I’m going to talk about customer service (and leadership) in a moment.
But before I do, I have to reveal something.
I once dropped the F-bomb on a Sprint representative.
I know, it’s quaint and all in retrospect — kind of like the Beave saying “well that stinks Wally” and getting his mouth washed out with soap. But in the situation it was absolutely out of line — even in an era where the common culture drops the word in conversation like it’s an honorific.
About three years ago I had cancelled service with Sprint, who sent me an incorrect final bill — so I called, and they said “well, we’ll fix it next billing cycle” — and of course, next billing cycle, they did it again, so I called “We’ll fix it next billing cycle” and then did it again, at which point I was like “no way — let me talk to a supervisor” though in a voice that would make a marine sergeant, okay, a marine sergeant’s terrier, cringe. At that point they transferred me instead to the collections department, which I got completely livid, and told the collections department rep that I was tired of this f*ing treatment.
The representative immediately sat me down (over the phone even) like the best principal you ever had, and told me in no uncertain terms that “she didn’t use that language with me, and wasn’t going to take it from me”.
And then I said “Yes ma’am, I’m sorry”.
You see, no matter how completely messed up the Sprint company — and the situation — was, my reaction with the representative was as bad, if not worse, than the actual problem.
Understanding this is key. Sometimes you’ll find yourself, especially in service roles, where you, or one of your peers, or one of your employees does something stupid, maybe you/they forget that understanding sarcasm requires a modicum of common sense, and that’s a lost commodity in the modern world. Or maybe in frustration they call one of your customers a giant oblong obnoxious purple poo-poo head. Or any number of seemingly worse sounding things that have about the same end meaning. Heck, maybe they even send your customer incorrect bills for three months.
Well, inevitably, there’s going to be a reaction. People that want to really solve the problem go back to the source and say “that was wrong, please don’t call me a poo-poo head” Overreactives go to everyone they can find, including your elementary school teachers, and whine about being called a poo-poo head. (or they drop f-bombs on your service reps).
You have to know how to say “yep, sorry, I’ve talked with them and they’re wrong, and they won’t call you a poo-poo head again. But you know what? Your reaction is worse, and I don’t want to hear it anymore.” (or “I’m not going to use that language with you, don’t use it with me.”)
As a leader — when your employees do this, you have to explore the issue — but you also have to be willing to back your employees up in a fair and equitable manner. Real leaders get this. If you don’t, it comes back around. Trust me. I know.
All this seems simple of course. But I’ve honestly rarely seen it in practice. And I certainly know I’ve gotten it wrong in the past. I can only hope that being self-reflective, and remembering the mistakes I’ve made and seen, will help me get it right the next time I find myself there.
p.s. Real friends harass you mercilessly about your reactions. My friends to this day almost three years later continue to make fun of me for dropping the F-bomb on the Sprint lady. As well they should. I’ll probably continue to hear about it 50 years from now.