By Kat Ketter, AVP, Customer Experience, Jefferson Health Plans
Contributor: Fannie Perrucci, Manager of Customer Experience, Jefferson Health Plans

Not every customer interaction will be a pleasant one. Customer service team members have to ready themselves to respond to an angry, frustrated, or peeved customer at any given time, which can include an external customer, or an internal one. Read on as we talk about how to be naturally optimistic, how to use the science behind complaints to better understand your customer, and how it is the best approach for diffusing a tricky situation.

Being Naturally Optimistic
Negative language in customer service tells customers what can’t be done. It’s neither productive for you as a support agent, nor is it comforting for the customer. Proper call center etiquette is to:

  1. Keep the conversation upbeat by sharing how you can potentially solve the problems.
  2. Focus on good outcomes — it builds customers’ trust in you and motivates them to stay on the phone.
  3. Try out positive phrases like, “I can certainly check on that for you” or “Let me find out for you,” to show the customer you’re eager to help.

And remember, body language can translate over the phone, so don’t forget to smile! Grinning while you speak can help you sound friendlier and keep you in a positive mindset while assisting a customer. Here are some other sentiments to focus on during your interaction.

Warmth: Simple human kindness.

Empathy: The ability to sense what another person is feeling.

Teamwork: An inclination toward ‘‘Let’s work together to make this happen’’ and against ‘‘I’d rather do it all myself.’’

Conscientiousness: Detail orientation, including an ability and willingness to follow through to completion.

Optimism: The ability to bounce back and to not internalize challenges.

The H.E.A.R.D. Approach
The H.E.A.R.D. (Hear, Empathize, Apologize, Resolve, Diagnose) method was created the Disney Institute, the professional development and training division at The Walt Disney Company. They found that by hearing what the customer had to say, empathizing with their situation, apologizing for any real wrongdoing on you or your company’s part, and resolving the issue with them, will help to mellow the initially peeved customer. The last part, diagnosing, will ensure a similar incident will not occur in the future.

The H.E.A.R.D. method may seem simplistic. But in practicality, it is a terrific, actionable approach.

Brain Chemistry and How Not to Take Complaints Personally
When we face criticism or retaliation from a customer, even a concern that we may get reported for not giving them the outcome they desired, our bodies produce higher levels of cortisol, a hormone that shuts down the thinking center of our brains and activates conflict aversion and protection behaviors. We become more reactive and sensitive. We often perceive even greater judgment and negativity than exists. And these effects can last for 26 hours or more.

When a customer has a tantrum, it is vital not to take it personally. The anger is not about you—the customer doesn‘t even know you or care about you—it is about a situation. He‘s been disappointed or frustrated. Maybe she feels like we didn’t meet her expectations. The complaint may be totally unreasonable, and the reaction may be way over the top. Or not. Either way, it‘s not about you. It‘s about the circumstances.

There can be a belief that to respond to complaints is to dignify them. That to respond to complaints is to validate them. Unless they are fictitious or derogatory in some other way, however, every complaint is “true” from the perspective of the customer. Customers may have unrealistic expectations. There may have been extenuating circumstances. They may have been misled by their perspective or a simple misunderstanding.

In short, what the customer believes to have happened is what happened, in their head and in their world. Ignoring this and refusing to help the customer because you disagree with the assertions and do not want to unjustly dignify them, is a textbook case of cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Identify Emotional Triggers
The initial emotional trigger is a need for the service, and a company’s underperformance can heighten negative emotions such as anger and fear. But emotions also present opportunities to exceed customers’ expectations. Identifying the aspects of a service that are most likely to intensify negative emotions is a key step in developing a strategy to minimize those emotions. The process can range from the simple (surveys, focus groups, interviews) to the sophisticated (controlled experiments and experience mapping). The purpose is to encourage customers to probe and express their deep feelings about the service and to voice needs, concerns, or hopes that might not otherwise surface.

Use this as an opportunity to hashtag#surprise and hashtag#delight and you’ll be surprised at the better outcomes you can achieve – for yourself, your organization and the customer.

For the past 24 months, Kat Ketter has been leading the voice of the customer program and customer experience strategy for the government programs at Jefferson Health Plans. She is passionate about designing and improving operational models to achieve measurable results and customer satisfaction. Prior to joining Jefferson, she held leadership roles at UPMC Health Plan, Landmark Health, Optum Home & Community Plan and the LIFE Medicaid waiver programs.