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The simplicity of listening well

I had a soup and a roll in a hotel restaurant recently. Half the roll was rock hard, practically unbreakable. The soup was nice so I ate it along with half of the roll. On my way out of the restaurant I decided to speak with the manager regarding my bread roll (it wasn’t a major issue, I just wanted to let them know how they could improve in the future). Knowing the difficulty people can have in our culture with receiving feedback I tried a gentle approach. Showing her the roll I said in a friendly tone “Hello, I just wanted to let you know that this part of the roll was really hard”, to which she replied abruptly, “Well, you have eaten most of it”.

These few words from the manager and the manner in which they were delivered embodied a common approach we can have to receiving information from customers. Instead of listening and problem solving, she went on the ‘attack’. Fortunately for the manager when I felt my ‘hackles’ rising I managed to calm myself down and not take it personally. I am pretty sure she would not have been so lucky with some other customers.

So rather than react negatively myself I thought if I could just listen to her I might be able to understand her perspective a little better.

The conversation went like this:

Me: “When I made the comment about the roll, what did you think?”

Manager: “What do you mean?”

Me: “The comment I got back seemed a bit aggressive, so I was wondering what you were thinking just before you responded to me.”

Manager: “Well, we are very short staffed at the moment and we are struggling to provide the type of service I would like.”

Me: “What does it make you feel when customers make comments like I did?”

Manager: “A bit defensive.”

Me: “Or are you feeling a bit vulnerable because you know the service is not as good as you would like?”

Manager: “You could say that, it’s not nice being in the firing line.”

Me: “How do most people respond to someone who is behaving defensively?”

Manager: “I expect they get defensive back.”

Now at this point you might be thinking that I had become the manager’s worst nightmare, but the interaction probably took less than 20 seconds and eventually ended with a laugh.

So what went on:

She experienced a common feeling (vulnerability leading to defensive behaviour) that triggered her terse response. Unfortunately, customers don’t often perceive that vulnerability and will normally interpret defensiveness as unfriendliness or even worse – aggression from the staff member.

Listening well can be simplicity itself. First, be aware of any negative feelings a customer might be triggering in you. Deal with your own feelings by taking a very short pause to compose yourself. Gain control over your voice and ask questions in a calm but confident manner. Particularly if the customer is upset or angry take time to understand their situation. Customers have the same needs as we do when we are angry or upset and the first need is to be heard and understood.

It works both ways. If you don’t listen to the customer they are not going to listen to you. It’s usually pointless trying to explain anything to the customer until you have dealt with their upset and anger by listening well.

Once they feel you’ve understood them fully, you are well on the road to calming them down and resolving the situation.



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