Listen to the audio version of this post here.
You’ve seen the stories I’m sure.
Customers at a just-reopened Cape Cod ice cream parlor erupt when their sundaes aren’t ready for pick-up. They spew such abuse at the teenage cashier, she quits at the end of her shift.
The owner says, “People have forgotten how to treat other human beings in the six or seven weeks that they’ve been confined to their homes.”
Mother’s Day brunch deliveries run late at a Chicago restaurant. A guy who must be desperate for bread pudding French toast sets off a neighborhood social media firestorm with his angry posts that the restaurant is running a scam.
And that evokes equal anger from people passionate about this neighborhood gem, along with some pleas for patience and grace as everyone finds their way back from the shutdown.
We’ve even seen store employees shot for their efforts to enforce pandemic protocols in their establishments.
Patience and grace seem to be in short supply, don’t they?
Things are going to seem weird for a while. Businesses that open at all may have reduced hours. Reduced menus or inventories. And, of course, reduced staff.
Any one of those is a recipe for friction with some customers. Pile them all together and it’s no wonder we’re seeing some explosive situations.
Better communication is the solution to a lot of these problems
Customer service expert Laurie Guest says businesses need to determine their boundaries before they reopen or expand what have been limited offerings.
That boundary-setting is a three-step process.
- Determine the message customers should receive – as an example, wait times are longer than they used to be. We don’t have everyone working because of social distancing rules.
- Educate employees how to say that — “I’m happy to take your order. I just want to give you a head’s up. We’re at about 50% staff right now, so I sure do appreciate your patience.”
- Empower them to bring their own personality to that message, rather than reciting your words. That doesn’t mean they say whatever comes into their mind at the moment. Laurie says what works best is something between rogue and robotic.
She also suggests, where appropriate, using a touch of humor. Why? “Creativity plus humor equals connection.” You can head off a lot of problems by making that emotional connection with a client or customer.
And then there are times when the best of level-setting doesn’t do the trick, and the customer goes ballistic. Now what?
In workshops on Dealing with the Angry Customer, Laurie points out that “anger and fear are cousin emotions. And people don’t want to show fear. So they show anger instead.”
The direction for front line employees is, “when somebody’s acting angry, first ask yourself, what are they afraid of?”
Makes sense, doesn’t it? That reframe shifts your own mindset so instead of reacting to their anger with rage of your own, you have an impulse to step back, figure out what’s wrong, even comfort them. Your softer response can de-escalate a situation.
And right now, Laurie points out, there’s a lot of fear. “People are scared about their livelihood; they’re scared about will we ever go back to the norm?”
What can business owners do to make things better for their employees? Equip them to deal. Laurie says even before the pandemic, companies often failed to equip front line workers with customer service and communication training.
Yes, new employees learn the ins and outs of the job; they also need to learn how to handle the difficult people.
“Good customer service,” Laurie says, will often head off problems. “The smile, the appropriate greeting, the engagement with the customer is the best armor against them being mad at you.”
One more thing for business owners. Praise goes a long way. You may not be able to offer hazardous duty pay, but at the very least, Laurie suggests thanking everyone who’s working with you, letting them know how much they’re contributing and what that means to you.
You can pick up Laurie’s videos for quick study on Resetting Service After Disruption, The Right Words to Connect with Customers, and Attitude Restarts.
And I have some suggestions for those of us who are clients and customers
When you’re about to snap at the grocery store cashier or your dentist’s receptionist, take a breath.
Seriously. Just breathe for a moment, deeply and fully. Ground yourself. And breathe.
Ponder what Laurie said about fear and anger.
You’re furious that your pizza arrived without the mushrooms you explicitly ordered. It’s an outrage the grocery store’s out of paper towels. The restaurant told you to pick up your dinner at 6:00 and it’s already 6:15. Harumph.
Okay, maybe you’re angry. What are you afraid of? Can you sit with that for a little while?
It’s fair to have feelings, whatever they are. I’m not dismissing the agita as “first world problems,” and I’m not telling you to squelch the emotion. Just to look at it. Feel it. Try to see it for what it really is. Then you can start to deal with it.
Step into their map of the world.
Can you put yourself in the place of that cashier, receptionist, or server?
See if you can look at the situation from their perspective. It might be challenging. And, it’s remarkable what a difference that can make.
Take some action.
And I don’t mean hissy-fit-on-Facebook kind of action. I mean if your brunch delivery went awry, pull out some eggs and start cooking. If the wait is too long at the Mexican restaurant, call that Italian place down the street. If the line to get into the grocery store is a block long, come back tomorrow.
It always feels better to do something than to stew over the situation.
It seems likely we’re going to face more service interruptions, late deliveries and empty shelves before all this is over. We all need to buckle up, don’t you think, and make a plan for living our lives when so much is uncertain.
I’m curious about your plan.
Post a comment below to fill us in.
Thank you Catherine,
I appreciate this as I am a front line worker and deal with many customers spending big bucks, as you have said a smile can be heard and felt over the phone too.
Thank you for Not using my new pet peeve / oxymoron “new normal” Grrrr.
Oh, I’m trying to stay away from that phrase, Jacques — it gets plenty of use elsewhere. And yes, we can hear your smile. It doesn’t ALWAYS evoke a smile in return, but it’s a good first step.
Great information and advice! I have shared it on all my social media to help others (especially those who tend to post complaints instead of showing others grace).
Love that, Sue. There IS a lot of that rage-posting going on, isn’t there?
I do understand how impatient people get (I’ve been known to feel the same way). AND, it’s so important, now, for all of us to take a breath and assume positive intent on the part of people who are trying to do business under difficult circumstances.
Great reminder Catherine! One disturbing thing about everyone being masked is that no one can see your smile, nor can you see theirs. It adds another layer of tension to all the free floating fear. It’s also harder to talk or hear but I’ve been making a point to say as many nice things as I can to as many people as I can when I venture out. I’m often surprised to find that I’m more patient than usual and marveled when I felt compassion instead of anger toward the woman in front of me at Costco who couldn’t find her credit card. When I can get services (hair today YEA!) I tip very generously and call it “hazard pay.” I am one of those optimists who is hopeful that we can come through this as better people in a better world and believe it is possible, despite the toilet paper hoarding! THANK YOU for continuing to send out these great newsletters! I hope all is well. ????❤️????
Hair! I envy you, Linda. Sadly, salons are still closed in Chicago. Along with restaurants. And the Lakefront, for cryin’ out loud. It’s really getting old. Your optimism is admirable, and sometimes I even share it. Then there are those other times. And I try hard not to take it out on people who are trying to make the best of things. Saying nice things to people, as you suggest, is an easy way to lift their mood — and mine.
This is such great advice. I have long since felt that some of our first world issues have caused us to not be as kind as a society as we once were. (I have always felt sorry for North Suburban waitstaff with the behavior of some clients) That said, I have an experience to tell you about. It is a more flies with honey sort of tune…
This past weekend (like every weekend, I went to Mariano’s to pick up my groceries that I order on during the week. I order early and set the pickup early to aid in the store being more likely to have items that I am ordering. That said, this last weekend, I was disappointed when I got my order home. Things that were wrong, not substituted when they should have been, missing or less than fresh. I called the store and spoke to a very kind gentleman. I explained first that I knew they were extremely busy and that I am sorry to add to the frustration of the day, but here were my issues. (I honestly felt bad complaining because even though my order was not the greatest, I am sure they are trying under a ton of stress). I explained the issues, he asked me to email them to him, so he was certain not to miss something, I apologized for complaining and he literally said, “It doesn’t even feel like you’re complaining”. I patted myself on the back at that moment for not taking frustration and situational fears out on him. Yay me! But more so, yay him… He called me ten minutes after my email and ran through the items he had gathered. I asked him how much it was, and he said, “Oh no, no charge for these things”. I was shocked, I gratefully thanked him and said I would be right over to pick them up. He then said. “What’s your address? I have someone that can bring them to you, and I am so sorry about the experience” My groceries were dropped off 30 minutes later free of charge (including the 2.25 lbs. of salmon they had missed)
I could have held my initial frustration that the order was wrong, that my produce was bad or yelled this guy who is trying to manage as you said, limited staff, high demand, and everyone’s frustration.
I would remind readers. Life is short. Remember to try to treat other people how you would want to be treated even through trying times. You just never know when that experience that started off making you angry or frustrated will turn out to me a moment that will make your month.
Hang in there folks.
That’s a fabulous story, Donna. Sometimes it’s hard to hold our frustration. And, I think I need to write a follow-up about positive experiences like yours!