A customer service guide to conflict resolution

How to overcome the challenges of customer services

Most people would rather live a life free of conflict than spend their days full of conflict resolution scenarios. However, anyone in customer support can tell you conflict and customer service difficulties are an inevitable part of working with people.

Fortunately, conflict resolution doesn’t have to be a dreaded ordeal to work through.

Voss and other conflict resolution experts see conflict as a valuable opportunity to uncover crucial information. When done well, conflict resolution can rescue business relationships and build trust with customers. To adopt a healthy (and profitable) approach to conflict resolution, all you need are the right mindset and tactics.

Why conflict happens—and what it means for your business

Conflict occurs when two or more parties can’t agree on a course of action. Usually, it’s because they have a difference in perspectives, values, or opinions. Failing to resolve conflicts with customers can have a negative impact on retention, loyalty, and brand awareness.

Encouraging your teams to consider customer experience at all touchpoints when selling them your product or services, will help your team become more empathetic, enabling them to overcome the toughest of customer service challenges.

Those are high stakes! With masterful conflict resolution, you have the opportunity to defy those odds and talk customers down from the edge of leaving. In one conversation, your customer service team can transform a potentially harmful experience into a positive interaction.

The neuroscience behind customer conflict

Getting into the heads of angry people is the first step to mastering conflict resolution. The more you know what’s going on inside, the easier you can deal with customer service difficulties.

Thanks to neuroscience, psychology, and sociology, we now have insight into what’s happening in the minds of people who clash:

  1. Conflict causes stress, and stress causes poor communication.When two people can’t come to an agreement, the brain has a stress reaction. Stress reactions cause muscles to tighten, voices to increase in pitch and volume, and hearts to beat faster. Cognitively, it’s harder to comprehend, think clearly, or put thoughts into words.
  2. Poor communication escalates the conflict.When you’re struggling to communicate, you risk triggering further stress and misunderstandings.
  3. Resolving conflict requires a calm body and mind.Once someone feels understood, the brain releases oxytocin (aka the “bonding” hormone). This hormone helps reduce stress and helps people work together.
  4. Innate conflict styles can help or hinder conflict resolution.Based on our backgrounds and temperaments, we all gravitate to different conflict styles.Some of us are seekers—we welcome the opportunity to debate or discuss differences. Some of us are avoiders—we prefer to go with the flow and dread disagreements. Many of us are somewhere between.

The types of conflict that can occur in customer service

According to Dave Dyson, Zendesk’s senior customer service evangelist, “Customer service conflicts involve misunderstanding each others’ intent, motives, or ability to affect change.”

Customer service problems can play out in several ways. In each type of situation, there’s a risk of personal egos interfering with finding a resolution.

  • Customer vs. agentThis scenario commonly comes to mind when discussing customer service conflicts. A customer is upset that something isn’t working the way they believe it should be. In this instance, it’s crucial that the customer service agent sets aside any personal interests and adopts an empathetic negotiator’s role. You don’t want to give customers reason to give you negative reviews on social media. Think about their customer journey and consider how things could have gone wrong for them.
  • Peer vs. Peer.Conflicts in your customer support team can occur within the team itself or between customer service and other departments. While finding a resolution without intervention is possible, both parties need to commit to working through their differences.
  • Agent vs. manager.This tricky situation happens when an agent and a supervisor have a difference of opinion—typically over work output, growth opportunities, or unfair treatment. All parties involved should show empathy and use negotiation tactics to resolve the issue. It also may be necessary to bring in a third party to clear the air equitably.

When you let someone else’s anger shake your commitment to finding common ground, conflict negotiations can fall apart. Everyone loses. With the right tactics in place, you can work through even the most high-stakes conflicts to find win-win situations.

Customer service conflict resolution strategies

Conflict resolution happens when there’s an agreed-upon action toward solving the problem. Ideally, all parties walk away feeling like others heard and respected their ideas. The process of reaching that satisfied state requires a careful balance of self-awareness, listening, empathy, and insightful negotiations.

Pause for a self-care check

Immediately before participating in any conflict management, you must ground yourself emotionally.

“You can’t give away what you don’t have,” says Brigit Ritchie, CEO of learning studio WE and co-creator of the Relational Mindfulness framework.

Relational Mindfulness helps you create the calm, focused attention you need when listening to grievances and working toward solutions. One technique of Relational Mindfulness is the self-care pause.

“It can be as simple as pausing to take deep breaths and check in with your body,” says Ritchie.

Taking a mindful moment before diving into conflict is a quick way to release stress-reducing hormones in the brain. That way, you can bring a calm, open, clear mind to the table.

Here are some other ideas for preparing your mind and body for conflict resolution:

  • Listening to a favorite song
  • Smiling
  • Drinking water
  • Watching a heartwarming video
  • Taking a walk

By building Relational Mindfulness into your daily routine, you’ll be better prepared to face crises and conflict.

Diffuse disagreements with Tactical Empathy

When it’s your turn to speak, Tactical Empathy can help you show the customer that you understand, even when you disagree.

“Using Tactical Empathy, you demonstrate that you recognize the other side’s perspective and can articulate it in a strategic, even proactive manner—even when you don’t like their perspective,” says former FBI hostage negotiator Christopher Voss.

Apply some of the following Tactical Empathy dos and don’ts to create good faith and trust as you move forward in negotiations.

  1. Do use a “DJ voice”A warm, calm tone of voice can help cool hot customer emotions. Voss compares this controlled vocal modulation to that of a late-night radio DJ. “Be soothing, using upward inflections when you’re inquiring about something, and downward inflections when you’re being understanding,” says Voss.
  2. Don’t deny or disagreeAvoid turning a conversation into an argument. “Even if you don’t agree with what the other side is saying, you don’t need to tell them as much,” Voss says.
  3. Do label emotionsUse labeling to verbalize unspoken sentiments. Instead of saying “I don’t want you to think/feel . . .” use phrases like “It seems like you’re feeling frustrated about. . .” or “It sounds like you don’t like . . .” Even if you mislabel their feelings, the customer can correct you to get on the right page.
  4. Don’t just say, “I understand”Instead of merely stating that you understand (which the customer will distrust), use the earlier-mentioned reflecting technique to verbalize everything you know.
  5. Do listen for “That’s right””If you can get a person you are arguing with to the point of saying ‘That’s right,'” says Voss, “they are signaling, subconsciously, that they believe you understand their perspective.”

Use Tactical Empathy to disarm heightened emotions and get your customer to a point where they feel completely understood.

Negotiate with a cool head

Once you’ve established that you understand your customer’s point of view, it’s time to work on the problem together.

“This is the point the customer is going to ask, ‘So what are you going to do about it?'” says Dave Dyson.

It helps to keep an upper hand while making your customer feel like they’re in charge. Dyson offers some key negotiation tactics that will keep things on track.

  1. Ask what the customer wants to happenWould they like a full refund? Do they want someone to fix a technical issue? “The ultimate solution might be something other than what they’re asking for, but this is an important starting point,” says Dyson.
  2. Look for gaps in understandingThe customer may not be able to articulate what they need. They may base their assumptions of what they need on incorrect information.”Don’t judge the customer for being wrong, but don’t follow them down that rabbit hole, either,” Dyson advises. “Instead, ask questions to make sure you’re on the same page—and the right page.”
  3. Ask for permission to summarizeDefer to the customer, but make sure you have the details correct on what the customer wants.
  4. Don’t sugar-coat bad newsIf you can’t deliver on what the customer wants, be frank while keeping their feelings in mind. Help them prepare for disappointment with phrases like “I know this isn’t what you want to hear . . .”
  5. Offer workaroundsIf you can’t provide the desired solution, explore other possibilities together. Give them options you can offer instead. “Your customer may not be thrilled at the idea, especially if it takes extra work to deliver something that’s not quite what they want, but they’ll usually appreciate the effort to see them through,” says Dyson.
  6. Show gratitude for feedbackAny interaction with a customer is an opportunity to learn. Make sure your customer knows that you value their feedback, even when it’s negative.

At this point, you should come to a course of action—or at least the next steps toward resolving the problem. Even when your customer doesn’t walk away happy, both of you must know that you did everything you could to help them.

Wrapping up

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