It’s All About Me: A Lesson in Customer-Focused Communication

By Jean Marie Johnson

Alright, I confess, when I'm dialing a 1-800 number I expect the experience to be about one person: me. That may sound a bit egoistical; but that is, after all, what I'm paying for. So, why is it that we so often get an associate on the other end of the line who turns the situation around so it's all about them? One specific instance sticks out in my mind as an example of this.

For my brother's 50th birthday I wanted to get him something really special and memorable. I had received one of those nice mail order catalogs; and, while I was unfamiliar with the company, the catalog had quality written all over it.

So, I bit the bullet, dialed the number, and successfully placed an order for a family name plaque. The promise was that the family name would be researched and the story of the name would be printed in a beautiful script on an impressive, wood-frame plaque, which would be more than suitable for hanging. The young woman who took my order was friendly, efficient, and, without my asking, told me the expected ship date. It would arrive more than two weeks before his big day. I was quite pleased with the experience.

However, the big day came and went and there was no plaque to be given. In the meantime, I had placed three phone calls to this company with the very nice catalog only to be dissatisfied with their not so nice service.
 

Here's a sampling of what I heard:

  • “Ma'am, it's not here. I don't know where it is.”
  • “We sent that out to another company in Florida and are still waiting for a response.”
  • “You know, I have called them several times and all I get is the answering machine.”
  • “I have no idea where those people are, or where your order is.”
“Don't get me going on the trouble we've had with that place!”
So, I empathized with the associate and cancelled my order. Then, I threw away the catalog for good. But what's the lesson here? Don't order from nice catalogs? I don't think so.

It Wasn't About Me
As people in the business of customer service training ourselves, we can learn a lot from the way the associate in this particular example communicated the problem to me. Every one of the above statements is focused on the experience of the associate or the company, not the customer. Think about it: every time the associate had an opportunity to frame her communication in terms of me and my experience, she chose to focus on hers. It clearly was not about me.

This type of communication is what we refer to as barriers-focused communication. It centers on:
  • What's wrong
  • What can't be done
  • Why there is a problem
This type of tragic communication often divulges information about an organization's broken processes and systems. From the customer's perspective, it often feels like the associate is hiding behind the barriers and passing on responsibility and blame. This is hardly a recipe for building customer confidence and satisfaction.

Before Communicating, Take a Look Through Your Customers' Eyes
The MAGIC® alternative to such communication is customer-focused communication. This type of communication requires thought and begins before any words are uttered. It begins by remembering that it's not about you, it's about the customer. Each interaction needs to be framed from the customer's perspective.

Customer-focused communication is:
  • Always empathic
  • Focuses on what can be done
  • Emphasizes proactive thinking and doing
Imagine the type of response the associate could have elicited if they had communicated with me in the following way:
  • “Ms. Johnson, I am looking at your order right now and it does not show that it has shipped. I know you need that by the first of the month, so what I will do right now is…”
  • “Our partner in Florida is preparing your order, Ms. Johnson. And I apologize, because I know that this is not what you want to hear, but I do not have an update from them. Here's what I am going to do to track this down for you…”
  • “Ms. Johnson, I can understand why this is so upsetting. It's a special birthday and a special gift, and you need this before, not after his birthday. I know this is not what you want to hear, but here's what I suggest: I can continue to pursue this until I have something concrete to tell you, or, you may want to select a non-custom item that I can ship out to you today, at no extra charge. Which would you prefer?”

Which Barriers-Focused Phrases Live in Your Organization?
Each organization has an opportunity to transform barriers-focused communication into customer-focused communication. Here are a few ready candidates for a makeover:
 
Barriers-Focused:
 
  “I wish I could tell you, Mr. Williams, but the system is down.”
 
Customer-Focused:   “Mr. Williams, I do apologize, but our system is down right now. What I can suggest is that you call us back a half hour from now. We expect that our system will be up and running at that time.”
     
Barriers-Focused:
 
  “No, that model doesn't come in a three-quarter size. You'll have to take it the way it is.”
 
Customer-Focused:   “That model is available in a full or half size. I know you really wanted the three-quarter size, Sam. Would it be helpful if I reviewed the specifications on those models so that you can decide if either of them will work?”
     
Barriers-Focused:
 
  “We're not open after 4:30. You'll have to leave a message if you call at 4:31.”
 
Customer-Focused:   “Ms. Periwinkle, we are open from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. If those hours are inconvenient for you, please leave a message on our night service and an agent will return your call by 9:00 a.m. the next business day.”

Listen to your customer service calls and see what you hear. Do your associates communicate in a barriers-focused or customer-focused way? If you find the former, you are probably losing good customers in situations where you could be restoring relationships.

As customers, we know it is not reasonable to expect that we will always get what we want. However, it is reasonable (and not egotistical) to expect that the focus of communication will be about me, my experience, my wants, and my needs.

Jean Marie Johnson is a Communico facilitator and has helped clients with their MAGIC initiatives. And for 20 years she has specialized in cultivating the customer experience as a key competitive advantage.
 
Before and After
Before and After
Just one "tragic" contact can influence your customers' perception of your company (and their buying decisions). Listen to the difference MAGIC® can make.
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