Customer Service Goes Both Ways, Folks

Sep 04, 2018

Apparently, not everyone’s mama has told them that you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar. You’d think that being a business owner who needs to deal with customers would automatically give said business owner a bit of insight on what it’s like to deal with the public. Unfortunately, that insight doesn’t always translate into corresponding empathetic action.

I once arrived at the home of a neighbor and fellow business person—let’s call her Hilde (not her real name)—just as she received a call back from a customer service rep. We waved hello, smiling at each other. As I waited for her, I couldn't help but listen to Hilde talk to the poor person on the other end of the phone. I was literally gobsmacked. Her tone was nasty, her words were mean and demanding, and even her body language was aggressive. And it wasn’t even over a long-standing, complicated issue, which might have at least explained why she was being so rude.

I can deal with bitchy, but I have a really hard time with people who are just plain mean. I was no longer sure that helping Hilde (the reason for my visit) was a good use of my time, if this was the way she treated people.

So as I stood there, I realized that this really is how she speaks to people from whom she expects help. I had a flashback to the one and only dining out experience I’d had with her. The way she spoke to the bartender that night stunned me as well. At the time, I chalked it up to her having a bad day.

Since I committed to helping Hilde, I decided to stay but to limit my time. It soon became apparent that we needed to call someone else to get help, but this time I got on the phone. As I always do, I explained the issue and asked for help, and the customer service rep and I were soon chatting away, joking around and having a pleasant conversation, all while the agent was processing what needed to be fixed. The whole process took less than 10 minutes, and in fact, she actually gave us a couple bonuses that they “don’t normally do.” Stuff like that happens to me all the time.

When I got off the phone, I looked over at my neighbor, whose jaw was literally hanging open. “What?” I asked.

“You were so nice to her!” she said.

Now I was confused. Why wouldn’t I be nice? The person on the other end of the phone probably isn’t making a whole lot more than minimum wage, and they don’t make the corporate decisions. Plus it’s more pleasant for everyone if we have a nice conversation. And I told Hilde as much.

“But I’ve called FOUR times, and they’ve all been assholes!”

Um, maybe they weren’t the ones with the problem? Because it had apparently never occurred to Hilde to make a point to be personable or kind, both of which I knew she was capable of being.

When we started working on her next challenge—something to do with computers, I recall—I called the next customer service agent, too. This time, I explained the problem, asked for help, and then—in a joking tone—told the rep that Hilde was computer-hostile, so to please be patient with her. “Be nice and he’ll help you!” I admonished her, as I passed the phone onto her and left, shaking my head in wonder that I had to show her how to talk to a stranger on the phone.

The next day, she called to tell me about her hour-and-a-half call, and how nice the rep was. She’d never had such a positive experience! Yes, there’s truth in that honey-vinegar parable!

In the end, I’m not sure my coaching changed her behavior long-term, but I hope it at least improved her interactions with folks she calls. But the bigger problem is that Hilde is not unusual. I see this kind of behavior again and again--from the mall to the board room--and it’s high time that we call it out when we see it.

Dear people, if you do nothing else, remember this: The person on the other end of the phone is a human being, complete with a personality, feelings, and whole life outside of taking care of your problem. Even if you are frustrated and angry with the company (I’m looking at you, Comcast!), you can be angry and still let the person know that you know that it’s not them personally. Handle it right, and you’ll have an advocate who will do whatever it takes to help you, and may even give you some tips.

Also, jokes. If you can make someone laugh, that adds a positive to their day. And yours. But for sure, skip the name calling and belittling, because it’ll get you nowhere.

TL;DR
The Golden Rule applies everywhere, even when you're the customer. And especially when you are also a business owner. So be kind, regardless with whom you're speaking. 

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