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When attack is not the best form of defence

One factor that can turn a pleasant conversation into a raging argument is when a customer verbally attacks our carefully built and well preserved view of ourselves. Our ego is hardwired to protect our basic belief that we are smart, moral and competent. Therefore any indication that we are not, especially in an area that is very important to us, (e.g. our competency, morals or judgements), can cause intense discomfort which we try to avoid at any cost. The irony is that in order to sustain this dearly held idea that we are smart, moral and competent, we often end up doing things that aren’t!

When working in a large UK Call Centre recently we experienced staff who were putting this aspect of human frailty into practice. Due to the nature of the queries customers had, their telephone calls were very challenging. When staff perceived a direct attack on their view of themselves, things got messy. One customer service representative asked how customers could judge her when they hardly knew her. What seemed to have developed was a real defensiveness around any view that was at odds with their view of themselves. For example, reacting negatively to challenging statements such as ‘All you are interested in is having my money’ or ‘If you could be bothered you could do something for me’. As with most defensive situation one could substitute the word defensive with attack – with the customer on the receiving end!

Protecting our own view of ourselves is also why we will sometimes find very ‘creative’ justifications for what we do or say. This is our desperate need to rationalise our behaviour and make it look alright – ‘Our customers can be obnoxious’ or ‘If you let them get away with it they will walk all over you’. By making out that someone deserved what we did to them, we give ourselves permission to continue behaving that way and still sleep soundly at night.

So what do we do if we feel ourselves reacting in this way or if we manage others who feel like this.

1: Recognise that your view of yourself, your self-respect, should be well-grounded and not dependent on what others say about you (easier said than done admittedly!).

2: Non-judgementally review your belief system from time to time (i.e. ‘What are my beliefs about my core competencies?’).

3: Embed the key cornerstones of your belief system, particularly around what type of person you are, your competencies and values. Say them out loud and/or look at them frequently until you know you are confident and secure about them.

4: Recognise that your self-worth does not require you to be perfect or always be right. People with a well grounded view of themselves can say: ‘I’ve made a stupid mistake, but this does not make me a stupid person’. They learn from what they did wrong and move on.

5: Accept that customers’ criticism of you is motivated by their frustration and should have no bearing on your own feeling of self worth.

6: Pause and think before reacting to the customers’ baiting.

Although feelings of self-worth are individual to each person a team manager can derive great benefit from discussing this topic with their team in broad terms. Without asking staff members to share their innermost thoughts a manager can discuss the steps outlined above and relate it to how staff react to customer conflict.

If we find ourselves reacting to customer comments and don’t see ourselves as part of the problem, we will never be part of the solution.

Julia Madders & Eamonn Dennis



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