What Call Center Agents Can Learn from Jack Nicholson About De-escalation

In this week’s professional development event, my De-escalation webinar, I’m going to open with a video clip from Jack Nicholson’s Five Easy Pieces. I’m showing the famous “Chicken Sandwich Diner” scene from the movie.

The clip shows Jack Nicholson’s character trying to customize a sandwich from the menu. I chose this scene because, as a vegan, I am ALWAYS customizing menu items in restaurants – the clip really resonated with me. In the clip, the waitress’s facial expression is sour, her body language is standoffish and to Nicholson’s request she responds, “No substitutions. Only what’s on the menu.” Calmly, Jack explains that he doesn’t want what’s on the menu, he wants to modify the sandwich. Unwilling to help, the waitress says, “Do you want to talk to a manager?” Within seconds, the situation escalates to the point of Nicholson yelling and breaking dishes.

I’m sharing this clip to set the tone for the de-escalation webinar. I share several proven de-escalation strategies that will de-escalate volatile customers. But it would be remise of me not to prepare my clients to pre-empt an escalation by avoiding things that are are known triggers.

After we watch the video, I’ll share what went wrong in this scene. The employee made 4 big mistakes; mistakes that led to uncontrollable escalation. Here’s what she did wrong:

1. Started with a negative.

Nearly before the customer could ask his question, the waitress said, “No substitutions.” Her initial negative response put the customer on the defensive and showed that she was unwilling to help. This negative response started the cycle of escalation, which I talk about in the webinar. The cycle of escalation is:

Initial Contact —>  Employee Response —> Customer Reaction —> Employee Reaction

The employee’s initial contact was negative in word, attitude and body language. The customer responded with intensity, and then the employee became defensive and difficult. This led to an all-out explosive situation.

2. Spoke only about what she could not do.

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Make Sure Your Language Doesn’t Invite Escalation

brunch-qunioa-with-black-beens-sweet-corn-avocada-and-cilantro-2

I blocked off yesterday afternoon to listen to a random sample of recorded phone calls between customer service representatives and customers (patients and providers) for my client. I’m preparing to deliver a full-day De-escalation workshop to this group in a couple of weeks.

One of the things I noticed is that some of the employees have a tendency to use language that opens the door for escalations. It’s unintentional. I’m sure of that. The employees are overwhelmed, if not stressed. Their customers can be difficult. In an effort to try to control conversations, provoking language is sometimes used. I’m hearing things like: Continue reading

I Had to Pull the “Get Me a Manager” Card. Here’s Why.

upset angry skeptical, unhappy, serious woman talking on mobile phone

I’ve told this story on my blog before, so bear with me if you’ve already heard it. I’m standing at the front desk of a nice hotel in Baltimore. The front desk clerk is having a problem with my reservation. I wondered if it was because I had literally just booked the reservation 45 minutes prior, just as I got into my rental car at the airport. I told the hotel employee that perhaps my very recent booking was the problem.

He called hotels.com, the company I used for booking, not once, but two times, about my reservation. When he didn’t get things sorted out after 2 lengthy calls to hotels.com, he told me, “I’m just going to cancel your hotels.com reservation and rebook you in our system.”

I was eager to get into my room and rest up for a week of full-day training sessions. His suggestion sounded good to me. That is, until, a couple of months later when checking my hotels.com account, I get a message stating that my 6-night hotel stay in Baltimore had been removed from my Rewards Account and that I would not get credit for that stay.

The primary reason I use hotels.com is for the rewards. I travel a lot. It takes 10 hotel stays to earn a free hotel night. In June I earned two free hotel nights and used both of those nights for get-aways with my husband. I travel a lot.

Now, the hotels.com call center is telling me that because they couldn’t help my hotel in Baltimore sort out a problem, they are removing my earned rewards? Pretty quickly in the interaction, I asked to speak to a manager. Here’s why I felt I needed to do this.

1. The number one thing customers want is help. When you don’t/can’t help, customers instinctively want to climb the ladder.

Trying to get my deserved hotel rewards, I called hotels.com. I spoke with an employee who put me on hold 3 times and ultimately told me there was nothing he could do. Literally, he said, “Ma’am, there’s nothing I can do.” This declaration certainly didn’t help me out. So, I said, “May I please speak with your manager?”

2. Customers also want acknowledgement. Another way to think of this is empathy. Without acknowledgment/empathy, it sounds like you don’t care. And if you don’t care, they might as well speak to someone else.

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3 De-escalation Strategies for Angry Customers

My daughter and I were driving home from church Sunday afternoon. We were in the left hand turn lane behind another car. We had the green arrow, yet the car in front of me hadn’t started to accelerate. The driver behind me laid on the horn something terrible. I actually turned around to look at her. She let up for a second and then honked again. “Ridiculous,” I said to my daughter. In the rearview mirror I saw the lady was giving me the middle finger, all because she assumed I was the holdup at the light.

About the time I got flipped off, the driver in front of me turned left and I followed. The honking profane driver quickly accelerated and then drove side -by-side me. What? Then she literally drove into my lane, nearly hitting me!

I found myself getting heated and frankly, I wanted to cuss. But my daughter was in the car and I had to ensure her safety, as well as my own. So, I had to de-escalate the situation. In my peripheral I could see the lady gesturing at me still. I avoided eye contact, didn’t return the bird gesture and I didn’t even utter words that the driver wouldn’t hear anyway. I slowed down just a bit so that she had to pass me. And then, it was over.

My mistake in this situation was physically turning around and looking at the driver. That enticed the driver to continue and become more aggressive. Fortunately, I’m skilled in de-escalation because I teach de-escalation in my Verbal Aikido training sessions. The moment I realized my error, I moved into de-escalation. My de-escalation tactic in this situation was to avoid eye contact, so not to appear threatening or aggressive, and to choose silence as opposed to profanity. I let it go and the out of control driver was defused, or at least, the situation for me and my daughter was calm.

De-escalation is a strategic tool that your employees can use when they find themselves in a ridiculous situation with an agitated, angry or out of control customer. Not unlike what I experienced in traffic 2 days ago.

Examples of de-escalation include:

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Sipping My Dark Italian Roast and Doing a Run-through for, “Coaching & Monitoring”

webinar-rehearsal

I’m sitting at my desk, sipping my dark Italian roast latte and doing a run-through of tomorrow’s web training, “Coaching & Monitoring” and boy, am I excited! This is such an important training because it addresses head-on the 4 biggest challenges supervisors and managers face with monitoring and coaching customer service employee:

  1. How to design the most effective monitoring form
  2. How to address problem performance in the most diplomatic way
  3. How to deal with whining and complaining employees
  4. How to hold employees accountable for making improvement

So often I find that supervisors don’t monitor and coach consistently and if they are consistent with recording calls, they aren’t always strong and confident in giving constructive feedback. Without feedback, there really is no value in recording calls.

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How to Boost Your Quality Monitoring with Calibration – And Why You Must

A close-up image of a young Indian business woman and her colleagues standing in front of a whiteboard. The woman is smiling and writing on the board while the others look on.

When my daughter was 13, we re-did her bedroom to give her a teenage look. She picked out modern furniture from Ikea, lovely bedding and fun art that perfectly matched her style. It’s now 3 years later and my son is almost 14. The other day he came to me  and said, “You guys owe me a new room. Sissy got a new room when she was 13 and I’m almost 14 with the same room.”

My son felt we were being unfair to him by not redoing his room at exactly the same age as we did his sister’s. So, on Saturday night we went out and picked out his new room. We haven’t made the purchases yet, but the process is started! I didn’t think of the timing as being unfair, but that is certainly my son’s perception.

You, no doubt, have employees who notice the little (or big) things just like my son. This means you must take care to be fair and to be perceived as fair, particularly when it comes to performance feedback.

I remember managing a contact center and having an employee say to me, “Tammy does the exact same thing, yet the supervisor doesn’t take off points for her. I may not have the bubbly tone like Tammy, but I’m good with customers.” The employee was referring to the point distribution on her quality monitoring form versus Tammy’s points. Employees often came into my office to have discussions that were in one way or another just like this one. The problem was my people didn’t feel the supervisors were being fair. That was a problem.

It took me a short while, but I did eventually nip the unfairness dilemma in the bud. What I did is I began meeting weekly with my supervisors to calibrate. Calibration is simply: Continue reading

3 Ways to Get Quality Contact Center Monitoring Right

If you can dream it, you can do it

The goal was to motivate customer service employees to deliver a better customer experience by monitoring calls and giving feedback on calls. The manager carefully crafted a monitoring form, which would be used to measure everything from listening skills to friendliness, to empathy. Each dimension on the score sheet was rated on a 5-point scale after supervisors listened to a random sample of calls between employees and customers.

Two months into the new quality monitoring plan, employees were complaining about the “fairness” of scores, supervisors were stressed as they struggled to find time to listen to calls, coach employees and record all the data.

Just 5 months after introducing the new quality plan, management acknowledged that the plan was thrown together without proper research or knowledge, it was too difficult to manage, and employees perceived the program as unfair. The entire plan was benched.

This, friends, is a really good example of how not to do a quality monitoring plan. Quality monitoring programs must motivate employees to perform at optimal levels, be easy to manage, and certainly they must be fair. Today I will explore with you 3 ways to Get Quality Monitoring Right.

One. Let Employees Listen to Their Own Calls

Dealing with problems is what I do

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