Working in a service industry or in a customer-facing role can be quite stressful, especially when problems arrive with a client.
In fact, what we are going to talk about here, can be used in almost any situation in work life, or just in life, period.
Like most problems, things can be exacerbated by communication breakdown and it happens all too easily and all too quickly – but often we just let it happen, whether we are aware of it or not.
You know the scenario – it’s what I call the “washing machine mechanic syndrome” – somebody calls you up, yells down the phone about how useless your products are, how bad your service is and how they want a solution, like, yesterday, and they may throw in a few personal insults just for good measure…
You have become the ‘washing machine mechanic’ – the washing machine being your products or services, or the issue that you are faced with.
The ‘washing machine’ has never worked correctly from the day that it was bought – two years later it has now broken-down …. but nobody ever calls to say how good their washing machine is, how it works well, cleans well and gives long service. No that never happens. So the person who receives the call is, more often than not, faced with a yelling, angry client – who, when not having their life ruined by your products or services, is a normal, mild-mannered human being.
So why do customer-facing employees have the dubious pleasure of being able to transform even the most reasonable people into type A personalities?
I guess one of the contributing factors is down to experiential learning – what people have learnt in other, similar situations.
No, don’t get me wrong – I’m not blaming experiential learning, it’s just that people learn from things that have an impact on them, and most of the time, negative experiences stick better and for longer than positive experiences.
People remember good service, but they remember bad service even better and this generally tends to come to the fore when dealing with issues with customer services – those that will eventually inherit the Earth are not what we are dealing with here.
So let’s have a brief look at communication, and especially at the choices that we have when communicating.
When we communicate we have four basic choices :
Aggressive – Attack is the best form of defence! Preoccupied with their own needs only, loud, bullying – need to have the last word, makes their own decisions and decisions for others. Will use confrontation or aggression, if necessary, to get what they want. Have difficulty asking for help as this is viewed as a sign of weakness. Show outer self-confidence but are usually, in reality, lacking in confidence and self-esteem.
Passive – Give in, roll-over, to other people’s wishes and demands. Have difficulty saying ‘No’, have difficulty making decisions, afraid of stepping on other people’s toes, run away from conflict and confrontation in case it causes a scene.
Manipulative – Show traits of an assertive person but the underlying actions of the aggressive, lacking in confidence, with no real respect for ‘ecology’. Out to win by any means, using machination, divide and rule and any tactics which will gain the confidence of others to act for them – makes the bullets for others to shoot.
Assertive – Express feelings and emotions accurately, respect other’s and your own needs, wishes and ‘ecology’. Say ‘No’ when you need to and are willing to ask for and give help when needed. Confident and able to make decisions which are for the benefit of themselves and others, demonstrate responsible actions, thoughts, behaviours and feelings.
Now, looking at these four choices, we would all want to be assertive communicators, wouldn’t we?
The reality is that we cannot be assertive at all times – a natural human reaction, when faced with a threat or aggression, is to respond in like – if somebody attacks us, it is very difficult to resist the temptation to attack back, to protect ourselves from this threat – it’s how we have survived throughout evolution.
That said, in a customer services setting, this is probably the worst thing to do – attack a client back – so what do we do?
Do we compensate by being passive or manipulative?
Well some do, but this is probably not going to, ultimately, give the best results.
One way of responding is using the DESC script – easy to remember when sitting in the office – get it on the wall in front of you, until you have it down to a fine art – then throw it away, when you have the reflexes.
So what is DESC ?
It stands for Describe, Express, Specify and Consequences – I’d just like to add an ‘R’ for Reflect to add an aspect of learning and improvement to this, if I may. After all, we are all on a lifetime quest to learn and improve communications, so a final ‘I’ will give us ‘Implement’ – we then need to put the learning in action.
So, we’ll go with DESCRI :
Describe – What you understand the problem, situation or behaviour as being. Not your feelings but the facts only, as complete and objectively as you can. Try to get agreement and engagement from the person by truth alone: “So, I understand that your washing machine has never worked correctly from the day that you bought it, two years ago – is that correct?” When you have agreement, then you can move on to the next step – if it is unclear or you have interpreted things wrong you will encounter problems further down the line – this needs to be exact here! Avoid using the “you” as this can appear that you are accusing the person or insinuating that, “according to you”… This may be the case, but what we are looking for here is understanding of the situation only. Very often what people initially say, will be tempered here when they hear their complaint reflected back at them ..; “Well, no, not since the day I bought it, but …”
Express – What you feel and think about the situation or behaviour, which can help clarify assumptions. Stay calm and use “I” and not “You” to avoid the other person going on the offensive. This gives you another chance to ensure that you are responding to the correct issue and not working on your interpretation of what you think the issue is.
Specify – The solution that you are going to put into action or the actions or behaviours that you would prefer. At this point you should have all the information necessary, going back over the problem is not helpful at this stage. Keeping the tone firm, open and positive will help reassure the listener that you are not trying to impose a solution that may not be desired or could short-circuit the flow, taking you back to step 1.
Consequences – This can also be the Conclusion of the steps with the listener, to illustrate that you are there, with them, to find a solution, to maintain positive relationships and to continue working together in a positive way. Here you have an opportunity to verify that the preceding steps have been accomplished accurately and that the listener is happy with solution that has been proposed.
Reflection – What did you learn about, the situation and yourself? What went well / not so well? What will you do differently next time? How will you do things differently next time? Why will you do things differently next time?
Implementation – How are you going to put the learning into action? What are your priorities and when are you going to do it? This is an important step – it’s all very well learning something, but learning without action changes nothing and remains passive and anecdotal!
It is important that you be yourself and communicate with authenticity – whether in a face-to-face or over the phone situation.
The DECRI model provides a structured way to deal with situations that can be varied, stressful and full of communication traps awaiting to be sprung. If you have been behaving passively for a long time, the temptation may be to move through the spectrum to acting aggressively, or aggressive may move right over to passive.
This is a great opportunity to start communicating assertively – staying in control of one’s emotions in potentially trying situations – try this out to manage issues more effectively, and you will feel 100 times better!