I was talking to someone the other day who has to deal with customers who are often angry or upset (or to be accurate, angry because they are upset!). An interesting topic came up. When faced with someone raising their voice, or at least angrily making their point at them, this individual would try not to engage with them. We had a discussion about this strategy, the pros and cons of it.
The person in question, who works at a Council, said that they didn’t have the energy to argue with the customer and would just hope that the person complaining would eventually burn themselves out. Then eventually, they could put their point across. Well, to be fair, this strategy does avoid the council worker getting drawn into a shouting match. It must though be exhausting having to passively sit and listen to endless angry complaints. Furthermore, what must the customer think? They are upset about something that, (they at least think) is really important and the person they are telling (admittedly, not in the right way) is just impassively dealing with them. I put this thought to the Council employee. He admitted that yes, it did seem to be never ending, with the customer repeating the same things over and over again – all very loudly. And they also added that having to listen to this ranting was emotionally draining. Not to mention the fact, that in many cases the customer had often got it wrong anyway.
On reflection then, it’s not necessarily the best strategy. Yes, it avoids conflict, but it doesn’t manage conflict – and there is a difference. Avoiding conflict without managing it often leaves the staff member in a passive position, while the customer is in control of the conversation. Sometimes this passive stance can even encourage the customer to be aggressive. This aggressive-passive combination then become the default behaviour and will repeat itself over and over again, which was certainly the experience of the Council Worker I was talking to.
So what’s the alternative? Well, being assertive rather than passive is certainly a good start. Rather than trying to ride out the rant, the Council employee could attempt to ask some questions in order to gain control over the conversation (and get the customer to think rather than rant). If that doesn’t work they could respectfully challenge the behaviour of the customers by negotiating a deal on behaviour. This may involve making a statement such as “I am willing to listen but it would be easier for me to understand if you could talk slower”. Then rather than thinking the Council employee doesn’t care, the customer knows that he is willing to listen to their concerns, but they also know that to achieve this, their aggressive behaviour can’t continue. The result for the Council employee is that not only do they no longer have to put up with the long angry rant, but they will also get chance to put their point across – and with the customer no longer ranting away, there is more chance that they will listen to that point as well!
And if you’re wondering, yes the Council employee has given this a go with his customers – and yes it’s paying dividends, he’s no longer giving them the silent treatment as he tries to ride out the rant.