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Needs – The best kept secret in managing conflict

There is much discussion in the media during these chastened financial times about the difference between what we want and what we need. It is apparent that for most of us a great deal of the goods and services we wanted in recent years may have been in excess of what we actually needed. The credit card companies’ profits would be in serious jeopardy if the idea of buying what we needed rather than what we wanted was to catch on.

Want versus need is also at the heart of understanding conflict. An angry customer is keen to convey what they want but this is often not the same as what they need. Take a case I heard about recently. A bank’s customer complained that when she opened a new account one of her existing direct debits was not transferred over. This resulted in a missed payment and accompanying bank charges. She had contacted the bank by phone but could not get the problem sorted. She then presented herself at the bank branch, during her lunch time. Not surprisingly, she demanded a refund of her charges. To the staff at the bank this is what she wanted but her needs were much more extensive.

Some of the needs at play included the need for attention, to feel valued as a customer, to be taken seriously, and to have the charges rescinded. The staff at the bank focused exclusively on the charges and did not directly address her other key needs. She remained an unhappy customer because although we often meet the customers’ wants we can miss their other real needs.

The remarkable aspect of working with needs rather than wants is that although customers may not be able to identify their needs they still respond greatly when staff identify and meet those needs. A great deal of our anger is derived from not being able to express our real needs.

It’s not difficult to identify basic human needs in most working situations because they are common to all of us. Customers tend to present a fairly defined set of needs. For example: have you ever taken your car in for a service and got agitated about the high cost? In this situation, customers need to feel in control and to understand the nature of the work carried out. Unfortunately, staff often react to the customers’ anger and ignore the fact that this emotion is an expression of ‘hidden’ needs. Usually, at best, one gets the briefest of explanations of what the work involved, which makes us feel less in control and does nothing for our understanding of the work done – an unhappy customer all around! If the staff did take time to explain their work it would meet our need for control and understanding. Now we have the basis for a much happier customer!

It’s not only customers who have needs of course – we do too. The next time you find yourself getting irritated at having to tell a customer the same thing over and over ask yourself – what do I need at this moment? It might be that you need to be listened to, have something acknowledged, valued, respected, etc. There are many different ways to have our needs met, as long as we recognise what those needs are.

Look for the needs behind your own and the customer’s anger, meet those needs and witness a transformation in behaviour!



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