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“Oh no, Mr. Jones is on line two again! What does he want now?”
When our clients/customers complain we want to cringe. We want to hide. We want to defend ourselves. Critter State is a natural escape. After all we’re only human, and our ego and sense of well-being feels threatened. Heaven forbid we actually did something wrong, and will have to admit the mistake and suffer the consequences.
What if we choose instead to really listen? What would happen if we treated each complaint as an invitation to better understand the needs and requirements of our people? Of our Tribe?
Every organization exists for a purpose–even if we don’t have a clear mission statement–we exist to solve some problem for our customers. So when they reach out to us to complain, when they make the effort to connect even negatively, we need to realize that what they are actually communicating is that they still have needs. Needs that we can resolve.
The Big Question Is How
How does one stay centered and meet the customer where they are? How does one avoid getting triggered and take the opportunity to learn?
The most effective skills I have learned and taught to my clients is the toolbox of rapport.
Let’s start with the basics. Every person has their own map of reality. That map of reality consists of beliefs about ourselves and about how the world works. These beliefs are a product of where (geographically) we were born, how we were socialized and educated, our socio-economic background, our religious beliefs, our ethnic identity, our gender identity, our family beliefs and experiences, our personal life experiences.
Seek And Ye Shall Find
If someone is “like you” your maps of reality have a big overlap, you feel safe with them and rapport can be easy to establish. If they are “not like me,” we have to work a bit harder to understand their map and to increase the overlap through empathy. One of the best ways to do this is to stay in what I call “inquiry mode.” In other words, ask a lot of questions before advocating for your ideas, opinions or solutions. And when you ask those questions, really listen to the answers. When it’s your turn to talk, use what they’ve said to ask the next question and help the person clarify their own thinking.
One of the best questions to stay in inquiry mode—especially if we think we disagree—is to ask, “What specifically do you mean by abc?” Where abc is a word or phrase the person just used. For example, a client with whom I was recently working kept using the word “leadership,” as in “my team lacks leadership.” By asking what specifically she meant by “leadership,” I uncovered a whole realm of specific professional skills and etiquette that her team needed to be trained on if they were going to achieve their strategic objectives.
Unpacking and understanding the specificity in a generalized complaint often reveals misunderstandings (due to each person’s differing map) and gets to the core of the issue more quickly. The customer also feels heard, which goes a long way to repairing any damage caused by a mistake. In fact, research has shown that doctors who communicate openly with patients, who admit mistakes and listen to complaints have far fewer malpractice suits than those that try to defend themselves, cover up mistakes or don’t listen to the patient. If there wasn’t a mistake, asking questions will quickly reveal the source of the misunderstanding much faster than defending an action.
I Wanna Be Like You-ooh-ooh!
To really understand where someone is coming from, to get on their map of reality, it also helps to use simple rapport techniques based in mirroring. There are five basic types of mirroring we can practice: 1) physical body, 2) vocal, 3) sensory system preference language 4) keywords and gesture playback, 5) Meta-program language pattern matching.
Mirroring is a very basic human (and mammalian) activity that we are born neurologically pre-disposed to do. Infants who are only minutes old will actively mirror people’s faces. When we are first born, belonging is crucial to survival, so we are born with “mirror neurons” that cause us to immediately mirror others so that we appear “like” and can belong. It’s very basic safety wiring.
When we mirror another person, we help them to feel safe and they are more likely to communicate openly with us. When we mirror another person we also, for a few moments, can physically experience a little bit of what it’s like to be them. We can physically get on their map and increase the amount of overlap.
Customer Focus Vs. “Being Right”
We have all heard the saying “the customer is always right.” I would argue that’s not true, sometimes there are misunderstandings, sometimes a customer makes a mistake, sometimes they don’t have the same information we do and it is our job as solution providers to bring new information and insight. What is true is that it is our job to focus on the customer and understand, empathize with, their experience.
Defending our position, focusing on who is “right” and who is “wrong” shifts the focus to something else entirely.
Using the neuroscience tools of inquiry and mirroring to keep the brain in “Smart State” allows us to create more empathy. Once we are connected in this way it becomes easy and natural to move from a situation where a customer who is complaining is a problem, to a situation in which a customer who voices a concern becomes a valuable ally in growing our businesses profitably.