**Mammoth Blog Post Alert**
A couple of weeks ago we went to the next instalment of the Graduate Trainee Training Programme: Understanding Customer Communication. On the original training calendar this was called “Dealing with Difficult Customers”, which is slightly different in tone, but I was excited for whatever it ended up being, as customer interaction is a huge part of the job and I’m grateful for any tips I get!
We had been given some homework to do beforehand, which was to think of some difficult situations in the library that are challenging to deal with, and to fill in a questionnaire. I’ll talk a bit more about the questionnaire later, but we dealt with the first part of the homework first.
Our first task was to chat in pairs about how we felt about difficult situations. To help with this, we were given some cards with photos on. The photos ranged from a lion in mid-stride, a man looking at a glacier, a traffic jam and a spider web. I ended up choosing the man and the glacier, as I often feel that I don’t know where to start with people’s queries. I also mentioned that I would like to feel like the photo of an orchestra conductor – in control!
We then grouped up for discussion of different things – one group discussed sources of customer frustration, one group talked about helpful skills and behaviour when dealing with frustrated customers, and we thought about the most challenging behaviour displayed by frustrated customers. The first group came up with things like jargon, fines, lack of resources, IT problems and other people. We then looked at data collected by one of the librarians about what generates the most Library feedback. It was interesting to see that Library staff was the thing that comes up most frequently in feedback – thankfully it is overwhelmingly positive feedback! The second most talked-about topic in customer feedback is other users. This, unsurprisingly, is overwhelmingly negative – after all, you’re not going to fill in a comment card saying “the person sitting next to me is very quiet and well-behaved”, are you?! Other big topics included opening hours, temperature and stock levels – all mostly negative as well. It was interesting to hear from staff at other sites about what they thought would be the most complained-about things – staff from All Saints talked about their entry barriers, while staff from sites focused more on opening hours. I know that Gaskell has a big problem with the temperature, as we are based in an old building with single-glazed windows, but obviously this won’t be a problem in the shiny new All Saints library!
The seond group shared some of their ideas about helpful behaviour when dealing with difficult situations, and it was much as you’d expect – empathy, listening, open body language, remaining calm, that sort of thing. A good point raised was that it is much easier to be assertive when you’re confident in what you’re saying – so being informed and up-to-date on Library policies and procedures is a good idea.
We then shared some of the challenging behaviour we’d experienced from customers, which was stuff like not listening, being misinformed, and being impatient (I hate this!). An interesting thing to think about arose from this: Would this have frustrated you if it was the first customer of the day? I think the answer would be “no” more often than not, highlighting the importance of stopping for a second and collecting yourself before starting to deal with a customer.
We then looked at body language and non-verbal communication. Body language and tone of voice together make up 93% of your message, according to Albert Mehrabian. This is why it’s especially important to match how you’re acting to what you’re saying when dealing with customers – the listener can tell when you’re not sincere. To illustrate just how much we can tell from non-verbal signals, we looked at famous pictures of politicians, including this one of Bill Clinton showing just what he thinks of what Bob Dole’s saying in 1996:
Some interesting snippets of information for you from this: mirroring the other person’s behaviour makes them think you’ve got a good rapport; anxiety and stress send adrenaline to your arms and legs, making you fidget, and making nervous public speakers look so uncomfortable on stage; “pace and lead” is a good technique for modulating someone’s behaviour (e.g. matching someone’s volume before becoming quieter and calming them down). It’s important to deal with the emotion before the issue, otherwise you won’t get anywhere.
We then moved on to the really fascinating part of the session, which was all about Transactional Analysis. This is the Freudian idea that everyone has different states of being, which are all useful at different times. The trick is to recognise what state someone is in and to respond effectively. The three ego states are:
Parent – either Nurturing Parent (“well done”!) or Critical Parent (“don’t do that!”), dealing with manners and rules.
Adult – this is when you’re rational and assertive.
Child – either Free Child (“This is fun!”) or Adaptive Child (“I can’t do it!”), dealing with feelings. The Adaptive Child can be whiny and manipulative.
There’s no such thing as good or bad when it comes to ego states, but we all have a tendency to default to a certain one, and the challenge is to decide whether it’s the most useful one for the situation you’re in. This is where the questionnaire we did for homework came in: it had 61 statements which you had to put a + or – next to, depending on whether you agreed or disagreed with them. The statements were things like “I love fast driving”, “There is too much sex and violence on TV these days”, “Generally, I manage to keep a calm appearance when I am feeling very upset”. We got a point for each +, which went into the relevant Parent, Adult or Child column. When you add up your scores and plot them on a graph, you find out which ego state is your default. I am mostly a Child, which is not much of a surprise as I can be very impulsive (and have been known to be whiny on occasions). If you’re also a Child, this means you let emotions dominate your decisions; Adults let rationality guide them, and Parents are influenced most strongly by morals. You can teach yourself to change states, which I found quite interesting.
We watched a clip from the Apprentice, which you can watch here (the first scene and then from 2:30), illustrating times when being a Child or a Parent is not particularly useful, Philip. We also discussed how certain ego states are looking for certain responses; if someone says something like “I’m rubbish at doing presentations” (Adaptive Child state), they’re looking for a Nurturing Parent response – “don’t worry, I’ll help you”. Similarly, something you often see in customer situations is the customer saying something in their Critical Parent state (“the services here are rubbish!”), seeking a Child response (“oh no, I’m really sorry”). Although you might think that the best state for customer interactions is always Adult, this isn’t what the customer might be expecting, and it’s often better to adopt a circular approach: Act as they’re expecting first of all, then lead them round towards an Adult-Adult interaction. For example, the Parent statement “the services here are rubbish!” can be responded to with a Child statement, “I’m really sorry”, followed by a Parent statement, “I’m sure we can find a way of making this better”, finished up with an Adult question – “what would you like me to do?”. This hopefully provokes an Adult, rational answer. Another good tactic is to make the other person work hard, especially if they’re in Adaptive Child state – ask them questions such as “what have you tried already?” or “what do you think should happen now?”. This forces them to stop playing the “game” they’re playing with you.
After looking a little bit at these different roles, it’s really interesting to watch people interacting and to work out what states they’re in. The session was really thought-provoking and will definitely come in useful when situations arise in the library. Hopefully following this course I’ll feel a lot more in control and able to deal with difficult customers! I’ve also been reading a good book about Transactional Analysis, called Counselling for Toads by Robert de Board. I’d definitely recommend it if you want to look at this theory in more detail (and explained a bit better than I’ve managed!).