Making customer service harder on yourself

Admittedly, the title of this post is a little strange. However, in case there’s any doubt, it is not a recommendation! More of an acknowledgement… of how, despite our best intentions, despite our experience and our skills, despite blog posts with excellent tips, sometimes we are our own worst enemy.

We know that when faced with the proverbial ‘difficult’ customer, one of our key techniques is knowing how to listen well. That good listening can help defuse a situation, calm the customer down, and get you the information you need to deal with their issue.

But knowing how, and actually doing it, can be two different things. So often, we focus on dealing with the problem presented by the customer (they’re unreasonable, they’re getting angry, they keep demanding something I can’t give…) but some of the biggest barriers to listening well are in our own heads.

6 barriers to good listening

There are many ways in which you can make it difficult for yourself to listen properly. Here’s a few of them with some suggestions on what to do…

  1. Preoccupation – You’re distracted by something else that you have to deal.
  • Unless the other issue is an emergency, put it to one side. If it helps, imagine how you’d feel if someone couldn’t be bothered to listen to you (because that’s how it comes across).
  • If you’ve missed an important point, own up. Apologise, say you were preoccupied and ask them to repeat what they just said. (HINT: it’s embarrassing to use this tactic more than once)
  1. Prejudice – You’ve already made up your mind on the matter and/or customer. There’s a danger your mind is now closed to what they’re saying, or only open to arguments that support your prejudice.
  • Remind yourself that customer service is, at first, a listening activity and it’s twice as hard to listen openly or fairly when you’ve already reached a judgement.
  • Besides, are you always right? Really?
  1. Indifference – You’re not interested in the subject.
  • Try concentrating on the process rather than the content for a moment – are they going around in circles, are they working towards a decision, are they avoiding certain issues? Get the conversation on track and then refocus on the facts.
  • Or… For Pete’s sake! You’re being paid to do a job – get on with it!
  1. Premature Evaluation – You’ve decided what the situation means (and probably what solution is required) before the customer has finished telling you about it.
  • Slow down.
  • Focus on active listening skills – paraphrase, summarise, reflect – and deliberately (and neutrally) check your understanding of what’s been said.
  1. Triggered – Your emotions are hooked by certain words the customer is using and you’re having an (unhelpful) emotional reaction (i.e. they’re pushing your buttons).
  • Tell yourself that the customer is not doing it on purpose (they might be but that doesn’t help in the moment – this will help you keep your cool).
  • Focus on listening well to ensure you understand their position and beware of letting your personal responses show when using techniques such as paraphrasing or summarising.
  1. ‘Poor’ delivery – You find the customer difficult to understand for some reason; maybe they’re confused, maybe they’re stuck on a detail, maybe they have a strong accent that you can’t understand well.
  • If necessary, ask them to slow down, and explain further then paraphrase back what you think they said and ask if you’ve got it right.
  • Take responsibility for your own lack of understanding. DO NOT imply that it’s their fault (even if you think it is) because then you’re just bringing conflict into the exchange.

Remember: “To be listened to is…, a nearly unique experience for most people.  It is enormously stimulating…” – Robert C. Murphy (1888-1973) U.S. naturalist and environmental activist

It’s true, listening is key. But sometimes, before you can do that and provide excellent customer service, you need to get out of your own way…


To explore (and practise) active listening in more detail, including getting past your personal barriers, check out our customer service workshops, or give us a call on 01582 714287.  We’re here to help!

Categories: Customer service

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