How a simple tweak in your language can level up your customer interactions

Mark Eggers, 7 min read

How a simple tweak in your language can level up your customer interactions

To work is to communicate. Whether it's with colleagues, customers, or your internet carrier (a too frequent occurrence...), if you're workin', you're communicatin' (Mark Eggers 2020 Ⓒ).

I'm a talker. Whether it's a story about my days managing a bar in Darlinghurst or the latest-update in why my toddler kept me up last night, I've always got something to say. But something I've had to learn the hard way is that just because you're talking, doesn't mean you're communicating. Or, at least, not effectively.

And whether you're naturally chatty like me or the words don't come so easily, we can all stand to level up our communication skills. Especially if you work in customer service. Anyone who has worked in customer service knows that the customer really isn't always right, but you always have to make sure they feel like they are. And doing that requires some serious communication skills.

Years of working in customer service (and being forced through the communication workshop ringer by my business partner Lachy) has forced me to level up my game. So, in the spirit of the sharing economy, I thought I'd share a bit of a communication how-to.

My communication secret is non-violent communication. It's a simple framework for expressing your needs and getting results without creating conflict. Afraid to share your needs? Not afraid enough and prone to escalating situations? Non-violent communication is your solution. It's the communication Gin & Tonic: not too sweet, not too bitter; it hits the spot.

The overview: what non-violent communication is

Nonviolent communication was first developed by Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960s. He wrote a book on the subject, founded the Centre for Nonviolent Communication, and won a bunch of awards for his development of the process. So you can see that there is obviously quite a lot to nonviolent communication, far more than this article can cover. However, to give you a quick overview: nonviolent communication assumes that we’re all compassionate by nature, and only resort to violence or other harmful behaviour when we don’t recognise that there are more effective strategies available to us to meet our needs. If you're interested in getting into the nitty-gritty of non-violent communication I'd recommend reading the book (or our summary of the non-violent communication workshop we attended on the Yarno blog).

But, for now, that's probably enough context to get us up and running. Let's move on to what we're here for: the how.

The framework: how to non-violently communicate

As I mentioned above, there's quite a lot to non-violent communication ("NVC"). In practice, I've found three steps to be sufficient to help me in my day-to-day:

  1. Assume positive intent
  2. Seek to understand
  3. Express needs

That's it! You master these steps and you'll find that not only do your work interactions level up, but so does your entire personal life. No longer does every disagreement end in disaster; you'll find you can communicate what you need, find out what the other person needs, and then work toward a solution together. Every. Single. Time. (I'm serious - this is some 100% of the time it works every time sorta stuff.)

Step one: assume positive intent

If you want to communicate well the first thing you need to do is that the other person has positive intent. We make a lot of assumptions in our day-to-day life: that person cut me off in traffic because they want to make me late for work; this customer is coming to me with a complaint because they like wasting my time; that co-worker didn't smile at me when I saw them down the street because they don't like me.

But the thing is, we're not mind-readers. We're not omniscient and we have no way of knowing with certainty why another person did something. The best thing you can do as a communicator is to set your ego aside and accept this. There are 1,000,000,001 reasons why a person could have any given thing, and the reason you're assuming they've done something is, at best, a guess.

Once you accept this, the next part is easy: assume positive intent. If we accept that our assumptions are closer to stabs-in-the-dark than psychic readings, then why not also assume that the other person owes use no ill-will?

Take a sip of that half-full glass and assume that that person didn't cut you off because they don't like you, but because they're also running late for work, and they've felt guilty about it ever since. What if the customer isn't complaining to waste your time, but because you're the only person they know who can help them with what they need? What if you coworker simply didn't see you? Why not believe the reason that affirms your faith in humanity rather than extinguishes it? Take a leaf from Shakespeare's book: 'Nothing is either bad or good, but thinking makes it so.'

'That's great, Mark, but you're basically telling me to make an imaginary happy world for myself and ignore all the bad's very Brave New World-esque...'

No, I'm not telling you to give yourself the cognitive equivalent of Soma by simply imagining the world to be a nicer place than it is. Try as we might, simply imagining a better world isn't enough. Luckily, there are two-sides to every coin, and the other side of assuming positive intent is seeking to understand, or step two.

Step two: seeking to understand

Once we accept that we're not mindreaders, and assume that other people mean well, the next step is obvious: instead of getting frustrated with your assumed reasons for why someone did something, why not, you know...ask them?

But I mean, really ask, and not come in primed to fight. Which means, instead of saying, 'Why are you always complaining to our customer service hotline?' you could say, 'You seem to be experiencing some difficulties using our platform. Is there anything in particular about our user experience that you're having trouble with?'

That way, you'll have it straight from the horses mouth. Instead of letting the issue become bigger and bigger in your mind as your brain jumps from one assumption to another, you'll have the reason put before you, plated up, ready for you and the other person to address. That way, you're both on the same page, and can work toward a solution, together.

Sometimes, it may not even be necessary to directly ask someone why they've done something. Sometimes, simply forcing yourself to imagine other plausible reasons for why someone might have done something is enough to get you off on the right foot, and you can jump straight into Step Three: expressing needs.

Step Three: expressing needs

When we're annoyed with someone, we think of it as a problem with the other person. They did this, they didn't do that, they are being very inconsiderate...

But really, the problem isn't the behaviour of a third party. It's that a need or expectation (i.e. a 'wish') of yours hasn't been filled. Here's what I mean:

We wish that that customer who has emailed support three times this week would remember their password for once. We wish that our client who keeps cancelling meetings would turn up, or at least, give us some notice if they're not going to. We wish for many things every day, and when our wishes don't pan out, we get frustrated. We blame the other person, because our wish wasn't fulfilled.

The problem is, however, that just as we don't know the reasons why other people do things, in return, they don't know our every wish.

Luckily, the solution is simple: communication!

Once we accept that the problem is isn't other peoples behaviour per se, but our own unfulfilled wishes, the way to resolve these problems is pretty straightforward. Instead of blaming other people for their behaviour, simply express your needs or expectations to them, and show them how to fulfil those wishes. I carry this formula around with me in a card:

When ____[observation], I feel ____[emotion] because I need ____[universal needs]. Would you be able to ____[request]?

Here's how it works in the real world:

Scenario: Your client keeps missing your Friday meetings. They let you know, but only at the last moment.

Okay, I know confrontation can be scary, but it's important that you two hold these Friday meetings, so you've decided to say something to them about it. Let's fill out the formula:

'When you cancel our Friday meetings at the last moment I feel frustrated because I need to be able to plan my day. Would you please be willing to give me at least a few hours, or ideally, a day or two notice if you're not able to attend?'

Bingo! That's it. It's pretty simple really - all we've done is make the subject of the conversation the unfulfilled wish (the need to be able to plan your day) rather than the behaviour of the other person. Doing so is powerful because:

  1. It ensures the other person doesn't feel attacked - making them more receptive to feedback and less likely to get defensive and shut down.
  2. It addresses the actual problem - the problem here, really, isn't them missing the meetings. Sometimes people have to cancel and that's life. The problem is not being able to plan accordingly, which can throw out a whole day, and wastes everyone's time. By addressing the unmet need, we assure that we reach a sufficient solution.

Wrap up

The above formula is pretty, well, formulaic. In real life you probably won't stick exactly to the script - and that's ok! The point of non-violent communication is to allow to you express needs without conflict and there's no better way to do that than to turn the situation into an actual conversation. Dive in! Discuss your unmet needs and what ways you can work together toward a solution. It takes some practice. So in order to make perfect test it out - on your family, colleagues, customers, on the iinet Rep who is refusing to send someone to fix your internet for you (I'll admit - it was hard to stick to the NVC framework when speaking to iinet after 5 days without internet at home...I'm only human). It's a simple tweak to your communication skills but you'll find the difference it makes is immeasurable.

Mark Eggers

Mark heads up the Sales team at Yarno. He loves to chat, which is fortunate because he’s very good at it. He's our digital Swiss Army Knife, always armed with a solution to any problem.

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