Wednesday, August 3, 2011

When the customer can't be consoled, console the employee

UPDATE II: Renbor Sales Solutions Inc. featured this post on their website The Pipeline. Thanks, Tibor Shanto, for sharing!

UPDATE I: City of Gresham shared this post on their intranet site, as reported here. Thanks, Laura, for sharing!

"I can hear the frustration in your voice," said Sarah, to an upset customer. "And I'm not sure what else to say."

Sarah, a sales representative who worked for me, plopped down in my office to relate a frustrating phone call she had just concluded with one of our customers, Darren.

The experience had left her drained, and she needed to update me, in case Darren decided to take the conversation up a notch and call me. Sarah also needed to process the experience and troubleshoot if she could have done something different, done something better, uncovered the trigger that drove the customer to phone in the first place.

It was an exasperating experience.

As I listened to the retelling, I wondered how the customer kept up his griping gyrations in the face of such calm and respectful treatment. Sarah was a pro. She didn't give up and she didn't go for platitudes that often annoy.

But she couldn't get Darren past generic grievances.

There are times when we would like to move a conversation out of complaint mode and straight into resolution. We're presented with a problem. We believe we have an answer. We want to offer our input and reach resolution, but the other party isn't quite there, yet.

This exchange wasn't even at the 'here is the problem' stage.

On each issue the customer raised, Sarah acknowledged how he felt and offered feedback to illustrate she understood his concerns. Momentarily, he would calm, but the most consistent piece of the conversation was the customer rejecting any piece of information that Sarah offered that might reassure him.

"Every time I responded he escalated," Sarah sighed.

Sarah found herself stumped. Our company was doing what we said we would do, but the customer wasn't happy. Unsure what the customer really wanted she felt almost out of options.

"Please help me understand what you need from me," Sarah asked.

Darren didn't really have an answer.

Now, it was time to put the issue back in his lap. Very gently she asked, "What would you like to do at this point?"

There was a brief moment of silence, then the customer replied, "I'm not sure."

We don't always get the outcome we're hoping for.

Desperate to reach some sort of conclusion, Sarah asked, 'Have we covered all the things you want to cover?'"

Then they hit pay dirt.

"I don't mean to come across harshly or abusive to you, I'm very concerned about what I've spent my money on," said Darren.

Sarah scrambled to calculate how she should respond, but before she could take a breath, Darren said, "Have a nice day."

Some problems we can't solve. The customer wanted something he couldn't easily articulate. But he wanted something. He expected something. The something to combat how the competition had changed, combat how his business model had changed, how our business model had changed. He wanted the illusive 'something' that would make things perfect in an imperfect world.

But most of all he wanted someone to listen.

I learned a few things from this discussion. When I'm knee deep in a conversation that's coming fast and furious and I feel like I'm not understanding what is being asked of me, I'll pose a couple of questions. They can be a quick quip when the other person takes a breath, such as, "Is there a question in there?" Or, if I'm completely confused, I may ask,  "Are you asking me to do something?"

That's the pivotal moment when I learn what their hopeful outcome is.

If I hear, "I just need to vent."I know exactly where we are in our exchange and what my role is. It's their way of saying, "Please listen to me."

Who is someone you can always count on to listen to you?