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Listen to yourself talk! Part 2

February 1, 2007
by RONALD E. RETZKE, PHD
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In Part 1 of this article (Nursing Homes/Long Term Care Management, January 2007, p. 52), we reviewed four of the expressions that can reveal your attitude toward excellence in customer service (see sidebar) and point to improvements. In this article, we review the final four of these telling and helpful statements:

5. “When something bad happens, what do/can/should I say?”This is a question that is often asked when there is a serious service failure, the customer is angry, and the manager has to face this customer. What should be said? How should the situation be handled? The response is critical, since the next few steps will determine whether the customer becomes a more loyal customer or even more frustrated and angry. If you do not know how to handle this situation, you are offering something less than excellence in customer service.

The mistake that is often made is that staff attempt to address the problem from an objective perspective and pay little attention to the manner in which they treat the customer. “From the customer's perspective, the actual problem solution is not judged independently from the way the [facility] treats the customer in case of a complaint.”1 A good way to determine whether you are on the right track is to pay attention to the customer's emotions. This leads us to our next standard for excellence in customer service: Respond to customers’ emotions.

These encounters with customers could be characterized as crucial conversations. Very simply, a crucial conversation is “a discussion between two or more people where (1) the stakes are high, (2) opinions vary, and (3) emotions run strong.”2 In these situations, the key is not to get so caught up in the content of the conversation that you become blind to how people are feeling and the tone of voice they are displaying. In other words, pay attention to emotions.

Customers will exhibit a range of emotions—from being concerned, to irritated, to upset, to angry, all the way to inconsolable. It is always a good practice to have a protocol in place on how to handle complaints and reduce emotional levels. One protocol that might be considered is the acronym ABLE 3:Acknowledge the complaint and Apologize. Be calm and sincere. Listen. Explain what you will do.

It is extremely critical that such a protocol be used by all frontline staff, since they are often the first to encounter an upset customer.

So what to do when you encounter a dissatisfied customer? Ten suggestions:

  1. If you are in a public area, move to a quiet location. It will make you, the customer, and other customers observing more comfortable.

  2. Offer an apology.

  3. Indicate your willingness to be receptive and to hear about the concern.

  4. Listen carefully. Let the customer speak first. Do not interrupt.

  5. Take notes. The act of writing down what the customer says demonstrates that you are taking the comments seriously.

  6. Ask questions to clarify. Do not jump to conclusions.

  7. Put yourself in the customer's position. “I can understand why you are upset.”

  8. Do not blame a colleague, other departments, or the company in general.

  9. If a prompt solution is not possible, indicate what you will do and when you will get back to the customer.

  10. Conclude the conversation on a positive note. “I am glad you brought this to my attention.”

6. “If I didn't have all these complaints to deal with, I could get my job done!”How often have you heard that? And yet, if one pauses and reflects on the definition of “complaint,” it becomes clear that “a complaint is an expression about expectations that have not been met. It is also, and perhaps more importantly, an opportunity for an organization to satisfy a dissatisfied customer by fixing a service or product breakdown. In this way, a complaint is a gift customers give to business.”4

There are a number of ways to address complaints. You can ignore them. You can grouse about them. You can document them in a grievance log because you are required to. Or you can refer to our next standard for excellence in customer service: Apply a quality improvement approach.

A very basic quality improvement approach would be to weigh all service failures and complaints according to relative frequency and severity. Determine whether this is an isolated case or a system failure. Often, in addition to fixing the problem, it is important also to fix the system (or at least ask whether a system fix is needed), helping to ensure that the problem doesn't recur.

The key point is that complaints are ways that customers indicate to you that you are not meeting their needs. Providing excellent customer service requires that we not only meet but exceed their expectations. If customer expectations are not at least met, you do not have a viable business enterprise. Listening to the customer and acting on what you hear is your job and your job security.

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