Three steps to disagreeing with customers agreeably


I’ve been doing some conflict management training recently with a team of people whose job it is to resolve customer complaints for the company they work for. It’s not an easy job.  Imagine, every call they receive is some disgruntled customer, angry about the way they (perceive) they’ve been treated. (By the way, why is it you never hear of “gruntled” customers, only “disgruntled” ones?!). Anyway, it’s a thankless task at times, particularly as the last thing the employee wants to do is upset the customer further, as they need to maintain a good relationship with them. This is even when it is obvious that the customer is definitely wrong in many cases. As one employee put it, “the most difficult thing is that we have to disagree without being disagreeable”.

Some of the customer service team were finding this easier to do than others, so we had a look at what the more successful team members were doing differently to those who were struggling – and we found three key behaviours:

1) Listening.

The more successful employees never cut customers off or jumped to conclusions. They always took the time to hear the customer out.

While listening they encouraged the customer to mirror them rather than the other way round.  We can often find ourselves matching the speed of speech of an angry customer if we are not careful.  They got the customer to mirror them by slowing down the pace of their questioning and by pausing to digest and process what the customer had said in reply.  It’s much easier for the customer to sense you are listening when you slow down to take their information ‘on board’.

2) Acknowledging.

They would then acknowledge the customer’s point of view by using phrases such as; “I understand why you say that, “I hear that you are annoyed”, “I have not thought about it that way”, and “I can see why you see it that way”. You’ll notice all these phrases, while acknowledging that this is genuinely the customer’s point of view, they stop short of going as far as agreeing that it is factually correct.

3) Stop trying to prove them wrong.

It’s possible to challenge a customer’s opinion or point of view without actually stating the customer is wrong. Whereas less successful employees would respond to the customer’s opinion with words such as “That’s wrong” or “However” or “But” or even “No” (which puts the customer on the defensive and is confrontational), the successful team members would use a different tact – they simply state their opinion, backing it up with facts, personal experience, examples and evidence. Therefore phrases such as  “My understanding from the information I have…”, or “Because of …, I think…”, or “The evidence suggests…”, or “according to the data”, or “In my experience of this.…” were commonly spoken by these successful team members. These phrases simply state the facts, in a respectful way, without getting in to an argument implying or saying “you are wrong”. It is managing potential conflict by taking the personal element out of the discussion, thereby keeping it about facts rather than about the customer.

Once we had identified these three effective behaviours, we got all the staff to use them. Now staff are better able to disagree with customers while still maintaining those good relationships – and the results for the organisation have been excellent.

Do you ever find yourself in a similar situation to these team members? Are these behaviours something that could work for you too? If so, we would love to hear how you get on.