De-Stress with MAGIC: What the Three Blind Mice Can Teach Us

By Jean Marie Johnson

Control, Alt, Delete. Let's start over. No matter how committed we are to making a great impression on our customer, there are some interactions that we'd like to erase, to press the UNDO arrow so that we can start all over again. But human interactions can't be erased, deleted or diminished in impact or memory like so many words on a page. We, along with the customer, carry the experience with us. 

When Things Go Wrong

A simple Google search will connect you with countless customer service horror stories. We humans seem to have an endless supply of energy for sharing our tragic experiences. There are few of us who haven't indulged as well, getting it off our chest or simply expounding on the incredulity of it all. Customer service venting and bashing is a fact of modern life.

But the experience—good or bad—isn't confined to the customer, the "end user," so to speak. Every interaction you have affects at least two human beings: the customer and you. If it goes well, you feel good; your confidence and competence are reinforced, and you are poised for your next customer. 

But when things go awry, when you get off on the wrong track, or find yourself down a path unintended, you are likely to encounter the negative symptoms of stress. Stress is the mental, emotional, or physical strain we experience in response to a stimulus. This distress can express itself in a variety of ways that differ for each of us: a quickened heart rate, shallow breathing, sweaty palms, an inability to concentrate, and so on. 

Getting a Handle on How We Respond

While knowing how to handle the mental, emotional and physical symptoms of stress is critical, we do well to remember that the bigger opportunity is elsewhere. It is in preventing the wrong turn in the road in the first place. Now, you have to be willing to go there, to look at yourself through an empathetic but honest lens.

If you've been avoiding this sort of scrutiny, we understand. After all, it is less stressful to simply move on, resolve to do better. At least in the short run.

If you are willing, then take this journey with us. You may find—however reluctantly—that you have developed an ineffective pattern of response to customer push-back, complaints or challenge. And that both you and your customer, are paying a price. Let's take a closer look.

The Three Blind Mice 

Let's refer to these distress-inducing response patterns as the scruffy "three blind mice." They might as well be because they blindside the customer as in "I can't believe what he just said to me." But let's be fair: the first person who is blindsided is you, as you find yourself responding in ways unintended and, like the three mice from the fairy tale, going down paths you'd do well to avoid. You'll recognize a host of tragic attitudes and words in these responses, as well as a refresher on MAGIC responses to get you back on track, causing you and your customer far less distress.

1. Avoiding Responsibility
As a service provider, there are many ways to avoid taking appropriate responsibility in a customer interaction. But doing so is nuanced, comprised of at least two varieties:

  • The Slip and Slide:
    We practice the Slip and Slide when our words and actions wiggle around getting resolution or taking the next step in the customer's interest. We say things like: "I really don't know," "We can't do that," "That wouldn't be our department."

    Instead, we want to focus on removing the negative and replacing it with a reassuring phrase, as in: "I‘m happy to find out for you, or would you prefer to look at the FAQ's on our website?" "What I can definitely do for you is…" Or, "I can connect you with the Parts Department for the specifics on that, just as soon as we're done."

    And let's not forget the proverbial "I'm not sure if I can help you." If that phrase has slipped into your repertoire, you've set yourself up for a slide in the wrong direction. We all need to hear "I will do everything I can for you," I am committed to helping you," and so on. Talk about a de-stressor!
  • It's Not My Fault:
    You shirk your responsibility when you point the finger elsewhere to identify the cause or source of the customer's issue, or to explain away why you are not to blame. And guess what? You probably aren't. But that misses the point because the customer will perceive otherwise. When we express that "it's not my fault," we say things like: "If it weren't for the policy…." "It wasn't our department," "Someone told you the wrong thing."

    Getting the monkey off your back will backfire, making you look weak, and possibly indifferent. That's because when you respond in these ways, you focus on deflection, and that will get you nowhere. A more effective response focuses instead on the customer's experience, not yours. Use an empathetic phrase, such as: "I can see why you'd be upset," or "I know this is upsetting. I will be sure to give you the correct information." 

2. Siding With The Customer

The second ineffective response pattern also comes in two flavors: 

  • Dirty Laundry
    Airing dirty laundry is particularly dicey because it pits you and the customer as cohorts embattled with your company. You may take the customer's side because you think she has a valid complaint: "She really has a point there; I'd feel that way, too, if I were this lady."   So you say things like: "We've had this problem for years, I know." Or, "I know it's wrong, I told them and they haven't done a thing about it." 

    Now you think that you have the customer on your side because you've used the "just between you and me" approach. Well, maybe. But just as likely, you've reinforced their "negative" perception of your organization and you're not looking so good either. They may think: "Can I really trust a guy who bashes his own employer?"  Instead of "siding with" language, use a collaborative phrase:  "Our company really wants you to be satisfied, and I'd like to help you get this resolved," or "Something didn't go quite right here, but I'm happy to help you with this right now."
  • The Sky's The Limit
    In this version of Siding with the Customer, we promise the sun, the moon and the stars, regardless of what is realistic: "Sure, Maintenance can be there in 30 minutes and you'll be good to go." Or, "There won't be any other problems with this application." Reassuring? You bet. But if it's unrealistic, you have the makings of a set-up that will surely backfire.

    Instead, use a specific phrase: "I am putting a call ticket into Maintenance right now and they will be at your home to fix the instrument between noon and 3 p.m. today." Or, "If any other questions come up about your application, I will call you by 5 today. Will that work for you?" Customers will appreciate your honesty and your specifics.

3. Passing Judgment

If any response pattern is likely to up the ante on negative stress, it's this one. When passing judgment becomes a habit, you, your customer and your company are likely to pay a hefty price. No one wants to feel judged: not you, not me, not your customer. The two varieties of judging include:

  • You're Not Acting Right
    We respond to customers with statements like: "You just need to calm down," or "I don't understand why you're so upset." Or even:  "Really?  That's never happened here." These responses not only pass judgment; they sound superior. And, it's not very likely that the customer will calm down or become less upset, not in the least.

    Instead of fanning the flames of the customer' emotion, use an empathetic phrase: "It sounds like the whole experience was very disappointing." Or, "I know that this has been very upsetting, allow me to look into that for you."
  • I Know Better: You're Just Wrong
    Here we tap the superiority note again with responses such as: "You don't seem to understand," and "It must be something you're doing." Now doesn't that sound like blame and fault-finding to you? 

    Instead, use a collaborative phrase like:  "I am happy to go over the process with you, if I may?" Or, "So, please help me to understand the process you are using."


New Responses for a New Year

Control, Alt, Delete.  Let's start over. That's what we want to do when we, like the three blind mice, find ourselves down a path that leads us astray. But instead of scurrying in search of a non-existent UNDO arrow, resolve to practice new responses in this new year. Choose to make the interactions that you and your customer carry with you far less stressful, even positively memorable. We believe in you.

Jean Marie Johnson is a Communico facilitator and has helped clients with their MAGIC initiatives. And for 20 years she has specialized in cultivating the customer experience as a key competitive advantage.

Before and After
Before and After
Just one "tragic" contact can influence your customers' perception of your company (and their buying decisions). Listen to the difference MAGIC® can make.