What to Say to Defuse Even the Worst Customer Situations: Q&A with Rich Gallagher

Published May 13, 2014
Last modified May 13, 2014

Nationally-known author and speaker Rich Gallagher joined us for a webinar on May 22nd, and in it, he shared tested techniques, case studies, and even lessons from behavioral science, all with the goal of helping you handle your most difficult customer situations.

To get ready for the event, we spoke with Rich about how agents and managers communicate with customers and with each other.

In addition to being an author and speaker, you’re a psychotherapist, too. Are there tools we already use when communicating with our friends and family that we can leverage when speaking to customers?

Good communications skills—with customers and others—often have their roots in principles of family therapy, which is what I practice. The single biggest skill, which is the bread and butter of fields like hostage negotiation and crisis management, as well as psychotherapy, is how to acknowledge the other person. Many people think they know how, but in my experience, most don't.

Real acknowledgement involves one of four levels: paraphrasing (play back their words), observation (play back their feelings), validation (observe that their feelings make sense), or identification (put yourself in their shoes). It is amazing to watch how quickly you can problem-solve and build consensus with someone if you acknowledge them first.

You’re also the author of How to Tell Anyone Anything: Breakthrough Techniques for Handling Difficult Conversations at Work. Do you have any tips for managers who need to coach their agents on being more customer-centric?

Absolutely. I call it "The Second Golden Rule": you can never successfully criticize anyone for anything—ever. Don't criticize, shame, or correct people when they make mistakes with customers; instead, teach them new skills that improve *their* life at work, while empathizing with their human nature. Attitude always follows skills, never the other way around.

Do you have any tips for keeping your cool when dealing with an upset or angry customer?

That’s exactly what my book, The Customer Service Survival Kit, is all about. Aside from the acknowledgement skills mentioned above, the best ways to amp down an angry customer are to "lean in" to their criticism by matching their agenda and emotion. If a customer is on the phone and focusing on how much money they’ve spent, you can say, "Wow, this must have cost you a fortune!" to let them know you understand their frustration. Then use problem-solving skills that are focused on what you can do for the customer, rather than what you can’t do.

For example, instead of saying, "Sorry, we can't meet your demand for the moon and the stars," say, "I don't blame you for wanting to make this right. We can give you half the moon and a quarter of a star, if that would help." In both cases, knowing the right techniques helps calm you down as well.

Watch the recording of our Zen Master webinar with Rich Gallagher: The Customer Service Survival Kit: What to Say to Defuse Even the Worst Customer Situations