dealing with clients

Are You Sending The Wrong Signals To Your Customers?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career 20 Comments

girl with purple hairOne of the boons of being a blogger is that I have a platform to parade all my pet peeves. I’m sure you have your favorites, and I hope you’ll share some of them in the comment section. 

As a lifelong lover of language (and alliteration), here’s one thing I can’t stand:

The use of clichés, particularly in public presentations. 

If you really want to see me cringe, take me to an event where the emcee introduces a celebrity speaker or a band with the following words:

“Without further ado…”

Give me a break! Couldn’t you come up with something a bit more original?

Unless we’re quoting Shakespeare, when do we ever use the word “ado”? The only time I’ve heard that word used, is when an American tries to say goodbye in French. 

Another expression that makes me swiftly search for a sick sack is:

“Sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.”

The last time I heard those horrible words was when I was crammed into my seat like a sardine because the theater was so small. I could barely move my legs, let alone lean back into my chair because I would have ended up in someone’s lap. The show itself was thoroughly unenjoyable which made me feel very tense. 

For my latest and greatest pet peeve, I have to take you to the wacky world of customer service.

EATING OUT

A young nose-ringed waitress named Molly looked like she had spent most of her tip money on tattoos and purple hair color. 

That’s just an observation. Not a value judgment. Some of her tattoos were actually quite tasteful. Here’s what happened next.

When I thanked Molly for handing me the menu, she said:

“No problem.”

When I ordered the drinks, she said:

“No problem.”

When I asked her to repeat the specials, she said:

“No problem.”

When I asked if I could have the salad dressing on the side, she said:

.. ……. 

and always in the same way, stressing the “pro” in “problem.”

“Yes,” I joked. “It would be a bit of a problem if half a cup of that awful French dressing would end up all over my frozen iceberg lettuce, wouldn’t it?”

Without skipping a beat Molly robotically responded:

“No problem.”

I decided to have a little bit more fun with this poor girl, and asked:

“Molly, before you go… would it be okay if we order dessert after we’ve had the main course?”

“No problem,” said Molly, and she walked away.

Amazed I turned to my wife and said: “I bet you Molly has no idea that she sounds like a broken record. Her responses were completely automatic. It’s almost scary.”

Thankfully, we enjoyed a completely unproblematic meal that was quite delicious. At least our server was a woman of her word.

LINGUISTIC MANIPULATION

Now, I’m sure you’ll agree that Molly isn’t the only one who graduated from the school of customer service where nothing is ever a problem.

This trite “no problem” response is ridiculously rampant in retail, and I’ve witnessed countless clueless colleagues use it in speech and in writing.

If so many people are using it, why then do I make such a big deal about an innocent expression? Isn’t this Much ado about nothing? To tell you the truth, it isn’t, and I’ll prove it to you.

Language is manipulative in nature. Right at this very moment, the words that you are reading are creating sounds and images in your head. They determine what you focus on.

Let’s try something fun, shall we?

If I tell you: “Don’t think of a pink elephant,” what are you thinking of?

If I ask you: “Forget about what you had for dinner last night,” what is the first thing that comes to mind?

You see, even if I instruct you NOT to think of something, it pops up, doesn’t it? It has to do with the way our mind operates. It has a hard time processing negatives. It works like this:

We can’t think of what we don’t want to think about without thinking about it first.

Please repeat this last line five times before you proceed. 

Getting back to mysterious Molly, what did she force us to focus on with her repeated “No problem”?

It’s rather obvious, isn’t it?

And that’s precisely the problem. There was no problem in the first place, yet Molly’s words made us entertain the idea that something could be wrong. Now, why on earth would you want to do that, especially in a client-customer relationship?

If anything, wouldn’t you want your clients to focus on something perfectly positive and pleasant?

THE UNCONSCIOUS MIND

I am convinced that most people don’t make us focus on negative things on purpose. Like Molly, they probably don’t even realize that they’re doing it.  

As a professional communicator, I find this fascinating. The language we choose -consciously or unconsciously- reveals something about our thought processes. Words and sounds (and gestures) are external representations of what’s going on internally. The way people speak tells us something about how they think, and how they experience the world. Here’s an example.

You ask two people the same, simple question: “How are you doing today?”

Number one says: “I can’t complain.”

Number two answers: “I’m very well, thank you.”

What do these very different answers tell you?

Let’s assume someone wants to ask you for a favor. There are a million ways to pop the question, but let’s look at the following ways to introduce that request:

“I know it’s a pain, but…”

“Can I trouble you?”

“Sorry to bother you…”

“You wouldn’t mind, would you?”

“I realize it’s a lot to ask, but…”

Now, why would someone pick one of the above expressions versus:

“Is it okay if I…?”

“Could you please give me a hand?”

“Do you have a moment?”

“I could use some help…”

“You seem really good at this. Could you…”

The first five lines assume the worst. The words that stick out are pain, trouble, and bother. They tell us what the speaker wants to avoid. People who use this negative approach tend to focus on what they don’t want. They’re more driven by fear and perceived limitations.

The next five lines come from people who are more likely to focus on a positive outcome. They tend to think in possibilities instead of in problems, and they focus on what they want.

TURNING THE TABLES

Here’s where it gets even more interesting. Those who habitually use more negative or more positive language while communicating with others, will use the same language when talking to themselves. This gives us some insight into how people motivate themselves, and how we can best motivate them.

The real clash in communication comes when you have a  service provider (like a voice talent) with a positive outlook, talking to a client who tends to focus on all the things that could go wrong. How would you convince such a client that you’re the right person for the job?

The mistake many people make is that they keep on using the language they are used to using. What they should do instead, is frame their proposition in a way that would appeal to the clients’ model of the world. They could start by saying something like this:

“Don’t worry. There’s no reason why this wouldn’t work out. Would you mind telling me what your deadline is?”

And what would you say when the client gives you his deadline?

Precisely! You’d say:

“No problem.”

At that moment your client will probably thank his lucky stars that he finally found someone who won’t mess his project up!

As far as I’m concerned, that is one of the only occasions it pays off to use negative language. It is a subtle way of telling your clients that you think alike. People who are like each other, have a tendency to like each other. 

It won’t surprise you that the more successful people in life are naturally good at focusing on what they want. Their self-talk is more upbeat and positive, and they exude confidence. They’ve discovered that what they’re focusing on consistently, is more likely to materialize. That’s why they concentrate on positive outcomes. You can clearly hear it in the way they speak.

Instead of saying “This will probably never work,” they say: “I believe I can do this!”

A SHIFT IN THINKING

Why don’t we go back to the restaurant to see what happened with Molly? Did she finally realize what she was doing?

Well, it took her a while, but I think she eventually did.

When we had finished our meal, I asked Molly for the dessert menu.

“No problem”

“A strawberry sorbet for my wife, and a tiramisu for me, please.”

“No problem.”

“Molly, when you have a chance, could you bring me the check?”

“No problem.”

“I guess it’s alright if I don’t include a tip today?”

“No prob…”

Molly stopped in mid-sentence, and I could see the wheels starting to spin slowly but surely.

“Well, Sir, I’m afraid that would be a bit of a problem.”

I smiled at her, and said: “I was only joking. You did a terrific job. Of course I’ll include a tip!”

A few weeks later we returned to the same restaurant, and there was Molly.

“Nice to see you again!” I said. “Could you perhaps start us off with two ice teas?”

Molly laughed, and said:

“My pleasure!”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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photo credit: San Diego Comic-Con International 2012: It’s a purple hair day via photopin (license)