We all have a lens we use to view the world and other people, and sometimes the lens changes over time and gets dirty. At the 2010 annual meeting of the City Engineers Association of Minnesota (CEAM), David Rabiner presented what he called “a conscious lens cleaning” to identify and change the barriers to great customer service. He described customer service as an attitude and said, “A relentless commitment to attitude is key to providing world-class customer service.”
Customers pick up negative attitudes quickly, which can cause them to go on the defensive and lead to a breakdown in communication. A positive attitude, on the other hand, validates the customer, leads to open communication, and gives us a connection with the customer. Customers pick up a negative attitude when we multitask so the customer feels like an interruption, or when we think about something else and don’t focus on the customer’s request or problem, or when we take our time acknowledging the customer.
“You can manage your attitude when you deliberately stop what you’re doing and take on a friendly attitude of service,” Rabiner said. Customers need validation first, and problem solving second. It’s important to acknowledge the customer’s problem as legitimate in order to validate the person.
Rabiner offered a five-step process for one-on-one communication: stop, be present, acknowledge, validate, and solve. Stop what you’re doing and listen to the customers. Let them know you are listening by asking questions or playing back what they have said. Validate customers by making them feel normal and show appreciation for their concern or complaint. Then start problem solving. Fixing the problem is not always necessary; sometimes customers just want to be heard and have their problem acknowledged.
Communication techniques to diffuse difficult situations with customers or constituents start with understanding the cascading effect that happens when customers feel invalidated. Because we all have a strong need to like and respect ourselves, invalidation causes the customer to “invalidate the invalidator,” blame others, think the problem is someone else’s fault, and even become angry. To validate a customer, ask questions, take ownership of the problem, and acknowledge the customer as well as the problem.
Everyone makes mistakes sometimes and we often react by defending, blaming, or justifying ourselves. “Our professionalism is as much about how we recover from mistakes as it is about getting it right the first time,” Rabiner said. To recover successfully from a mistake, own it, make amends, and learn. Customers and co-workers watch you closely and judge your professionalism, in part, by how you recover from mistakes. “Set an example and recover with grace,” Rabiner said. A graceful recovery will foster accountability and make it easy for customers to forgive you.
World-class customer service starts with showing a positive attitude toward the customer and ends with successful communication—even if the problem isn’t fixed. What’s most important is leaving customers feeling like they’ve been heard, their concerns are legitimate, and you’re glad they took the time to tell you what they need.
— Jeanne Engelmann, LTAP freelancer
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