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Shut Up And Listen

Conquer customer complaints using Otis' tried and true listening practices.

When handling heat from an angry customer, remember one thing: do not talk, listen!

The angry customer will tell his story three times. Listen silently as he does. Don’t respond with anything but eye contact. Don’t even okie-doke the guy or say, “I see or I understand.” Don’t ask him to clarify anything at this point. At the end of his third repetition of his story, the most amazing thing happens — he will stop talking completely. He does this for a few reasons. Let’s steal some terminology from the theater and call these three stages the rehearsal, the performance and the finale.

The Rehearsal
The first time through his story, he’ll be ranting, emotional and won’t have his routine rehearsed well enough. So he’ll have to recount the entire ordeal a second time. It is critical not to engage him while he is emotional. Just listen. Hey, for the last fifteen minutes on his drive to your dealership, he’s been practicing what he’s gonna say to you. And the more he gets fired up, the more he has to remember, and the more he’s gonna read you the riot act when he sees you. Now he’s in front of you and here it comes.

The Performance
This is his second time through, where he’ll say the more clever things he rehearsed in the car. He is focused at this point; he has nothing else on his mind, and he’s just about through. He may catch a second wind here and really be mean.

The Final
The third time through is the, “And another thing!” session. Fueled by emotion, he is likely to say the more insulting things he thought of in the car during the rehearsal but forgot to throw in during the performance. Again, do not respond until he’s done.

Now, when the finale is over, the whole thing will probably end rather abruptly. Here’s why. For the last half hour, this guy has been focused on one thing and one thing only: telling you what you did wrong. Once he’s got it all out of his head, he is left with nothing more to say — no more unexpressed emotion, and the result is basically silence.

This is when you’ve got the opportunity of a lifetime. Until this very moment, you’ve had a problem to deal with, and nothing with which to fix it. Now, after he has emptied his anger, and before anything else can cloud his head, is when you speak. You get to place the first thing into his drained pipeline. You must convey two things, and only two things, empathy and a solution. Why? Because all he wants is empathy and a solution; and because he deserves empathy and a solution.

Here’s how I was taught to respond in the service advisor seminar I learned this technique in years ago. “Mr. Customer, I think I understand how you feel. Here’s how I’d like to offer to resolve the issue.” And then offer a resolution. By addressing his emotion you empathize with him. You’ve also told him that a solution to his issue is as important to you as it is to him.

My brother worked as an assistant principal in charge of discipline at a high school where he often met with parents appalled that their little angels had broken any rules and were being punished. After one particularly grueling session, he called me on his way home to recall the event so as not to unleash his pent up fury on his wife and kids over spaghetti and garlic bread. It seemed that he’d tried multiple times with no success to get a word in edgewise during little Johnny’s defense case.

Each time he’d attempted to interject, the flames would shoot further out of Dad’s eyes while the filth from his cake-hole got filthier, and Mommy’s head turned 360s faster and more violently with each reasoning he tried to squeeze in.

As I tried to do my brotherly best to sympathize, that service advisor seminar began to echo in my head. So I shared it with my struggling sibling in hopes of helping him bring down his stomach acid.

He liked it. He tried it. He was absolutely amazed by the results. From that point forward, my brother found himself dealing with much more reasonable and cooperative parents on a regular basis. That made his disciplinary actions much more effective because he was now able to collaborate with the parents to affect real changes in the kids being disciplined.

He told me later that he had to develop a few mental tricks so he wouldn’t interrupt while his attackers did the three-round exercise (counting backwards from 1,372,416 by threes always seemed to help). Listen, I know how hard it is to hear that your customers have been failed by your company. And I know how much harder it is when your team did the right thing for the customer, and the customer just doesn’t agree.

Will this method work perfectly every time, you might ask? Nope. But here’s my counter-question to you. Will it hurt you to try? If you do it right — from the heart — I’m convinced that it can help you can change your corner of the world. You might just make it a little better place to be.

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