Being on the phone by its nature makes us anonymous. We need to shift from anonymity to connectedness.
Step 2. Get to business and learn about the problem. After some conversation, I find out why the person is calling and hear their story. I listen to them. Really listen. I learn what happened, how it happened, and why it needs to be fixed. I listen to find out how they are feeling about the problem, hearing emotional nuances over the phone. You can learn a lot about a person if you listen to them. Julian Treasure has a lot of information about listening. There's more here. And more here in the virtual team presentation too. And it helps you to communicate with someone better.
Step 3. I then ask why that person called to fix the problem. What's his motivation to make the call and get the issue fixed? According to Srini Pillay, fear may motivates us, but not in the way many think it does. We aren't motivated by the fear of missing out or not solving a problem. We are motivated by our own internal value system. This is different for everyone - some are motivated more by keeping their personal relationships, their job, their home and car, helping their children succeed. I try to learn what's driving someone's decisions - what's the factor behind why they make the decisions they do. And why they need the problem fixed.
Step 4. I consider past experiences I have had and how they are similar to what this person is experiencing now. I try to find an experience from my life that will relate to what this person is experiencing. Some things I will look for when I remember an experience that is similar to what this person is experiencing:
- I identify an experience that has a similar situation - not exactly the same, but from the same theme. For example, if someone calls looking for a solution to a problem because a large mailing was distributed with an error, I think about times where I had a very public error. I may not have had the same exact event happen, but I need to consider a similar situation in my life (it may be on a smaller or larger scale from my perspective, doesn't matter. I need to reference it for the emotions of it - see next step.)
- Then I remember the situation and events, but mostly I recollect how I felt at that moment. I'll remember the embarrassment, the nervousness to correct the problem, the pressure from my manager. It helps me frame how I communicate with the caller. I remember the types of statement that may have felt like attacks when they are simply comments. Or statements that felt critical and personal when they were factual.
- Put myself in the right frame of mind to communicate with the person calling me. I will start communicating with this person as I wish someone would have communicated with me when I was in a similar situation. I think about the mood the person is in, the mood the person probably wishes he were in, and what I can say to help that person get into a better mood. I focus more on the emotions of the situation and try to help the person shift how they see the situation. Sure, a blunder can be embarrassing, but at the same time, if you can see the humor in it, you may not feel so ashamed and unable to function. Or if you know that it happens to all of us. Or if you know that no one blames only you. I think you see my point.
Step 5. I help them resolve the issue (and get them to feel better about themselves too).
- Avoid placing blame on the person calling. It's easy to blame someone for their problems. However, that doesn't solve the problem or make the person feel better about the issue. Instead, focus on the solution and talk to the person as you wish someone would talk to you in that situation. If the person has an issue that causes embarrassment, focus the conversation on removing the issue and remove the embarrassment. That, plus some fun, gentle banter, may help the person feel better by the end of the call
- Focus on the new result - not the present moment. We all feel horrible right now in the present moment with the problem. Focus everyone's attention and energy on the solution and new result instead. It gives everyone hope and changes the tone.
- Be positive and focus on the caller's personal strengths. Yes, you barely know this person. You only have been talking to that person for 10-15 minutes. But complement that person on what you are hearing about them right now. There is always something wonderful about someone new you meet and talk to - even over the phone. Complement their laugh, their insights, their creativity, their kindness. Comment on what's great about them. Your focus is to make that person see their greatness in a low moment.
Step 6: Wrap up the call. Make sure the person feels better. Or at least, sounds more positive and upbeat. Don't let people leave upset, even if you can't solve their problem on that same call. Give that caller some hope and a positive outlook that his situation will change and get better.
Leave people better than you found them. If you can resolve someone's issue, you have resolved half of the problem. If you can relate to the other person and make them feel better about their problem and life - you have done more than expected.
Sometimes, people want to feel heard. And if you hear someone, empathize with them, and solve their problems, you have made a new friend and created a wonderful customer experience. Job well done!