Crucial Conversations QA

Surviving Customer Support Conversations

Dear Crucial Skills,

As we all do from time to time, I find myself having to call a company to resolve an issue, and am often frustrated at the very beginning of the phone call when I’m asked to press a series of buttons before I’m allowed to talk to a human. By the time I get to this point, I’m so frustrated that I don’t always use my best Crucial Conversations skills. How can I make the best of these call-center crucial conversations?

Frustrated Customer

Dear Frustrated,

I’m sure thousands of people share your annoyance with being sent to what feels like electronic purgatory. I too become quickly irritated when I’m forced to punch a half dozen buttons before I’m given the opportunity to talk to someone.

I’m equally convinced many of us button-haters aren’t exactly on our best and most respectful behavior when we finally interact with a human being. After we’ve had our fill of instructions such as, “If you’re a left-handed vegetarian, please press seven,” we tear into the customer service representative (to quote comedian Ray Romano) “like a monkey on a cupcake.”

Even if we’ve only become moderately snippy with the unfortunate employee, after we’ve hung up and had a chance to review our snarky remarks, many of us look back and ask, “What was I thinking? It’s not as if that poor employee came up with the policy that puts people in a foul mood before he or she talks to them. So, why did I just abuse an innocent bystander?”

It’s hard to come up with a convincing response to this question, although I did hear an explanation at the airport a few months back that almost fits the bill. It seemed the fellow standing in front of me at the service counter had landed in Minneapolis a few minutes after his connecting flight took off. I listened in on the conversation as he delivered a tirade so heated, vitriolic, and yet curiously clever, that people walking by stopped, pulled out their laptops, and took notes.

The fellow put on quite a show. He raised his voice, used insulting and hurtful terms, and waved his arms wildly as if he were guiding in a jet fighter. And yet, the guy kept his threats just veiled enough and his tone just controlled enough to keep from getting sprayed with mace and wrestled to the floor.

When the gate agent finally did get a word in, she explained that there was no reason for the passenger to yell at her—after all, it wasn’t her fault he missed his connection (a well-worn expression that is sure to throw gasoline on the fire). Prepared for just such a retort, the furious passenger explained why he did have the right to tear into her.

“Despite the fact that this airline leaves me stranded in airports, flies my baggage to the wrong city, rarely gets me to my destination on time, has forced me to miss birthdays and countless other precious family events—despite all of this—you still choose to work here. You sat back and watched this freak show you call an airline inflict untold damage on your innocent customers. That makes it okay for me to be angry at you because you’re part of the problem.”

Despite this carefully constructed argument, nothing the fellow said justified his verbal abuse. Nevertheless, this hurtful response does demonstrate what can happen to a presumably reasonable, rational, and decent human being after years of being subjected to poor customer service. To bystanders, such an explosive reaction always seems far too large given the triviality of the precipitating event. However, that’s because bystanders watching such an incident only observe a snippet from current events and not a broader sampling from history.

Which brings us back to your problem. Being electronically routed throughout the ether adds one more annoyance to a growing inventory of petty offences that could lead to an unhealthy tirade or at least an uncharacteristically snippy response on your part. So, when you ask what you can do to make sure you’re using your best crucial conversations skills after being given the electronic run-around, you ask against a backdrop that includes years of customer abuse—adding to the complexity of the problem. So, what’s a person to do? Here are a few ideas to help you keep your cool.

Master Your Story
Let’s start with the story you tell yourself. Simply being aware that you might respond historically rather than episodically is a step in the right direction. When being shuttled around the electronic universe, keep in mind that this phone call is a single instance—not the sum total of every uncaring, bureaucratic, save-the-company-money-at-your-expense response you’ve experienced to date.

Start with Heart
As you begin your conversation, think about the poor person on the other end of the line, how he or she has had nothing to do with the policy, and most certainly doesn’t deserve your criticism. Besides, he or she isn’t likely to be in a place to change the policy anyway. Additionally, realize that what you really want isn’t to send a hostile message to the company via the customer-service worker. What you really want is to get your problem solved. You know from past experience that lashing out with anger and resentment only delays resolving the issue you are calling about in the first place.

Consider the side effects of anger
Keep in mind the impact you have on your health every time you become angry. When you allow petty annoyances to heap one upon the other until you eventually blow your stack, you harm not just those around you but also yourself.

Anger sends the message to your body that it’s time to prepare for an upcoming blunt trauma. In response, your body thickens your blood so you won’t bleed out. That’s right, every time you get angry you produce cholesterol. And if this isn’t enough to give you the yips, keep in mind that every time you blow a gasket you also weaken your immune system, stress your heart, and maybe worst of all, you become an angry person you really don’t want to be.

So, the next time you’re required to go through a button-pushing ritual—be prepared. Before you make the call, take a deep breath and be ready for the fact that you may be transferred around or otherwise bureaucratically pummeled. Fight your natural proclivity. Put on a smile—don’t conjure up a counter-attack. In short, take charge of your response rather than vice versa. Don’t brew up a fresh batch of cholesterol.

And remember, the person on the phone shouldn’t be your target. If you want to provide the company with feedback, ask to talk to the shift manager or send an e-mail explaining your position on the phone game. In pleasant and honest terms, explain that you much prefer an immediate human response. This may have no effect on the policy, but it is the professional and healthy way of trying to make a difference. Equally important, taking the civil route doesn’t vent your frustrations on a hapless employee, and it also won’t make you ill.