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Serve or Swerve?

When Customer Service Problems Arise
Do You Respond Effectively or Defensively?

By Craig Harrison

How are you currently handling customer service problems? Is your focus on being right or doing right for your client? When problems arise, your organization’s ability to respond effectively — instead of defensively — may mean the difference between strengthening or severing client relationships. Learn to manage your customer service problems to reinforce customer loyalty and solidify their faith in you as a provider. Make sure your staff reflexively serves instead of swerves.

Serve or Swerve! It’s a reflex action, similar to fight or flight. When service personnel are on the hot seat, do they dodge…or deliver?

A customer is upset. Something has gone awry. The customer expresses dissatisfaction. That displeasure is directed at you and your customer isn't mincing words. It may not be your fault, yet you’re the one who has to answer for it. It could be a meal served poorly, inadequate or missing service on a flight or in a retail environment, perhaps a faulty product being returned or there's been a missed appointment to serve a client. The common element: a customer is venting on you As far as the customer is concerned you are the company. The reality is…they’re right!

The real question is, "How do you respond?" Do you serve…or swerve? To serve, in this case, means responding without defensiveness or resentment, but rather with dedication and a desire to satisfy the dissatisfied customer. To swerve, in this case, means to deny responsibility, dodge accountability and either ignore the complaint or respond negatively.

Simply stated, to save the sale, preserve customer loyalty and retain your clientele you must serve, and without batting an eyelash. It has to be a reflex action!

In many customer service situations across industries we see employees and staff take criticism personally, get defensive and snap back at patrons. They snipe, skulk or snarl, when they could be smiling, sympathetic and serving.

Alternately we find service personnel swerving when they should be serving. We see personnel deflect attention to their co-workers, either through blaming them or simply 'passing the buck.' Usually there's a basic disavowing of responsibility. Employees dodge responsibility for miscues and duck accountability for their remedy. They hide behind outdated policy or a hierarchy or protocol which is invisible (and should be inconsequential) to the customer.

Instead, they should ‘take one for the team.’ Pointing fingers only exacerbates the situation and gives the customer or client the sense that it's each employee for themselves when the going gets tough. Properly trained personnel serve instead of swerve. Their focus is on correcting the problem not avoiding blame,.

Primitive Behavior: How We Got Our Swerve On

The roots of this swerve mentality can be traced back to a time when we, as primitives, didn't have the language skills, vocal abilities and shared understandings to resolve stressful situation through speech. In the absence of dialogue, we relied on our traditional fight or flight instinct. Since the time of cavemen and cavewomen, we’ve drawn on this fight or flight instinct to combat stress. We would fight or flee — depending on our assessment of a threatening situation. If it was a fight we could win we would stay and battle. If not, or if we were fleeter of foot, we would run. This instinct is what has helped us survive to this day. It is largely based on the adrenal rush we experience under pressure. We’re biased toward action. The only question is: which action to take?

It’s the same in today’s service environment. When a customer raises his or her voice, becomes accusatory and blames service personnel, their frustration, anger and stress are being passed on to their server. It's natural for a service representative to feel similarly stressed when an irate customer's wrath is directed upon them.

As a result of such customer behavior, the service personnel who becomes threatened and stressed might naturally revert to a "fight or flight" mentality. Either they fight or flee. While fisticuffs and actual fighting are rare, the fight mentality is revealed through antagonistic language which escalates the situation and can, if left unchecked, lead to physical confrontations. Consider the following "fight" responses, wherein service personnel respond in kind to the force and harshness they encounter:

More than the actual words which dish back frustration at customers, it’s the tone in which messages are delivered which is combative. The "in your face" retort is evidenced across hotel check out counters, customer service stations and over the telephone. I've even seen a chef come out from the kitchen to confront a customer with a chopping knife in hand!

Danger: Swerves Ahead

If personnel aren’t fighting back, they’re alternately issuing "flight" responses, wherein they vacate responsibility and retreat from the problem. Common responses include the following:

  • It’s not my problem
  • It’s out of my control
  • I'm only human
  • I’m doing the best I can! (Take it or leave it!)
  • No one else has complained
  • We’ve done all we can do for you. (This is as good as it will get.)
  • It's in the computer. I can't do anything about it.

Symptomatic of this type of response is a lack of listening by the server, and a rote response to complex and specific situations. One wonders if it matters what a customer says when the responses are so predictably non-responsive.

The Service Response: Breaking the Swerve Mentality

What’s needed is an alternative response, a response that breaks the cycle, removes defensiveness and reduces both parties’ stress level. Swerving just worsens the situation as customers recognize the lack of accountability and unwillingness to address the root problem.

When service personnel are trained to realize a customer’s diatribe stems from root frustration and isn’t a reflection on them personally, they can begin to assuage their own bruised egos and focus appropriately and immediately on the correction. Trained personnel can set aside the fight or flight urge and focus on how to serve instead of swerve or swipe.

Customers want to he heard. They want to feel their concerns are validated. They would like to feel the company cares, and mostly, they'd like resolution of their problem. The sooner personnel can assure clients and customers of their own desire to rectify an unsatisfactory situation, the sooner the root problem can be ameliorated and faith in the provider restored.

The Service Response

I train staff across industries to employ a 5-step method I call The Service Response. In every customer service situation there exists a Service Response.

1. Listen empathetically!
Acknowledge the complaint and validate how the customer feels at the outset.

2. Confirm your understanding of the customer complaint:
Repeat the problem or complaint to insure you understand it properly.

3. Work together toward a satisfactory solution:
Express your willingness to "make it right."

4. Commit the company’s full resources to achieving desired outcome:
Resolve the problem, while also correcting any systemic flaw that may have caused it.

5. Follow up to insure problem is resolved to customer’s satisfaction:
Point out the company's commitment to serving its customers, now and for the future.

The Road Ahead

Congratulations, you've handled your moment of truth by serving, not swerving. You've strengthened the bond between you and the customer, and demonstrated your commitment to quality customer service. You handled the problem with verve, not swerve. Well done!

* * *

Communication consultant Craig Harrison helps clients communicate their customer service commitment through his speaking, training and coaching. Whether helping clients Put the Serve Back in Customer Service, coaching them to retain hard won customers by Holding Serve in a Competitive Marketplace, or teaching them to reflexively Serve Instead of Swerve! Craig helps companies showcase their customer service orientation.

Contact Craig at (510) 547-0664 , via e-mail at Craig@ExpressionsOfExcellence.com or visit his website at www.ExpressionsofExcellence.com.

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