“Never get angry,” the Don had instructed. “Never make a threat. Reason with people.” The word “reason” sounded so much better in Italian, ragione, to rejoin.
— Mario Puzo, The Godfather
I’ve read a number of business and professional development books. Many spend the first half telling you how awesome the book is going to be and how it’s going to change your life, then share one or two nuggets of wisdom that could have been expressed in 50 pages instead of 200. It’s not that the books don’t have something important to say — I often walk away from professional development books with at least one lesson — it’s more that the authors could have saved me a lot of time if they’d just gotten to the point. Because of all that fluff filler, the books lose their potency. Ultimately, they become forgettable.
A few I’ve read have gotten it right, though. Three books stand out to me that are more substantive, and therefore stickier, than what I describe above. I continue to apply their lessons long after completing them:
- The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker
- The Customer Service Survival Kit: What to Say to Defuse Even the Worst Customer Situations by Richard S. Gallagher
- Crucial Conversations: Tools For Talking When Stakes Are High by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler
I’ve written about The Effective Executive before (in What can I contribute? and The power of self-demand), and the books I want to focus on for this post are The Customer Service Survival Kit and Crucial Conversations.
The prompt for the most recent Support Driven writing challenge is “Do you actively read books or articles related to Support?” If you are not in customer support, that might seem like the most boring thing ever. If you are in customer support, you might feel the same way 😂. But my answer is Yes, I do read books and articles related to support, even though my primary role is not customer support anymore.
Why? The lessons I’ve learned from customer support books don’t just apply to work. The behaviors that will help someone succeed at delighting customers or moving them past frustration and towards resolution are the same behaviors that will help someone succeed at interpersonal interactions in every area of their life.
In other words, customer support lessons are applicable beyond the workplace.
At the time I read The Customer Service Survival Kit, I was terrified of angry customers. As the authors aptly described, when a customer on live chat was clearly pissed off, my first reaction was to put up my defenses: to protect myself from their bombardment. The stories I told myself were things like, “They have no right to talk to me that way”, “It’s not my fault — I’m just here to help and they’re being a jerk!”, or “They’re just plain wrong.”
What this ultimately meant was that I wasn’t listening, except to my own story. From The Customer Service Survival Kit, I learned how to lean into frustration. I learned how to show someone I was in their corner even when we might disagree. I learned how to acknowledge, without unnecessary or inauthentic apologies, “Wow, that sounds really frustrating. I’d like to help make this better. Can you tell me more about what happened?”
Before I knew it, I was recognizing patterns in conversations outside of work, with family or with friends. I would catch myself getting defensive, or clinging to my side and my perspective, and I’d think of the lesson to lean in, to show the person I’m in their corner and want to help make it better.
I’d rejoin them if we had become separated by a disagreement.
I’m by no means perfect at this — you can ask my husband — but I have tools now to help. Crucial Conversations, while not strictly a customer support book, is an excellent book for anyone who works with humans in general, including customers. I read this recently with others in the Support Driven book club, and joked that Chapter 8, “Explore Others’ Paths: How to Listen When Others Blow Up or Clam Up,” is Support 101:
- Ask questions to get their story
- Mirror to confirm what they say and show you’re listening
- Paraphrase to acknowledge and to make sure you understood correctly
Crucial Conversations went deeper than what might occur in a customer interaction, but the basics were the same: listen, acknowledge, find a mutual purpose, and work together towards your shared goal. In any disagreement there is likely to be common ground. A customer is angry because the software changed unexpectedly and disrupted their workflow? Both the support person and the customer want the customer to be able to achieve their goals comfortably, efficiently, and effectively. That’s something they can agree on and work towards if they join together.
A husband and wife are fighting because he works long hours and she’s picking up the slack at home? They both want more leisure time, and more time together. That’s something they can agree on and work towards if they listen, acknowledge, and rejoin each other.
Here’s my professional development Goodreads shelf if you’re interested.