Louisa Weinstein
   

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It makes sense that there is an inexorable link between customer and employee experience.  Research tells us that 79% of employees at companies with above-average customer experience are highly engaged in their jobs, compared to 49% of employees at companies with average or below-average customer experience scores (www.temkingroup.com/product/employee-engagement-benchmark-study-2017).  Equally, companies with a highly engaged workforce experience a 19.2 percent growth in operating income over a 12 month period (www.decision-wise.com/show-me-the-money-the-roi-of-employee-engagement).

The evidence bears out what, on a very practical level, we know.  Namely that happy customers are good for business.  They represent more repeat or referred business for the organisation and/or higher revenue leading to greater job security.  Crucially, they also mean less “problems” on a day to day basis.

In customer facing businesses notably travel, banking, health services and retail, good customer experience is often synonymous with a high quality of interactions between customer and front-line staff.  This then has a knock-on effect on the quality of interactions generally in the workplace. 

What is interesting and somewhat counter-intuitive, is that the opportunity for increased engagement is not necessarily reached by avoiding or supressing conflicts that often arise in these situations.  Instead, it is by allowing those conflicts to surface but also equipping the organisation and its staff to deal with them effectively.  But it does not stop there, the key is harnessing the opportunities for engagement that result from the conflict and, importantly, would not have existed without it.  This systemic approach to dealing with disputes or “Dispute Systems Design” does not need to be too complicated but needs to take into account the following:

Prepare and plan for conflict situations
Effective Dispute Systems design comes from the starting point of assuming that conflict is inevitable.  In this knowledge the organisation can ensure that plans are in place to ensure that when it arises, staff are well equipped to respond appropriately and are not scared or ashamed of it happening.  The ideal is that they can instead accept and/or use it as a learning experience.

The easiest way to pre-empt the conflict situation is to analyse what happens when individuals react as opposed to respond to the conflict.  Key indicators for areas of actual or potential conflict situations include:

  • Customer not getting what they want
  • Customer filing a complaint
  • Employee posting unfavourable comments on intranet
  • Gossip within the organisation
  • Actual or potential safety risks particularly if they increase fear or stress levels
  • Factors contributing to actual or potential risks to delivery of the product or service

It is also helpful to establish the typical fall out from these situations and touchpoints where the conflict escalates or transforms to create additional challenges.

Use conflicts with customers as an opportunity to INCREASE brand loyalty
Having accepted that conflict will arise, it is easier to start to take advantage of the opportunities it presents.  It is very rare that the initial event or fact that the customer or the employee is faced directly creates long term, sustainable customer or employee disengagement.  Rather, it is the response to that event that creates the problem.  If that response is timely, considered and strategic, two things can happen: firstly, the chances of the situation escalating is substantially reduced and secondly opportunities for learning, growth and, increased engagement are possible.  In this way, conflict situations create an opportunity to actively increase customer loyalty to the brand.

For example, a customer may receive a product that they had bought online that was not what they expected.  In these circumstances, the customer may have had a part to play in the problem but will often want the company to take the lions share of responsibility for it particularly if there was room for misinterpretation or lack of clarity in the company’s communications.

In these circumstances the customer’s initial response, may be to blame the person in front of them (the employee) and to insinuate the employee of them is guilty by association quite easily casting a number of aspersions on the employee. 

If we are to put ourselves in the place of the customer for a moment, many of us might find ourselves subconsciously not wanting to take responsibility for our part in the problem.  We may feel slightly irritated or embarrassed with ourselves for making a mistake.  We may blame the company for our mistake but know that it is not entirely their fault.  The result can be that we, as a customer, deflect responsibility from ourselves.  In these situations, the employee might point out the customer’s mistakes and part to play, to illustrate that the issue is not, in part or in full, the responsibility of the organisation.  When this happens the customer can easily become disengaged from the person they are talking to (the employee) but also organisation.  When customer has not received what they want and are being told that it was, at least in part, their fault, three things will cause the customer to disengage from the customer:

  • Not getting what they want in the first place
  • Being called out on how it was partly their fault that they didn’t get what they want
  • As a result of the above, not feeling valued or respected by the organisation.

However, where the employee can have empathy with the customer and listens to them effectively, they create an opportunity for the customer to take some responsibility for their part without denying the organisation’s part in the issue.  This also allows the exchange to become less confrontational and the outcome is that the customer feels more engaged with the employee and the organisation.  From the perspective of the employee they feel more engaged with and proud of the organisation.

Use conflicts with customers and employees as an opportunity to INCREASE engagement
Engaging with customers in this way does not only increase brand loyalty with the customer but it also increases engagement with the employee.  In a situation where the employee has a negative exchange with the customer, it affects their day and how they feel negatively.  Where they are in a situation that could have a bad outcome but are equipped to turn it around the employee is more likely to feel more confident in their capabilities and prouder of being part of an organisation that takes responsibility and solves problems.  More than that, in these situations where the organisation has anticipated that the employee might encounter a problem and equipped the employee with a solution, it is more likely that the employee with feel “thought about” or “cared for” by the organisation.

When we drill down on examples, a customer hitting an employee might seem an extreme event creating what seems like an irremediable situation.  However, where that employee is well looked after, given appropriate sick leave and support and changes are made in the organisation as a result, the employee can, in-fact, become more engaged with the organisation.  More importantly they can be driven to engineer change in the organisation to ensure equivalent situations do not arise as well as more generally.

Maximise on building transferrable conflict resolution skills
Equipping employees with skills to resolve conflicts with customers can be the baseline of any early conflict resolution process within an organisation.  It can also lead to a very strong culture of early conflict resolution throughout the organisation and include the benefits outlined above.

Applying comprehensive methods to deal with conflicts with customers can be a starting point that can then to dealing with conflicts with colleagues better.  It is easier for most people in the work environment to tolerate the upset of a customer who we don’t have a history with.  We can empathise with them and learn to listen to them.  We are also more likely to be able to understand and anticipate their needs as similar issues often arise in client facing roles.

When employees are well practiced in relating to customers in this way in conflictual or charged exchanges, it can then become easier for them to deal with colleagues more effectively.  Disagreements with colleagues can feel more heated.  This is because we may be in contact with that person often so that person is part of our day to day life.  Equally, our professional future may feel as if it depends on this person. However, as early conflict resolution skills are applied more regularly, and thoroughly with customers in the organisation, it becomes easier to use and apply them with colleagues.  When this happens, the culture and conversations that pervade the organisation perpetuate engagement and loyalty in the continuous cycle of listening and learning.

Author of The 7 Principles of Conflict Resolution & Mediator & Trainer at The Conflict Resolution Centre

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