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Compassion Is the Key to Customer Service

A stylized graphic showing two heads talking about listening and empathy.

Have you ever had a conversation with an irate customer? Where the first words they speak to you are a barrage of anger, frustration, and complaints? Unfortunately, I know I have. My personal challenge is to convert these potential disasters into opportunities for connecting and earning the trust of another human being.  I’m proud to say they often end with smiles all around, if I remember to use my secret weapon: compassion.

Anger, I have found, is really fear in disguise.  Whenever a person is angry, if you watch and listen closely, you can identify the underlying fear.  Fear of failure, fear of shame, of being hurt, of injustice, of losing one’s job, of losing money, of losing control… Think about it – anger is a mask that we use to protect ourselves from being vulnerable to our fears.  What does this have to do with customer service?  Everything.

That irate customer is mad for a reason – in our case, we printed the design incorrectly, or on the wrong garment, etc (thankfully this is a rare occurrence).  But while the anger is justified by the flaw in our product (real or perceived), it is fueled by fears.  Often the foremost fear is that we aren’t going to help them.  That we won’t take responsibility and help solve the problem.  That’s why managers get the unfortunate experience of starting a conversation by being yelled at – because the customer is scared you won’t help, and anger can serve as both sword and shield to them.  It’s a shield because it masks their vulnerability.  They are scared of you, because you have the power to help them – or not!  It’s a sword because it inspires aggression that they hope will scare you into helping.   Perhaps they can transfer their fear to you, thereby gaining control.  If you give in to that intimidation, the fear wins, but both you and the customer lose.

Our natural fight-or-flight response kicks in when we’re confronted by an angry person, and since ducking out the back door is not a practical option, it’s hard to avoid taking a defensive posture.  “You idiots screwed up all of my shirts!” sure makes me feel like defending myself and my staff.  I don’t deserve this kind of treatment, I didn’t personally do anything wrong, and I’m not even sure if one of my team did yet.  Where does this person get off starting a conversation like this?  Who do they think they are?  But if I respond directly to the anger, I’m doomed.  It’s like trying to put out a fire by pouring gasoline on it. Anger fuels anger, fear fuels fear.

This is where compassion comes in.  I try to ignore the pushy, even insulting language.  I don’t deserve it, so I’m not going to accept it – which is different from rejecting it – I simply refuse to receive it or acknowledge it.  I call this emotional judo – I don’t try to fight the power of anger head-on, I step aside and take an opportunity to strike at the real problem: fear.  Instead of wasting my energy on anger, I think to myself, “this poor person must be really afraid, and they need my help.”  On the outside, they may be yelling, but on the inside, they are crying.  That’s why the first thing I say is something like, “we’ll get you taken care of.  I’m here to help.”  It’s amazing how quickly that assurance can take the wind out of anger’s sails.  Notice that I didn’t admit fault (I’m not even sure yet if we are at fault at all), nor did I try to defend us or disagree in any way.  I’ve made no specific promises, I’ve only committed to assuaging another person’s primary fear – that I might not help them.  But if you express this genuinely, from a heart filled with compassion, you’re halfway home.

The next level of fear is often shame-related.  They may look bad to their boss, their peers, or their own customers if they show up empty-handed or with inferior goods.  The “I’m here to help” assurance takes the edge off shame-fear, but you have to go deeper to completely eradicate it.  Now it’s time for the nitty gritty.  They may have a long list of grievances, but the solution probably lies in fixing just one or two, and it helps to home in on the most important.  Perhaps they don’t want to be empty-handed when they arrive at their boss’s birthday party (for which they are already running late).  This is when I often start talking about two-part solutions.  If we can’t get you what you want immediately, what if we give you something useful now, and also the thing you really wanted as soon as it’s humanly possible to do so?  What if we hand-deliver it?  Again, compassion can be your guide, in the form of empathy – how would you feel in their shoes?  Assuming magic and time-travel are not options, what could be done in the moment that would remove most or all of the shame you would fear?

Finally, there is the fear of lost respect.  The worry that the original problem stems from a lack of regard for the customer – that the same thing might happen next time, that they can’t trust you.  This fear often doesn’t get addressed, because it’s frequently not expressed directly to you (Yelp is all-too-often where this fear rears its ugly head).  Once the fear of not being helped is dashed, and the fear of shame is mitigated, it’s time to apologize.  It’s time to reveal my own shame – that I’m sorry this happened, and that I’m at least a little bit shocked, because this isn’t how we do things.  I try to back those words up with a gift.  If I can make it personal, all the better.  Recently, I had a customer who was very worried about how he would look in his boss’s eyes when he returned empty-handed.  After finding a solution to his main problem, I asked what his boss’s name was.  When he picked up his correctly printed shirts the next day, he found two gift boxes, each containing a mug with his company’s logo.  One had his own name on it, the other the name of his boss.  The message: we really do care about you, we listened to your concerns, and we put some actual thoughtfulness into our response.  We may have let you down once, but that was a fluke – you really can count on us.

Sure, I like those days when we make big sales, when we produce a lot of great shirts, when the business seems lucrative, and everything seems to be going right.  But the days I really love my job are when I get a chance to help someone out.  If I can help a fearful, angry person replace their fears with trust and sense of personal connection, that’s when I feel truly successful.