My wife, Julie, and I were newlyweds living in Washington state while I completed my internship at the Tacoma VA Medical Center. During that year, our first daughter, Lauren, was born. It was both an idyllic time and bit scary. It was just the two of us enjoying all that the Pacific Northwest paradise had to offer; charting our own course, being our own selves. We were blessed to receive wonderful prenatal care and join a great lamaze class. We have a great story about Julie eating a big hamburger at our favorite pub the night before she went into labor. We still credit the burger!
Lauren was born with a bad case of jaundice. Her biliruben levels were high enough that home health got involved to provide us with a variety of natural lights and light blankets to help Lauren’s body get rid of the toxin. I’ll never forget how sorry I felt for this poor little baby girl wrapped in that uncomfortable blanket, lights shining on her, when all she wanted was to be held and cuddled.
After a few days things weren’t getting any better. Her skin was getting yellow, her eyes orange, and we were worried. We were warned that if her biliruben levels got too high she could have liver damage. As new parents, all alone, with our first baby, we were scared.
I was on night-shift duty the night everything came to a head. I stayed up to be with Lauren and make sure all the lights were shining on her, trying to soothe her the best I could. She was crying constantly and I couldn’t console her.
And then, in the middle of the night the lights went out.
I checked the connections, fiddled with the wires, unwrapped and re-wrapped Lauren several times. Nothing made the lights come on. I began to panic, worrying that every minute without lights was one minute closer to liver damage.
I remembered we had contact information from the home health agency they had left after dropping off the lights. I called them, desperately hoping someone would answer in the middle of the night and help me out.
Someone answered. My first statement went something like this;
“I am freaking out. My baby has jaundice and is on bililights, and the lights stopped working. I don’t know what to do!”
After a brief pause, here’s what I heard back over the phone;
“Sir, are they plugged in?”
If I could have reached my arm through the phone line, I would have strangled the person on the other end of the line.
“Are you freaking kidding me? Plugged in? Do you think I’m an imbecile?!!” I thought to myself.
The young man on the other end of the line was doing his job, just like he was trained. I imagine he had a procedure for customer service and trouble-shooting, and it told him to first check if the equipment is plugged in. Research had probably shown that this is the most common and easily corrected problem when people call in. So it makes sense to start there.
I happen to be mechanically quite capable and had checked the plug before calling. That’s beside the point. The point is, he completely missed the problem.
Customer service is about solving emotional problems, not mechanical ones.
I was afraid, anxious and desperate. That was the most important first problem to address. When do you usually call customer service? Not when everything is working. You call when you are frustrated, desperate, anxious, late, worried, angry, and confused. You are calling because you feel terrible and you want to feel good again. Solving the technical and mechanical problems is only a means to that end.
Here’s what I wanted to hear instead;
“I am so sorry sir. I can’t even imagine how scary it is to be worried about your child. I’m going to ask you a few questions so we can get to the bottom of it. I promise to stay on the line until we get this figured out. How does that sound?”
Only after this would I be open to hearing the question, “Is it plugged in?” without getting defensive. Only then could I become a useful partner on the other end of the line.
Why? Because people don’t deal well with conflict and can’t think clearly if they don’t feel safe and heard. They need to know you care about their suffering first. Only then can they become part of the problem-solving effort.
I’m convinced that the biggest failure of common customer service is what we call “Entering at Resourceful” on the Compassion Cycle.
Resourcefulness is about problem-solving, gathering information, and assessing resources. While important, it’s not most important or primary.
The Compassion Cycle is a process for engaging in constructive conflict by “struggling with” people instead of against them. By the way, Compassion actually means “to suffer with.”
The best customer service starts at Open by empathizing, recognizing the emotional struggle, and creating a safe place to struggle together.
Resourceful is next, focused on problem-solving. Persistence adds clarity to critical boundaries, promises, and principles. Returning to Open is a way of checking back in with the other person.
This is what I wanted to hear from the home health support person. Let’s look at it again:
“That’s terrible. I can’t even imagine how scary this is for you (Open). I’m going to ask you a few questions so we can get to the bottom of it (Resourceful). I promise to stay on the line until we get this figured out (Persistent). How does that sound? (Open)”
The missing link in great customer service is openness. Start at open next time you get that call from a frustrated, anxious customer and see how things change.
It turned out that the equipment was broken and we got it replaced. Lauren made it through is now a very healthy 20 year-old college student. She likes it really cozy and dark for sleeping!