It's very difficult to reason with someone if their hair is on fire. Customer service (whether you're a school principal, a call center or a consultant) can't begin until the person you're working with believes that you're going to help them put out the fire on their head.
Basic principles worth considering (are you listening, Verizon?)
The first promises kept are hints that you will keep future promises. Putting people on endless hold, bad voice trees, live chat that isn't actually live, an uncomfortable chair in the waiting room, a nasty receptionist, unclear directions to your office, bad line management… all of these things escalate stress and decrease trust.
Don't underestimate the power of a good sign, a take-a-number deli machine and a thoughtful welcome.
Don't deny that the customer/patient/student has a problem. If they think they have a problem, they have a problem. It might be that your job is to help them see (over time) that the thing that's bothering them isn't actually a problem, but denying the problem doesn't de-escalate it.
Leave the legal arguments at home. It's entirely possible that your terms of service or fine print or HIPAA or lawyers have come up with some sort of clause that prevents you from solving the problem the way the customer wants it solved. You can't do anything about that. But bringing it up now, in this moment of escalation, merely makes the problem worse.
The goal is to open doors, not close them. To gain engagement and productive interaction, not to have the customer become enraged and walk away.
Empathize with their frustration. It's entirely possible that you think the patient's problem is ridiculous. That the customer is asking for too much. That you're going to be unable to solve the problem. Understood. But right now, the objective is de-escalation. That's the problem that needs to be solved before the presented problem can be solved. Acknowledging that the person is disappointed, angry or frustrated, and confirming that your goal is to help with that feeling means that you've seen the person in front of you. "Ouch," and "Oh no," are two useful ways to respond to someone sharing their feelings.
One minute later, then, here's what's happened:
- You were welcoming and open.
- You didn't pick a fight.
- You saw and heard the problem.
Wow. That's a lot to accomplish in sixty seconds.
Do you think the rest of the interaction will go better? Do you think it's likely that the person at the airplane counter, the examining table or on the phone with you is more likely to work with you to a useful conclusion?