To Boldly Go: The Customer Mind Meld

The Frog finds herself back at the hospital musing on the goodwill to be gained from putting yourself in the customer’s shoes.

A few weeks ago I found myself back in the hospital, accompanying a friend to yet another appointment.   We arrived a little early, only to be informed by a cheery nurse that the Doctors were running approximately 45 minutes behind schedule.  The waiting room was packed and sweltering; the only available seats being either side of a woman who was telling anyone who’d listen the precise details of every ailment she’d had since 1964 whilst vigorously knitting what looked like a shocking-pink mohair cardigan.  Everything suggested that this Frog would quickly become a very grumpy toad!  But…fast forward 5 minutes and my friend and I were sitting contented and happily nattering away while we waited.

When the Doctor eventually called her into his office, I found myself wondering how a potentially negative experience had turned out so well.  While I try to be an excellent customer, I am by no means the customer equivalent of Mother Teresa… so how did an experience so loaded towards a negative reaction result in positive acceptance?

For contrast, I compared my experience a few months ago (you’ll recall from my previous blog that I had a similar delay in a hospital environment while accompanying a friend).  On that occasion I’d reacted very differently; slowly bubbling into a raging mire of frustration.  Indeed, the only reason I hadn’t complained and become quite challenging was the fact I wasn’t the actual “customer” in that situation.

My analysis of the two very similar situations with two very different responses left me puzzled… until I remembered something I’d read about the psychology of customer contact.  Richard Gallagher, in his book “Great Customer Connections”, discusses a technique where the service provider switches their perception to that of the customer and reflects that in their communication.  That was the reason these two experiences had resulted in two very different responses!

Possibly unbeknown to the cheery nurse, she’d applied this approach and successfully neutralised a very probable negative reaction.  When she proactively came over to us to explain and apologise for the delay, she’d wrapped it up in disarming dialogue “I’m sorry – I know it’s not nice being conscientious, turning up early and then having to wait even longer.  That always frustrates me.  Especially on a nice day like this; I know you’d prefer to be anywhere but here.  I’m doing all I can to try and get you in a little quicker”.

In changing her mind-frame from her own (as a service provider) to that of her customer, the nurse anticipated our reaction and communicated to us from that perspective before we’d responded.  Looking back, I now understand my unconscious response:  her words were those of a considerate service provider who clearly understood and genuinely empathised with our situation – after all, she didn’t even need to be told about our feelings, she demonstrated that she already knew – plus she’d shared with us how she’d felt in the same situation.  And as this woman knew what it was like to be in our shoes, we knew she’d try to resolve the situation if she was able; and if the delay remained it wouldn’t have been from her lack of effort.

The ultimate result of her communication and our unconscious response, was that, where we probably would have huffed and grumbled for the next 45 minutes, we thanked her, accepted what she said without question and took the opportunity to have a good chat.

In contrast, during my other experience the receptionist had maintained her own perspective and disregarded the customer view when she simply informed us to “take a seat until the Doctor calls you”… the eventual result of which was, of course, the negative reaction that she anticipated all along.

Changing focus from your own perspective to that of the customer is a very powerful, straightforward and yet seldom used technique, consisting of three simple steps:

  1. Anticipate the likely reaction of your customer
  2. Use that as a frame of reference when you speak to them (i.e. from their own perspective), and
  3. Do it before they respond.

These three simple steps allow a service provider to get inside their customer’s head and in doing so, demonstrate they clearly understand the customer’s perspective and display enhanced empathy.  The outcome is a very real and positive impact on the customer’s response.

So, my question to you this week is:  Do you speak as a customer to your customers?

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