Customer Service & the Stages of Grief


One of the critical aspects of customer engagement is dealing with loss, and loss causes grief. In 1969, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross wrote On Death and Dying describing the oft-cited states of grief that terminally ill patients experience because of their own impending deaths. What most people don’t realize is that customers, who consciously or unconsciously feel as if they’ve suffered a loss, grieve in the very same way: they’re in denial or fearful; some will try to bargain; many feel regrets, and many more are angry.
Too many Customer Service Agents feel put out that they have to deal with “these people”, but it’s far better to hear from our customers then to have them shut off and spout off.

It’s incredibly naïve to think that we’re only going to deal with happy customers—Things Fall Apart, and companies or representatives who hope to deal with customers only when they’re happy are like fair weather friends. Not only should we expect calls from frustrated, scared or angry customers, we should welcome them since such engagements are the best times to show the added value of your company and how much the company actually cares about its customers

The Customer Service Agent is always the voice or face of the company for the person calling in with the concern; this interaction is potentially the most significant in the rescue of the tested relationship. The moment of frustration or of anger, that’s the moment of truth—the real test of how strong the relationship is! Either they’ll be a break-up afterwards, or the bonds of relationship will strengthen and grow. And much of it will play out on social media =)

Strong emotion provides two key indicators: first, that this issue connects to something that the customer highly values or feels they need, and second, that they feel you have some influence over that need. It means they care and feel vulnerable. It means you’re in a relationship, and how you handle their worries and fears will do more to solidify or destroy that relationship than almost anything else you do.

This is where the opportunity really presents itself. The key is to empathize enough to see the concern from their perspective, but not get so entangled in their emotions that you aren’t effective at being able to work within the tempest. The truth is that customers who are grieving need someone who help them understand what you can do for them, who can help them further and how to go about getting the issue resolved, all the while showing that you care enough to want to help them.

One of the best ways to care is to just listen. We talk about listening all the time, but I always counsel those I’m training in #custserv to listen without interrupting even for a second–letting the customer vent completely, then wait a few seconds before responding. Venting without interruption really does let off steam and calms the customer down. Any interruption or interjection fuels the fire and extends the frustration. After listening peacefully, the first responses should be those that make connections–an “I’m sorry” or an “I understand” and quickly moving to restate so that the customer feels someone understands or is at least trying to understand. Feeling understood is one of the greatest human needs and a crucial key to being consoled. Only when the anger or frustration subsides can the problem really be addressed.

Of course some who grieve are inconsolable, but even if a customer wants to blame more than solve the problem, we can still leave them with the feeling that they were cared about. Caring is always the best policy.

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