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Take Your Feet Out Of Your Mouth
May 2006

Take Your Feet Out Of Your Mouth
Avoiding the Most Common Managerial Communication Pitfalls

Dr. Andrew J. Edelman

In today’s highly competitive business world, customer satisfaction has never been more important in the growth of a company’s “bottom line.” Unfortunately, corporations are now dealing with a more diverse and more varied customer base, and in turn, forced to solve more complex and challenging customer service issues, complaints, and disputes. These developments are now confirming what customer service professionals have always known but were seldom allowed to admit: the customer may not always be right.

Moreover, customer service disagreements and disputes, if not carefully managed, can escalate into more severe confrontations, with resulting negative effects including workplace violence, lawsuits and litigation, and diminished productivity.

What causes conflicts to escalate? The following are the most common communication pitfalls that show how managers can enrage a customer by what they say and how they say it:

1. Attacking the person rather than the problem
Making personal attacks or statements, which belittle the individual instead of working to solve the issue.
2. Over control
Wielding authority, using your position of power to intimidate or push others around without attempting to solve the problem.
3. Cultural ignorance
Disrespecting diverse cultural communication patterns; folding arms or staring in a defensive manner when approached by someone with difficult-to-understand accents or differences in dress or appearance.
4. Re-escalation
Causing a person’s anger or hurt feelings to resurface after the original disagreement was successfully defused.
5. Lack of audience awareness
Ignoring the crowd of curious onlookers who may very quickly gather at the scene. This can prove extremely dangerous if the crowd becomes hostile
6. Counterproductive language and phrases
Focusing on unchangeable past events or negative imagery, using “red” (inflammatory) trigger words, or other discussion about events which are likely to cause the client’s temper to flair or anger to increase.
7. Failure to allow someone to vent
Interrupting or preventing an angry person from completing a thought or expressing his or her side of the story. This only serves to bury the real “fear” or issue and often results in increased frustration and an escalation of tempers.
8. Appearing disinterested or judgmental
Wandering eyes, preoccupation with other tasks, not paying full attention, yawning, arms folded, or shaking head in disgust or disbelief and making no attempts to hide these feelings.

What can managers do to improve managerial communication with difficult or angry customers? Below are some key conflict management strategies that can make a significant difference in effectively resolving disagreements and disputes.

1. Establish a connection.
Managers should use verbal and non-verbal language in ways to create an atmosphere of interest and genuine concern. Practitioners should avoid negative imagery-generating phrases (“red” words) such as “What’s the problem?!” or exhibit body language that sends a message of disinterest or disrespect. Managers will find greater success by using positive power phrases or “green words” such as:
Tell me what happened.
How can we work together on this?
Let’s solve this together.
I’m sorry that you had a negative experience.
I’ll be happy to assist you.
2. Acknowledge their feelings.
It is important for managers to acknowledge a person’s perspectives, points of view, and feelings of stress, anger, or fear. Even if the customer’s way of viewing the situation may not match theirs. In fact, the person yelling the loudest is often the person who feels the greatest lack of control and, deep down, is seeking someone who will understand their pain. This strategy is particularly useful in dealing with irate, irrational, or delusional individuals for which rapid conflict resolution is desirable for everyone’s personal safety and security. Best practice phrases include:
I respect how you feel.
You are absolutely right to feel that way.
I’d probably feel the same way if that happened to me.
I really want to work with you to resolve this situation.
3. Explore options.
Conflict resolution must be a partnership. This is why it is critical for managers to always include the customer in the decision making process. Rather than assuming what the customer wants, ask. Often, the actual solution is quite simple. If the customer’s need or want is unrealistic or counter to company regulations, explore and offer additional choices and let the customers take ownership in their decisions:
“Although this television brand is out of stock, I would like to show you some of our new upgraded entertainment centers that I believe will meet or exceed your expectations. Would you like a small, medium or large screen?”
When managers explore solution options by asking questions and eliciting customer feedback, the communication process is more likely to move towards a productive course of action.
4. Negotiate a resolution.
Once the customer has agreed to a course of action, managers should document the decision choice and give a copy to the customer. This cements the agreement and partnership in the problem-solving process and gives feelings of control back to the customer. Although this give-and-take process requires time and energy on the part of the manager and customer service personnel, the rewards will be well-worth the investment.

When managers help customers make choices they feel comfortable with, managers have done more than simply to defuse a conflict. They have increased the likelihood of establishing a loyal, long-term client relationship.

About the Author

Dr. Andrew J. Edelman is among the world’s foremost experts in the field of crisis prevention, conflict management, mediation, and resolution within government, public safety, university, and corporate settings. He has over 20 years of organizational training and development experience as an international consultant, keynote speaker, and dynamic presenter for executives, managers, and administrators from over 1,000 major corporations, universities, school districts, police, and military agencies.

Dr. Edelman earned his Bachelaor of Arts degree in Applied History and Sociology from Carnegie-MellonUniversity, Master of Public Administration/Criminal Justice degree from the University of Southern California, Master of Education degree from Adelphi University, and Doctor of Education degree from Nova Southeastern University. He will receive a Master of Business Administration/Global Management degree from the University of Phoenix in 2006.

For more information, visit his website at

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