14 Sep 2015 By: Matthew Harmer

Let’s face it. In the world of customer service, there are times when we have to tell customers what they don’t want to hear. At best, the result is an unhappy customer.  Or, at worst, the interaction turns into a verbal sparring match. It is easy to feel helpless in these tough situations, especially when there seems to be no right answer. The good news is that there are strategies that can be effective and turn the tide in the company’s favor. We just have to take a page out of negotiation theory’s handbook for insight and ideas.


Monkey See, Monkey Do?

A recent study completed by psychologist, Molly Ireland, found that when two negotiators adopt a similar language style, they are more likely to reach an impasse. Surprised? While mirroring is often perceived as an expression of empathy, tuning into the mental state of a hostile customer can trigger your own hostile or competitive tone. In negotiation situations, Ireland’s data found that sticking to the task at hand, and using many task-related words, is the key to navigating tough conversations. Humans have a tendency to reflect each other’s expressions and attitudes, a result of mirror neurons in our brain. Thus, the next time you find yourself at odds with a client, maintain an understanding tone. However, don’t lose sight of what you are trying to accomplish. Steer the conversation in a peaceful direction, while standing strong in the company’s policies.


Emotional Payments

So, how can you express empathy without mirroring a customer’s snarky tone? A well-timed concession or apology can do much to reduce the fever pitch of an emotional conversation. Psychologists call this “making emotional payments.” The goal is to help the customer to feel “repaid” by their negative experience. Negative emotions can cause the complainant to put the brakes on logic and work against their own interests. You can turn the tide of the conversation by being an active listener and validating the client’s feelings. In addition to apologizing, repeat their issue back to them. This approach will make them feel heard and understood.


Choose Your Words Carefully

It doesn’t take a linguistics major to understand that word choice matters. Consider the difference between “This won’t happen again,” and “I can assure you that this won’t happen again.” Words like “positively,” “definitely,” and “certainly” can inject extra feelings of care into your words.  Address the recipient by their name as opposed to an informal “Dear Sir or Madam.” Even do this for phone calls, live chats, and email.  Personalization and conceived empathy are the keys to acknowledging your customer as an equal.  In fact, studies have found that hearing or recognizing one’s own name activates unique and positive brain function. So, be professional, but be personal.


We can always hope that all customer interactions will be positive and seamless, but it’s best to be prepared with these tips from the pros.
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