Listening and Empathy

If there is one thing that makes for good customer service it is the ability to listen and empathise with the customer’s position. That is such an easy thing to say, but for many people, it is often such a difficult thing to actually do. Our ability to empathise, for one thing, is essentially a function of who we are – our personality – and that was something that took a long time to solidify and is hence not at all easy to change.

In addition, many people believe that they can listen perfectly well, not fully realising that there is a fundamental difference between hearing and listening. What’s the difference? Good question: listening is active; hearing is passive. Listening is actively attaching meaning to the words we have heard. Good listeners are able to get into the other person’s head and demonstrate that they really understand the other party’s perspective. This is an important key to being able to attend to customer service issues successfully. So it amazes me when businesses appoint customer service staff who are not skilful in this area.

Recently, I had a problem with two sets of mixer taps I had purchased from a major retailer about 5 years ago. There was a defect in the metal that caused a progressive pitting over the course of time. After 5 years, they were badly pitted and needed changing. Now the taps in my Mum’s house are over 50 years old and they not only work properly, but they also look perfectly good too: the point is that taps should last a lot longer than 5 years.

Now, what do you suppose the reaction of the customer service staff was when I contacted them? Well, I was told that the goods were over 1 year old and therefore out of the guarantee period. That, of course, is perfectly true. But what I felt was missing was the ability to understand my position. Nobody, it seemed, was prepared to accept the fact that the customer had a valid point. I spoke with the retailer, their distributor and the manufacturer and all of those involved simply stuck to the company line that the goods were out of the guarantee period. Nobody was prepared to invest the time in understanding the issue.

Eventually, I took the taps to the retailer so they could see the problem for themselves, I also took the paperwork and I spoke with the store manager who immediately authorised replacements. Now that, of course, is what should have happened in the first place. It had taken quite a bit of time and effort for me to get the retailer to understand my position. The situation could have been avoided entirely had the customer service staff been properly trained to listen properly, understand the customer perspective and escalate the matter effectively.

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