The airline passenger was angry about missing her flight.
It was her fault. She had been sitting at the bar a short distance from the gate and lost track of time. Those things happen in Las Vegas.
Our emotions often rise up to protect our ego, so she looked for someone to blame. The first gate agent she talked to explained the airline's boarding policies and maintained that he had made several boarding announcements. It was a perfectly rational and reasonable explanation, but it wasn't the validation she wanted. So the passenger exploded—ranting, raving and cursing.
Another gate agent calmly took her aside.
He listened patiently as she told her story. He didn't try to argue with her or make her feel stupid. The gate agent used the partner technique to shift his body language so it was non-adversarial. He listened.
Then he simply said, "I can understand why you're angry. You shouldn't have to feel this way."
The passenger quickly calmed down and thanked him. She accepted an offer to get re-booked on a later flight.
The gate agent accomplished this minor service miracle through empathy.
Empathy is a core skill in customer service.
Customers often experience negative emotions. When that happens, the rational part of our brain cedes control and can't function properly. Everything stops until those emotions cool down.
Empathy is the magic that can take angry customers out of the red. Here's how dictionary.com defines empathy: the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of another.
When you empathize with a customer, it makes the customer feel better. Notice the airline gate agent wasn't agreeing with the passenger. He didn't say, "You're right, we should have sent someone to find you in the bar." What he did communicate was "I understand how you feel, and it's okay to have those feelings." He then took steps to help her feel better.
Of course, this is what makes empathy so difficult.
How do you empathize with someone you can't relate to (or who brings emotional baggage with them from a prior experience)? Unless you've missed a flight because you've lost track of time in a bar at the Las Vegas airport, it feels like a stretch to put yourself in this woman's shoes.
Fortunately, there is a technique you can use.
Three Steps to Empathy
Here's a technique I've taught customer service professionals for many years.
Step 1: Consider why the customer is truly angry. For the airline passenger, there were three issues. She was stressed about missing her flight and being inconvenienced by a delay. She was embarrassed that she caused the issue. And she was upset about the lack of empathy from the first gate agent.
Step 2: Think about a time you felt the same way. Try to imagine a situation where you were angry or embarrassed about something that was your fault. We've all done something stupid. It may not have been missing a flight, but it was something.
Step 3: Use that experience to identify with your customer's feelings. When we feel angry and embarrassed, the last thing we want is to hear is it’s our fault. (That's the mistake the first gate agent made.) We want someone to tell us they hear us, that we're not so dumb after all, and that they would be happy to help us fix it.
This isn't an easy technique. I've seen many seasoned customer service professionals struggle with it. But think of the accomplishment if you can master it!
That airline gate agent used empathy to de-escalate what was quickly becoming a scene. He didn't just make himself look good, he represented his airline well.
And the passenger?
Some opportunistic by-stander swooped in and told her he saw the whole thing. He too empathized with her situation and then offered to buy her a drink at the bar.
That's Vegas for you.
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About Jeff Toister
Jeff is the author of "Service Failure: The Real Reasons Employees Struggle with Customer Service and What You Can Do About It."
He is also a nationally recognized employee training expert and a sought after speaker with more than 20 years of experience.