Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

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.


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11 thoughts on “Surviving Customer Support Conversations”

  1. Julie

    I absolutely understand the frustration of having to push buttons when all you want to do is talk to someone. Completely! But I thought having more information might help many of take a different perspective on it. Prior to much of the functionality where you were required to push buttons to narrow the focus of what you needed, customers would wait much longer. While I can’t quantify it for you, I can say the reason that this functionality was put in place was to actually speed up the response time as well as accuracy of information provided. While it was great speaking to a person right away, often this would result in speaking to someone who couldn’t help you, being forwarded to a series of others that can help, potentially being given incorrect information and longer wait times before you could actually get to the person. Call center technology allows people across the country (or broader) to appropriately/efficiently answer the needs of its customers. This doesn’t change the frustration you may feel with the process, but it may help you understand why and know that it is done with the customer’s interest at the focus.
    Now to tie this back into what I understand about crucial conversations, I remember being reminded over and over to not assume you know what is going on with the other person. A person who is angry at you may have had a fight that morning with someone else or other reasons. In this case I am assuming many people don’t know why they have to push all those buttons. Maybe this explanation helps a tiny bit.

  2. Jean

    As a member of the management team at one of those “push 7” contact centers, I can tell you that it’s not easy being a customer service person. The reason WHY our phone system contains an automated voice response feature is that we can provide customers with the same information with that system as a customer service rep can (uses the same data base).

    Oh, and it’s a GOVERNMENT contact center. To handle all the customers who want to speak with a live person, we’d need another 200 staff members, and unfortunately, taxpayers don’t want to pay for that, either. Most people who are checking on routine information can get answers without speaking with one of our staff. We try to save their time for the really complex questions and service issues. Some self-defense, but also a reminder that you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar!

  3. Pat

    I too find myself frustrated as most of the options on most of the automated systems seem to have nothing to do with my need to contact customer service. I generally start my call as follows, I’m very frustrated after spending 7 minutes and 3 tries to get through the Silicone Sal System, so please be patient with me as i try to be professional and courteous. This usually leads to a few moments of comiseration and generally a laugh between the CSR and myself after which I can deal with my issue in a much calmer and friendlier manner.

  4. Steven Chamblee

    I love it. Kerry Patterson is like a favorite uncle who calmly and somewhat magically makes it all make sense. Presidential material, for sure, but will he take the job?

    I do have one suggestion before you have to make one of those “into the bowels of the system” calls…get out the comics. Reading the funnies helps to take the edge off, and all of the snippets are brief, so you can “come back” to the phone call when it’s finally answered. I once shared a Marmaduke caption with a credit card customer service rep, and we both had a good laugh. She thanked ME for being a great customer!

  5. Charlie

    Normally I reserve my comments for your fantastic rememberences of your childhood, but felt the need to comment here. Even the best advice won’t be remembered if it is in too complex of an answer. Not the case here. I pulled a nugget out of this that I am sure will help me going forward. When you hear your inner voice saying “Here we go again!” as I have so often heard myself thinking when I run into a VMS; stop and determine whether “you might respond historically rather than episodically”. That’s one the companies should print on the business cards right next to “For servce dial 1-800-herewegoagain”. That’s even better than “Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear”. Ahh, I feel my cholesterol going down as I type.

  6. Mari Olsen

    Press zero until you get to a person. That will at least reduce the frustration attributed to the phone system.

  7. Jenifer

    Anyone who lashes out on a CSR simply because they were routed through a phone system (designed to make their call more efficient) needs to develop skills in patience and logic. If selecting a few options on the phone is the most horrible thing you experience during the day, then you should count your lucky stars because you’re having a great day! Technology can be frustrating, but that does not entitle anyone to verbally abuse others.

  8. Jenifer

    Possibly, until you are sent to an operator who needs to transfer you to several different people in order to route you to someone who can help. I don’t understand why our society makes this such a big deal. It’s just a phone system. @Mari Olsen

  9. Brian Taylor

    I’m a left-handed vegetarian, Kerry.

    Brian Taylor

  10. Elizabeth Richards

    I learned a lovely lesson one day about being stood customer. The pilots’ union was not going on strike but enough flights were delayed or cancelled that summer you couldn’t tell it. I stood in a long line of people hoping to get reticketed. I’m sure many customers were frustrated and abusive. When I finally got to talk to a rep, I simply said, boy I bet this is a long day for you.. And really it didn’t take great deal of compassion to realize they took the abuse for the actions of others.

    The surprising thing was I got booked on a flight within 30 minutes. I treated them like a human. They responded. Lesson learned.

  11. Kelly

    Excellent response. I had many of the same thoughts. In addition, in my experience, you are usually only prompted to press 2 or 3 buttons, rather than going through a “button pushing ritual.”
    We all like the human touch, but the electronic tools help route calls more efficiently and consistently at a lower cost. Self-help is also a big thing anymore and many times you can find a solution to your problem without having to involve someone else.

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