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In an article for Slate, Timothy Noah breaks down some of the principles explained in the book A Complaint Is a Gift: Recovering Customer Loyalty When Things Go Wrong.
These techniques are designed for customer service reps but I think we can all learn something from them:
1.) Aikido. This concept is borrowed from Japanese martial arts. “Masters of aikido do not resist the physical force of their opponents,” Barlow and Moller explain. “[R]ather, they turn with it and let it pass them.” Anger, they explain, is “like a volcanic eruption.” Don’t interrupt the volcano while it’s spewing lava! Take notes instead. Once the eruption is over, acknowledge your customer’s anger by saying something like, “I know you’re angry. I would be, too.” If that doesn’t calm your volcano down, remove him from the crowd so he can subside without losing face in front of the other customers. If the customer shows no signs that he will ever subside, then say as nicely as you can that you don’t seem able to satisfy him and that perhaps some other business might serve his needs better. Then breathe a sign of relief as he stomps off.
2.) Pacing. “All of us have a strong tendency to like people who are most similar to us,” Barlow and Moller write. You must therefore find something in yourself that resembles the customer and display it. Obviously this is going to be tricky when the customer is in a really bad mood. If he’s shouting, you don’t want to start shouting, too. But neither do you want to be smiling. Instead, put on a sober face and make eye contact to acknowledge that this is a serious problem (even if it isn’t).
3.) Euphemism. Euphemism isn’t the term Barlow and Moller use to describe this principle, but that appears to be its essence. Avoid saying anything that sounds like a command or contradiction. For instance, don’t say “You must.” Say, “I need you to.” (Fear of enraging nicotine addicts is why “No Smoking” signs were replaced by language-mangling signs that said “Thank you for not smoking.”) Avoid words like “but” and “however” because the pissed-off customer will only hear the words that follow these qualifiers. If you have to say “no,” then first “put a look of regret on your face or make an ‘effort’ sound.” Say you’re sorry you can’t do X, then explain why, then suggest an alternative solution.
4.) Partnership. Talk about solving a problem together. Make your challenge the customer’s challenge. What are we going to do, partner? Avoid handing him off to someone else, but if you must (assuming the customer is on the phone), then ask for his phone number in case he gets disconnected and then stay on the line until the person you’re handing him off to is on the line.
5.) Get personal. Don’t call him “sir.” Address him by name, and give him your name, too. Give him a business card if you’ve got one. If the customer hurts your feelings, let him know.
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