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Are you mean to customer service? Why we sometimes lose our $#@%!

Updated on April 9, 2015
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Years ago I yelled unmercifully at a computer repairman I hired to clean up my computer files but who lost all my email contacts. After a couple minutes of listening to me berate him, he grabbed his bag and quite literally backed out my front door.

My bad behavior still haunts me because I verbally beat this poor man into retreat. In all fairness to my ugly self however, I only lost it after four days of asking, begging and wondering why he lost my email contacts and why he couldn't find a solid solution. By the time I did let loose I didn't care what or how I said what I said.

It's a gruesome thing when somehow your primitive mind overrides your rational compassionate self.

The next day I emailed him a from-the-bottom-of-my-heart apology that he ignored, even when I sent it a second time. I'm not sure my exact words that destroyed his willingness to hear my apology but they must have been filled with enough hurt to turn him deaf.

"You've lost my entire email contact list and the only thing you were supposed to do was clean up my computer! You're a computer expert and you're planning to start your own business? I'd give up that idea. Four days for what should have taken one and you managed to lose a list that took me three years to accumulate. How do I get that back? Sorry isn't good enough to fix this! "

My husband was in his office near our front door and heard my rampage. Andy generally doesn't try to talk me down off my rants, instead he lets me spew until I bring myself back to center, exhausted by my circular rage. This time however, he insisted I apologize.

"My God what you did to that guy! When I ran my business I remember a customer yelling at me like that and how I felt afterwards. I could feel it in my gut. Humiliated. There's no excuse for yelling at anyone like that."

And so there was nothing left to do but to say I was sorry and then sit with the guilt and muck I made of myself.

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Have you ever screamed at a contractor or customer service rep?

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Customers need real, not scripted empathy

The most outrageous I've ever acted towards a stranger, times when I lost verbal control and forgot about the human at the other end with kids, a mother and a mortgage, was with customer service people and contractors, specifically people who promised but who didn't deliver.

Despicable me only appears after hours or days of futile computer fixes or saccharine-voiced handling to get me to go away. I'm likely long past hungry which releases my hypoglycemia demons, someone not me, or outraged by dead ends, broken promises or merchandise, overcharged or inconvenienced for long periods of time. All I want when solutions end with "Sorry, ma'am, but it's impossible" is for the person to be outraged right along with me.

Come along on my incensed ride and suddenly you're more than a puppet without a pulse. Show human. Flinch. Rattle a little at the injustice of it all and we're good. Canned phrases like " I-am-terribly-sorry, but" after the 4th person for the 4th time asks me to spell my name and repeat my address and explain the problem will tip me into a toddler who held herself back politely until she couldn't.

Customer Service managers need to teach their staff the art of mirroring the angry customer into calm submission. Let them break the verbal rules, let them curse in chorus with the customer on the other end. Unlike imitation where we consciously copy someone, when we mirror someone we subconsciously mimic their gestures, speech patterns or attitudes, and in doing so, we build rapport.

Customer: "Oh my God this is ridiculous! You're the 4th person I've talked to in an hour and if I have to go through my story one more time I'm going to lose it. This isn't okay. What the hell?"

Rep: "Oh my God I totally agree; It is ridiculous. Seriously, you're right, what the hell? An hour? I'll try to be your last person and get this resolved but bear with me, please."

Lean in, speak my language and I know you hear me even if you can't help me.

But the reality is customer service can't tailor every interaction or they'd never get off the phone and then they'd never meet their quotas. They have to follow their company's polite "recorded for quality" protocol or lose their job.

Still, I just want one of them to join with me and shout, "Shit! You're right, this does really suck," and then suddenly, we're kismet.

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Why (some) customers yell

Only about half the people who call customer service expect them to solve their problem, says Mitch Lieberman, vice president of Sword Ciboodle, a customer relationship management software company.

Most people call to complain but don’t have anything specific they want done. They’re mad and they just want to tell someone about it. So, to my point earlier, I'd like someone to fix my problem but if the company can’t, at least the customer service rep can let me get my gripe off my chest.

“Callers may not initially have any intention of yelling, but the frustration of the whole event can build. Long hold times, being asked to repeat the complaint again and again, getting the runaround and not being transferred to a manager after asking for one are some of the boiling points that can quickly be reached,” writes Aaron Crowe in his Dealnews article, “The Real Reasons Why People Yell at Customer Service Reps.”

Brett Brohl, who runs Scrubado.com, a company that sells hospital scrubs that has been cited for superior customer service, says often yellers are in the wrong. In my case however, I clearly wasn’t wrong; I was frustrated by excuses that lasted for days.

I held my tongue (for the most part) but after 4 days of waiting for a service that was supposed to take a few hours, the computer "repair" man told me he couldn’t retrieve my contact file because it had mysteriously become encrypted (or some such). Fortunately he did manage to back up my other files and to tie my cluttered computer cords into a nice pretty bundle (thanks, but I think I could manage to twist-tie a few chords on my own for free). My patience finally wore thin and I snapped.


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When I worked customer service

When I was a teenager I had a few jobs that involved customer service so I know what it’s like to be verbally bruised from time to time.

During high school summers I worked as a grocery store cashier. Eventually I was promoted to the coveted 12 items or less lane. Speed with a smile was essential in express and so when I asked my long line of customers "Hi, how are you?" I probably said it faster than when I worked the other lanes. One afternoon a man in his 70's snapped me to attention.

"Don't ask me how I am. You really don't care!" Stunned I stammered something like, "Sorry sir I was just asking to be polite."

I was 16 and full of private righteous anger towards rude strangers (a nerve I still grapple with). I wanted nothing more than to tell the man that he had it exactly right, that I didn't care but I had to ask anyway. The customer, it's drummed, is always right but when a customer's built-in power strips away an employee's dignity, the customer is entirely wrong.

Another time a man in the express lane called me a "jackass" after I mistakenly rang someone's orange juice with his order. Worse crimes have been committed for the sake of check out speed but this man was primed to unhinge. The head cashier must have heard him because she walked over and in a stern unapologetic voice that made me suddenly proud to work for her she told the man to never speak to her cashier that way again.

Now that I'm older and somewhat sensitive to what might turn even the softest soul against a perfect stranger, I realize both men were probably tired or beaten down or scared and so they needed to beat down someone else to feel in control. Maybe they recently lost their wife, their pension, their job, their dog, or maybe they suddenly started to forget people's names, streets or where they put their keys. Control was slipping away, pain and loneliness were constant reminders of a tired life and so they grasped angrily just to be noticed.

I don't like to over think my inexcusable reaction to the computer repairman, bad behavior is bad behavior but I will say the very worst of me (besides my daughter's toddler years when I was a lunatic) comes out with the Emperors of No, the health insurance agents trained (pre-Affordable Care Act) to tell me why I'm denied despite being healthy and paying premiums on time. Insurance companies are notoriously the only sanctioned legal robber barons I know that take our money, then run.

I try to remember that they’re “only doing their job” and that the claim or coverage denial comes from actuaries who run algorithms designed to protect the insurance company’s bottom line rather than the customer’s well-being, but the insurance rep won’t let me talk to the actuary (I’ve insisted more than once) so the front line gets my verbal hit.


Do unto others: Respecting the customer, respecting the employee

Despite my frustration with customer service reps, I have enormous respect for the very best.

You know who they are. These are the gracious people with exceptional patience who talk the irate down, one person at a time. They're masters of internal self-control who manage to separate the person from the persecution, (something I've never done very well) because they don't take slights personally yet they remain supremely personable. I don't know how they manage to hold their tongue (besides fear of getting fired) because every time I'm behind a raging lunatic who's going to town on customer service I want to step in and tell them to bring it down a notch.

The other day I volunteered at my local YMCA at the front desk. All I had to do was swipe membership cards or look up ID numbers. I told the staff person who trained me to please not put me with any unruly members because frankly, "I won't deal with mean members."

She looked a little surprised. "Um, we really don't get nasty members when they're just checking in but if we do, we'll handle it," she said.

"Good because you do not want me dealing with nasty members, no guarantees I won't get a little snarky. "

My over the top defensiveness, my "she that doth protest too much" can only mean one thing: I project how I sometimes act on to the customer before she ever says a word.

Maybe these kinds of uncomfortable exchanges are moments to remember that we're infinitely more similar than we are different. Instead of being outraged by the outraged we can take a deep breath and jump calmly into the pit and gently lead someone out. Eventually we remember what it feels like to be the other person and our anger turns to empathy

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