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Missing the point of customers’ anger

Recently whilst running a course for electric metre installers we were asked why such a simple task as installing a metre is often accompanied by a great deal of customer anger. Think about it: electric metres record units of electricity used, which translates to money, and money (or lack thereof) generates fear and anxiety. Putting it another way, the angry behaviour (shouting, swearing) is often driven by feelings of fear and anxiety. ‘Do you mean to say that I am dealing with a customer who is frightened rather than angry?, asked the delegate’. He got it in one! His next question was even more on the money (pardon the pun). ‘After almost 11 years of doing this job why have I never realised this before?’ He probably hears words and sentences every day expressing fear, anxiety and other emotions; he just never listened to or understood their real meaning. He may have heard sentences such as:

‘How am I going to pay for this?’

‘I have 3 children to support!’

‘This is a rip-off…’

Alternatively, customers may use fear- related words such as: fearful, afraid, distraught, worried, concerned, anxious, frightened, scared, threatened, etc. Unfortunately when we hear their angry tone of voice and/or the expletives that often go along with it, we can close our minds to the real meaning customers are trying to convey.

Delegates almost always say yes when asked if they would handle a fearful person differently from an angry person. They would try to listen, help and explain, rather than closing their ears, giving little information and being defensive (making the customer angrier). When we view a person as angry we often ‘listen’ in a number of different but unhelpful ways:

‘Corrective’ listening:

This occurs when we listen until we hear something we do not agree with and then attempt to ‘correct’ the customer. This is usually only a matter of seconds when dealing with an irate customer.

‘Solution focused’ listening:

A very popular approach for staff that deal with the same complaint repeatedly. We know what the problem is and offer solutions as the person is still trying to express how they feel about the problem.

‘Not involved’ listening:

We are silent and disinterested until the customer stops talking. They see little reaction, interest or involvement from us.

‘Emotionally blocked’ listening:

The customer tries to convey emotions but we do not ‘register’ or acknowledge them. In our example above, the metre installer continues to talk about the installation and the customer continues to try to convey the emotion around it (only louder each time).

We have a choice – engage in at least one or two minutes of active listening where we try to really understand customers; or experience 10 or 20 minutes of customers trying to ‘force’ us to understand what they are trying to convey. I know which option I prefer.



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