How Not to Offend Customers

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Summary:
Customers are the reasons many of us have our jobs, and it's in everyone's best interests to make sure they feel listened to, respected, and valued. Naomi Karten describes how our not just our verbal language, but even our body language can steer the relationship we have with our customers.

During a break at a conference, a woman named Marge told me about an experience she recently had at another conference. It seems that she'd been talking to the keynote speaker when he abruptly turned away and started talking to someone else. I asked if he had cut her off in midsentence. No, she admitted. She had finished what she was saying, but was about to say something else when he rudely turned away.

Marge sounded deeply offended at the way she felt he had treated her. In her view, the speaker couldn't be bothered with her.

Could it be, I asked, that his apparent rudeness had been unintentional and that he'd offer a heartfelt apology if he knew of her reaction? She said she didn't care; he was in the public eye and should know better.

Marge's reaction got me thinking about the ease of causing offense in a different context: when working with customers. How often do we make a comment, use a phrase, glance a certain way, or do something seemingly innocuous, and in the process unintentionally offend a customer? How often do we do so, and not even realize it because the offended person doesn't tell us and give us a chance to apologize or correct a misinterpretation?

Over the next few months, I described Marge's experience at some of my seminars, and asked participants if they could think of situations in which an inadvertent word or action might offend customers.

Their response: Indeed, yes. How? On the phone, by sounding unenthusiastic, bored or distracted. In a class, by flipping through notes while someone is asking you a question. At a customer gathering, by looking at your watch while a customer is speaking to you. By looking around the room—particularly in the direction of the exit!

Or by not waiting that extra fraction of a second after the customer finishes speaking before turning away, as though you can't wait to escape.

If you serve and support customers, they may hold you to a higher standard just as Marge held the speaker, and they may think that you too should know better. Therefore, it's wise to reflect on the impact you might have on them, and to be sensitive to their reactions to your words and actions. You don't have to go to extremes and worry about whether every syllable or blink or nod might cause offense. Just be mindful of your behavior, and you'll be less likely to allow a careless word or action to create negative perceptions.

Having given a keynote presentation just an hour before this conversation with Marge, I was careful to remain enthusiastic and wide-eyed, while letting her fully and completely have her say. Then I smiled my biggest smile, told her how much I enjoyed speaking with her, and carefully—very carefully—took my leave.

User Comments

10 comments
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

This area is a minefield for supplier staff when they are dealing with customers. You have to be so careful.<br><br>Unfortunately many people have been brutalised by adversarial relationships between suppliers and clients. Some clients see it as their job to challenge suppliers (acceptable), but this can tip over into confrontation, hostility and personal attacks (unacceptable). After some experience of that, supplier staff can start to think that any response short of physical violence is acceptably diplomatic.<br><br>When I worked for a big supplier they took care to send the cool heads with long fuses into the more stressful customer facing situations, and to keep the hotheads in the background. I was one of the cool heads! You need people who will be polite and professional, but who are prepared to engage with clients as people first, and clients second. Once you build a personal relationship with the client then the business becomes much easier. It helps if there is continuity on both sides, rather than the supplier rotating key staff every few months.<br><br>In my career there have been very few people who have been irredeemably unpleasant and obnoxious. Mostly when clients have been difficult it has been in response to pressures from within their organisation. If you understand their position, and understand them as people, then it's usually possible to work with them pleasantly and constructively. But as Naomi says, it's not a fair game. Suppliers have to be much more careful and sensitive than client staff. That's just the way it is.

January 20, 2010 - 5:04pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

This is such great advice, I will keep it in mind too. I think I am pretty good in a conference or training situation. Where I think I fall down on this is at work. I get grumpy and sometimes I'm mean to the product owner or other business folks. Having a good relationship with them is so critical to our team's success, I need to take a step back when they do something that makes me feel frustrated or angry and not just react. Thanks for this post!

January 21, 2010 - 2:33am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

James, thank you for your very wise comments. I think many people could benefit from your perspective. I especially appreciate your points about engaging with clients as people first and clients second. Also the importance and value of building a personal relationship. And your point that if you understand their position and understand them as people, you can usually find a way to work together. Actually, every sentence of your comments is a quotable quote. You are clearly someone who truly understands the challenges and opportunities of working successfully with customers. ~Naomi

January 21, 2010 - 2:26am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

Lisa, thanks so much. I'm glad you found my suggestions useful. We all get grumpy at times. It's part of being human. The challenge is to do as you said and remember to take a step back. Of course, we on the product/service delivery side don't have a monopoly on grumpiness and sometimes it's the customers who should take the step back. But perhaps we can be the role models of how to do it! ~Naomi

January 21, 2010 - 2:31am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

James<br>I second Naomi. As suppliers we tend to fall in the trap of dealing with clients rather than trying to deal with a problem though our clients.<br><br>Success is 1% inspirational and 99% perspiration ; but failure is 1% circumstantial and 99% perceptual <br><br>We fail because we are perceived to have failed - whereas there is potential to be perceived a bit more favourably if we have a better relationship with key stakeholders<br>

January 26, 2010 - 3:58am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

Partha, "failure is 1% circumstantial and 99% perceptual" -- I love that! There's a lot being written lately about likability, such as that people tend to rate service higher when delivered by people they like than by people they don't like. That supports your point that there's a connection between have a good relationship with key stakeholders and being perceived favorably Thanks for your comments! ~Naomi

January 21, 2010 - 4:14am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

I find it interesting that most of of these examples are non-verbal. It's often not what we say that is offending but how we say it or don't say it. Our tone of voice, our actions, our attention (or perceived attention). These are all being processed through our audience/customer's internal filters and become part of the message, whether we intend them too or not. <br>

January 31, 2010 - 6:49pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

Thank you Naomi & Partha.<br><br>My comments were the result of experience. The approach I recommended is the right way to treat people, but it's also a highly practical way of handling clients.<br><br>Partha is quite right. Once you have persuaded the client that you are doing your best on their behalf, and also of course that you are competent, everything becomes easier. The client perceives that you have hit tough problems that you are trying to resolve, not that you have failed. That's because you've earned their trust and respect. Earned is the key word. It doesn't just happen. You have to work at it.

February 1, 2010 - 5:06pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

Shannon, I appreciate your observation that much of what we're talking about here are non-verbals. And especially that they become part of the message, whether we intend them to or not. To the person who is exhibiting these non-verbals, they may seem to be separate and unrelated to the message. To the recipient, they <b>are</b> the message. ~Naomi

January 31, 2010 - 6:52pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

James, thanks for your follow-up comments. I know that your comments and recommendations resulted from your experience, but not everyone is as astute as you in learning from experience. ~Naomi

January 31, 2010 - 7:03pm

About the author

Naomi Karten's picture Naomi Karten

Naomi Karten is a highly experienced speaker and seminar leader who draws from her psychology and IT backgrounds to help organizations improve customer satisfaction, manage change, and strengthen teamwork. She has delivered seminars and keynotes to more than 100,000 people internationally. Naomi's newest books are Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals and Changing How You Manage and Communicate Change. Her other books and ebooks include Managing Expectations, Communication Gaps and How to Close Them, and How to Survive, Excel and Advance as an Introvert. Readers have described her newsletter, Perceptions & Realities, as lively, informative, and a breath of fresh air. She is a regular columnist for StickyMinds.com. When not working, Naomi's passion is skiing deep powder. Contact her at naomi@nkarten.com or via her Web site, www.nkarten.com.

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