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Last week I completed a skills development training for a city agency. The attendees in the class were the closest targets to which citizens vent their anger, they were the front facing customer service employees.  As an exercise, I asked them to compile a list of trigger words, loaded statements, trick questions, assumptions or phrases that customers use which often make the employees see red.

 After about seven minutes, we reviewed the list and discussed which words or phrases sounded confrontational. Some of the ones we came up with were :  

  • just wait
  • it’s not fair
  • you have to
  • you need to
  • you people
  • you don’t understand

 Examples of these included, “You have to give me my paperwork!” or  “You just wait I’m calling  the Mayor!”

 Remember when you were younger, hearing your parents say, “You need to clean your room” or “You have to be back by eleven pm.” Those were phrases that parents said to control the situation. Counterattacking sentences almost always start with the word, ‘you’. “You should”, “you need to”, “you have to” , “you”, “you”, “you.” Sometimes hearing these words can make you feel like you’re a teenager again, a time when, in most ways, you were younger and powerless.

 If these are words that cause escalation, in order to de-escalate the situation, it’s important to maintain control of the interaction. It may be that what you think will be helpful from your perspective, may be seen as negative and aggressive by a customer. Have you ever noticed that some words and phrases, said in a specific way can sound confrontational and challenging, while said in another way can just be taken as a mere suggestion? Words convey only a portion of the meaning behind communication. Tone of voice and inflection are just as important. One way to de-escalate a tense situation is to refocus by examining your word choices and tone from the customer’s point of view.  Make it a priority to explain in simple language, the reasons for the policies and procedures that you must enforce.

As the class wrapped up an attendees asked, “I don’t understand why the customer gets so upset. As required policy in order for me to help the customer, there is paperwork that needs to get filled out. I tell them that they have to (or need to) fill it out. Is there something wrong with saying this?”

It is natural for a customer service employee to let a customer know the next steps, of course the paperwork needs to get filled out in order for you to continue to help, however, ‘need to’ and ‘have to’ are controlling words. They hold a lot of power. But telling a customer what they need to can sound aggressive.

A hush fell over the room, all eyes were on me with a look of confusion and disbelief, only a few customer service employee recognized the metaphorical mirror that I was holding up in front of them, to others, unfortunately, the irony was lost in translation.