It's Not What You Say; It's How You Say It

NOTE: This is cross-posted from a blog I maintained while I was the VP of Customer Experience at a previous company.

The other day, I was catching up with one of my dearest friends, Shannon. We met in graduate school, where we spent many hours together taking classes, teaching classes, tutoring in the Writing Center, studying, and meeting with students in a shared office that was adorned with self-made construction paper awards and a bobble-head Jesus whose head only bobbled "no." It was an intense, vibrant, and fun environment, the perfect circumstances under which to make a lifelong friend.

Shannon is brilliant. She epitomizes my favorite kind of person to be around: someone who challenges and inspires me. After we completed our Master's degrees, she went on to earn her PhD (and several awards and recognitions to boot) at Michigan State University. She's hella amazing, and I want to be like her when I grow up.

Shannon and I have many things in common that have nurtured our friendship over the years, and one of our latest is homeownership. She and her husband closed on their new home on the same day that I closed on mine. As such, we have enjoyed sharing stories about the adventures that we're encountering as new homeowners. Shannon's husband is a very talented carpenter, and they've beautifully renovated their house. As part of their renovation, they installed a new gas stove (hubba hubba). As Shannon began baking in her new oven, however, she noticed that the thermometer inside of it didn't maintain the temperature that she set the oven to. Given that they just bought this oven and it's still under warranty, she called the store to have the oven serviced.

Before long, the oven repair person paid Shannon a visit. As she tells it, the visit did not go very well. He didn't listen to her concerns. Instead, he talked over her and condescended to her his mansplanation of "how stoves work." She, of course, is a highly intelligent and educated person with a general understanding of how stoves work. He told her that stoves don't maintain a constant temperature and there was nothing wrong with her stove. After he left, unsurprisingly, she was not satisfied. Her oven thermometer fluctuated greatly when she used it. She felt that, because he hadn't listened to her, there was no basis of understanding from which he could begin to solve the problem, let alone solve it satisfactorily. So, not interested in running the risk of having a broken stove, Shannon called the store again and, this time, asked for a different repair person. The store obliged and sent a different employee.

This appointment, Shannon says, went much better. This repair person was understanding. He listened to her and examined her stove. He then also explained to Shannon the inner-workings of the stove but in a way that was instructional and constructive rather than demeaning. More importantly, he explained that no gas oven maintains a consistent temperature at all times, because the flame increases and decreases, similar to a furnace kicking on and off according to its thermostat setting. However, he also recognized that she was seeing such intensely-changing readings on her oven thermometer due to its close proximity to the flame, which wasn't clearly visible. As a solution, he suggested that she move the thermometer to the center of the oven for more accurate readings of the oven's overall temperature. Additionally, he explained that fluctuations in temperature are very normal for gas ovens and, therefore, any recipes she might use were all written with the understanding that this is how gas ovens work in the U.S. He assuaged her concerns, taught her something new, and gave her a solution to improve her daily experience with the oven.

Although this conversation came about as Shannon and I were catching up on adulthood, homeownership, and the unexpected repairs that we've encountered, her experience resonated with me from a customer care perspective. We say and hear this all the time: Customers just want to feel heard. But what really stood out to me in this situation was that it was the way in which the first repair person spoke to Shannon that made her feel unheard. It wasn't that he didn't listen to her problem, because in essence, the end result was very similar to what the second person did. However, listening to her was not the same as hearing her, and perhaps most notably, telling her was not the same as teaching her. As the old adage goes, it's not what the second repair person said; it's how he said it that made her feel heard and assured. Teaching is a participatory experience, and if anyone knows that, it's Shannon, who is a phenomenal teacher. Because the first repair person didn't engage her in the teaching process, she didn't learn what she needed to learn from him.

"It was the way in which the first repair person spoke to Shannon that made her feel unheard."

I've been pondering Shannon's experience for a bit. What can we, as customer experience professionals, do to engage our customers as we teach them—particularly when the media that we use to communicate often limit our ability to have natural conversation? How do we make it clear that we heard our customers when we reply to them with information about our products?

One of the ways I try to do this is to ensure that, as I give users instructions about how to do something, I make those instructions specific to their personal circumstances. For example, if a user told me that she needed to track her son's flight in the flight-tracking app that I supported, I would tailor my "how to track a flight" instructions to reference her son's flight specifically. I would also tell her that I know how important it is to know the status of our loved ones' travels and whether they've landed safely at their destinations. This is, of course, empathy, but it also shows that I heard her—not only the fact that she didn't understand how to add a flight in our app but that being able to track her son's travel is hugely important to her sense of security. That's ultimately the problem that I have to solve in this situation: How do I help my customer rest assured, knowing her son's whereabouts as he soars through the sky at 32,000 feet? How do I communicate with her in a way that shows that I know our conversation is about much more than a four-step procedure on how to add a flight to a flight-tracking app? 

So now I look to you for your expertise. What have you learned in your customer care experiences? What other methods should we be employing? How else can we, in (often asynchronous) communication with our customers, engage them in the teaching process (rather than just talk at them) and ensure that they feel heard? How do we say the things that our customers need to hear in order for them to feel heard?