Q&A – Crucial Conversations in Customer Service


Dear Jospeh,

I work in the agricultural industry as a sales rep. Sometimes I must go out to a customer when a product has not met their expectations. I just started reading Crucial Conversations, and I also have Crucial Confrontations. Any areas I should focus on to better handle these situations? So far I have read about how to have difficult conversations with employees or peers, but not much on customer issues.


The Messenger

Author: Brittney Maxfield


Senior Director of Marketing Communications @ VitalSmarts


Dear Messenger,

Customer service is an interesting application of Crucial Conversations. To your point, these skills work beautifully when talking with employees or peers, but do they work with customers? More importantly, do they work with disgruntled customers who are less than pleased with your product or service?

In short, the answer is yes. These skills are necessary and effective any time you face differing opinions, high stakes, or strong emotions—common conditions in customer service. Your particular customer service interaction includes all three conditions: your customer does not hold the same good opinion of your product as you do; they have spent a lot of money and time on your product, so the stakes are high; and as a result, they are discouraged, upset, and maybe even feel deceived—emotions are surging. What now?

Several years ago, we did a study that uncovered four Crucial Conversations that drive customers away. The study looked specifically at customer interactions in banking and finance, but these conversations are common in most every customer-client interaction. We collected 1,670 stories from customers of loyalty-killing interactions and four conversations emerged as most harmful. They are:

1. You see me as a transaction not a relationship. This interaction involves customers who make a one-time mistake or are in a unique circumstance. They feel their loyalty with the company should override those mistakes. When the company does not prioritize customer loyalty, the customer believes the company cares only about extracting maximum value from each transaction rather than creating a long-term relationship.

2. Your policy is more important than my problem.
This interaction involves customers who believe a policy is unfair, petty, overly rigid, or takes advantage of their business. All the customer really wants is individual treatment but feels the sales rep or advisor hides behind policies and technologies and fails to truly hear their concerns.

3. Guilty until proven innocent. This interaction involves customers who believe the way they are being treated is demeaning – such as being accused of lying, feeling patronized, not having the option to speak or explain, or being discriminated in any way.

4. “Sorry” seems to be the hardest word. This interaction involves customers who believe the company has made a mistake and won’t take responsibility for it. The customer loses faith in the competency of the provider.

I’ve surfaced these four loyalty-killing conversations because I think naming them is valuable for anyone in a customer-facing role. They also help us identify a handful of Crucial Conversations skills that if used, would eliminate a salty client interaction at a minimum, and at best, preserve the client relationship altogether.
So, when dealing with a disgruntled client, lean on these Crucial Conversations skills to avoid a loyalty-killing interaction.

When a customer’s expectations of your product are unmet, it’s normal to feel exasperated and discouraged. As the sales rep in the agricultural industry, you likely aren’t directly responsible for their frustrations with the product, and you also don’t have the power to resolve them. You are simply the middleman. But while you might be vindicated in being defensive, don’t. In fact, resist the urge to respond at all. When a customer begins venting their frustrations, they just want someone to listen. Empathetically listening may seem unnatural because you’re just dying to step in with a logical explanation or even solve the problem if you can. But don’t. First listen. The customer is looking for empathy and understanding, which is given as much by your demeanor and expression as it is by the words you say.

Once the customer realizes that you care, they want to know that you understand them. In your own words, repeat their issues and concerns. Don’t correct them or set the record straight, but simply repeat back their view. They want to know they’ve been understood. This can be hard—particularly if you know they’re wrong. If that’s the case, simply restate their view as their view, not the truth.

Whether the customer is right or wrong, validate their experience. In their reality, the product is not meeting expectations, and we all know how frustrating that can be—so share in their concerns. Validation is an important tool to building trust and respect and will allow the customer to be open to solutions and a continued partnership.

Finally, once you’ve shown empathy and understanding, and validated their experience, explain how your actions are aimed at satisfying the client’s long-term values. Perhaps you say something like, “Your experience can help us improve what isn’t working so that we can be part of your success for years to come. And in the meantime, we’ll get a technician out here immediately to address any current issues.” By connecting to their values, you can take the focus off the short-term pain and place it on your long-term, value-based purpose, where it belongs.
Customer loyalty is rooted in more than a fair exchange of goods and services. It’s rooted in feeling like the company listens to their concerns and challenges, doesn’t hide behind policy and procedure to save money, and prioritizes the relationship first and foremost.

When you tentatively approach an unhappy customer with concern and understanding, it’s more likely they will be open and willing to cooperate on the current solution and a long-term business relationship.

Best of luck in your Crucial Conversations.


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