“Are you talking to me?”

A few years ago, I was contracted by a client to conduct some sales training in Hong Kong. Getting there involved flying from Toronto to San Francisco via Air Canada, and then, after a 4-hour layover, going on to Hong Kong with Singapore Airlines. The 4-hour layover wasn’t going to be so bad since I was flying Business Class, and had access to the Singapore Airlines airport lounge.

I made my way to the lounge, and was greeted by a charming lady with a wonderful smile.

“Welcome to Singapore Airlines, Mr. Pick. Please help yourself to the refreshments. My name is Linda, and if there’s anything else you need, please let me know.”

I thanked her and went into the lounge. There were all of four people in there, so I had the run of the place for a while. As the time drew closer to my flight, though, the lounge was filling up, and by the time I left, there must have been about 150 people in there.

As I passed the reception desk, Linda was talking to another passenger, but after I had made my way a few steps past her, I heard her say: “Thank you for using our lounge, Mr. Pick, and have a wonderful flight.”

I took another couple of steps before it dawned on me. She had just called me by name. I stopped in my tracks and headed back to the reception desk.

“Excuse me – are you talking to me? Did you just call me by name?”

With a worried look, she asked: “Why? Did I get it wrong?”

“No. In fact you got it right.”

“Oh thank goodness,” she said with a relieved smile.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “There must be over a hundred people in there. Do you remember all of their names?”

Linda looked down and checked her list.

“A hundred and thirty seven to be exact – actually a hundred and thirty six now that you’re leaving. And yes, I try to remember all of their names.” She leaned forward conspiratorially and whispered: “Of course, I don’t get them all. Some of them I can’t even pronounce, but I do try and remember them all.”

“That’s remarkable,” I exclaimed. And even though I thought I knew the answer, I asked anyway: “Do you mind me asking why?”

“Oh – because it makes them feel good,” she replied, with a look that said “Why else would I do it?”

And it did. I felt like a king at that point – or at the very least, a prince!

“And how does it make you feel, Linda?” I asked.

“Wonderful. Who wouldn’t want to make other people feel good? Not everyone notices or cares, but when someone does, like you, I feel very proud to be of service.”

“That’s fantastic,” I said over my shoulder as I turned to walk away. “It’s a pleasure to have met you, Linda.”

“You too, Mr. Smith.”

I looked back at her in surprise, but she had a huge grin on her face. “Got you! Have a great flight, Mr. Pick.”

Remembering a person’s name is one of the ultimate compliments you can pay to them, and I walked away with an extra spring in my step and a warm feeling inside from my encounter with this remarkable person.

The moral to this story is that customers are not just looking for solutions to their needs; they are also looking to feel good about their experience in doing business with you. Do whatever you can to help people feel good about doing business with you, and you will generate more loyal and satisfied customers.

Try it – it works!

By the way, Hong Kong was amazing. I have to admit I was not looking forward to the trip. I’d heard the place was hot, humid, and crowded. My previous experience of Chinese food was of the Sweet and Sour Chicken Balls variety, and being a finicky eater, I was certain I would not like the food. A couple of weeks before the trip, I was whining about it to my family. My daughter, who was 13 at the time, looked at me and said:

“You know what, Dad? You’re looking at this trip all wrong. You should look at it as an adventure, not a chore. How lucky are you? You get to travel to amazing places, meet lots of different and interesting people, and you get paid for it!”

She was right, of course (smart girl, my daughter!). From that moment forward, I resolved to enjoy the experience as much as I possibly could. It was mind-blowing. Hong Kong is an incredible place, the people were the most hospitable I have met anywhere in the world, the food was fantastic, and the training was a resounding success. Definitely one of my most memorable trips, business or pleasure.

Customers don’t want to hear: “I don’t know….”

Here’s a technique to help you deal more effectively with customer enquiries – especially from upset customers.

After facilitating a Customer Service Excellence program for the post-sales technical support team of a major computer manufacturer, I was conducting side-by-side phone coaching with one of the support technicians (we’ll call him John – names have been changed to protect the innocent!). John received a call from a customer who was obviously on a speaker phone. The following dialogue took place:

“This is John – how may I help you today?”

“Yeah – we’d like to know if such-and-such can be used with a whatsit?”

“Hmm. I don’t know, but if you’ll give me a couple of minutes I think I know where to find the answer. Do you mind holding?”

With a somewhat cynical tone, the customer replied: “No – I guess not.”

John started to take his headphones off so he could go and find the answer. As he did that, we realized he had forgotten to actually place the customer on hold. The customer didn’t know they weren’t on hold either, and were oblivious to the fact that John could still hear them.  We heard the following exchange between the customer and another person in his office:

“Oh great – this guy doesn’t know (bleeping) squat.”

“Wonderful. Bleep, bleep.”

John looked at me and mouthed: “What should I do?”

“Put them on hold.” I mouthed back.

John did so, and then asked me how to proceed. I told him this was the perfect situation to show some empathy:

Ignore their remarks – it’s not personal. They’re obviously upset and need an answer as soon as possible. Do you know where to find the answer?”

“I think so.”

“Okay – just go and get it as quickly as you can and come back and give it to them.”

John was gone about 45 seconds, and came back waving a piece of paper with the answer on it. After re-connecting with the customer, he said:

“Okay – I’m back. You were right. I didn’t know squat about this before. But I do now and I have your answer.”  With that, he paused. (Note: This is not the kind of behaviour we teach in our programs, but given the circumstances, I thought this was a novel and somewhat amusing way of dealing with the situation.)

After a couple of seconds of stunned silence on the other end, the customer sheepishly asked:

“Do you think we could have it, please?”

“Of course,” John replied, and then proceeded to relay the answer to the customer. The customer then said:

“Thank you very much. Obviously you overheard us talking, and we’re sorry we were rude. We appreciate the help.”

“No problem – I was glad to help. Let me give you my direct line in case you have any other questions…..”

And with that, the call concluded.

There are a couple of lessons to be learned here:

1. Customers can get upset when they don’t receive instant answers to their questions. That doesn’t excuse their rudeness, but we need to show empathy towards customers who have contacted us to solve a problem. Don’t take their anger personally (unless of course you caused the problem in the first place!). If necessary, use the ANGRY process described in a previous blog to defuse customer anger.

2. Customers don’t want to hear “I don’t know….”  They are coming to us for our expertise, not to hear that we don’t know the answer to their problem.  Saying: “I don’t know…” not only undermines your credibility, but also, if they are already angry, it is only likely to exasperate the situation, and elevate that anger.

You do, of course, need to be honest with customers. However, as my lawyer once told me, you should never lie, but there are a hundred ways of telling the truth. An alternative to the “I don’t know…” approach is to let the customer know that you will help them and provide the right answer, even if it takes a little time. We have found the following to be extremely effective in helping customers stay calm while explaining they have to wait for their answer:

“I want to make sure you’re getting the right information. Can you give me just two minutes to double check that, and I’ll be right back with your answer?”

Phrasing it this way does not undermine your credibility, and the customer is re-assured that they are going to get the right information. They are less likely to be angry, and will be more tolerant of being placed on hold to wait for their answer. Try it – it works!

Applying empathy to “defuse” angry customers

When we first established Delaine Consulting, it occurred to me that the word Delaine had seven letters in it. This was perfect for a 1-800- type toll-free line, so I decided to look into it and set one up. The first thing I had to do was to see if the number was available. I decided to call the phone company to enquire as to the availability of the number. I should have done the smart thing and just dialed 1-800-DELAINE to see if anybody answered, but instead I called the phone company. Given what transpired, this initially seemed like a huge mistake, but what came out of it was an excellent technique for defusing angry customers. I have since shared this with thousands of Customer Service Representatives who have used it to help them successfully resolve customer issues and enhance customer satisfaction.

Back in those days, companies still had live telephone receptionists to field incoming calls. I asked the receptionist to connect me with someone who could tell me if a particular 1-800 number was available for use. After being told I would be transferred to the appropriate department, there was a click and a pause before someone picked up the call.

“Yes – can I help you?”

“Good Morning. I wonder if you could tell me if 1-800-DELAINE is an available number, please?”

“Hmm – I don’t know why they put you through to me. That’s not our department. Hold on – I’ll transfer you.” Before I could say anything else, there was a click and I was en route to another department.

“Good Morning. I wonder if you could tell me if 1-800-DELAINE is available as a number?” I asked again of the new person who picked up. This was met with basically the same answer as the first time, and before I knew it I was on hold waiting for another department to answer.

When the next person picked up, we went through exactly the same routine. Lo and behold, the end result was yet another transfer. And, just like the man in Monty Python’s “Do you play cricket” sketch who kept getting hit repeatedly in the head with a cricket ball: Of course, I was getting used to it by then. But that didn’t make it any less frustrating, and I was becoming angrier by the second. I remembered a study by Anderson Consulting of what happens to a customer’s frame of mind when they are transferred multiple times in order to get an issue resolved. They found that customer satisfaction is diminished by 20% with each transfer. Since I had now been transferred four times, my customer satisfaction was rapidly approaching zero!

And then I reached Betty.

“This is Betty, how can I help you today?”


“Oh my dear, you sound so upset.”


“Oh my goodness! No wonder you’re upset. I don’t blame you for being angry – I would be too! Why don’t you tell me what you want to know and I’ll see what I can do to help you – and I promise I won’t transfer you.”

Well – that sure knocked the fight out of me. How can you argue with someone who’s validating how you are feeling and offering to help? I immediately began to calm down and started to feel more rational again.

“Betty – I’m just trying to find out if a 1-800 number is available,” I sighed.

“Is that all? And they got you all upset over that? I’m so sorry we made you feel that way. What’s the number you’re looking for?”

I repeated the number and then Betty said: “1-800-DELAINE? Okay, let me find out. Actually, I will have to put you on hold first. You’re going to laugh – or maybe not – but that’s not my department. But I’m not going to transfer you and I will get an answer for you.”

I didn’t actually laugh, but I did feel a whole lot better, and I at last had confidence I was going to get an answer one way or the other. About a minute later Betty was back.

“After all that, I have to tell you the number has already been taken. I’m so sorry about that. Is there another number you’d like me to check?”

There wasn’t, so I thanked Betty for her help, and was about to hang up when she said:

“Listen. Let me give you my direct number. If you ever have to call us again for anything, you make sure you call me, and I’ll make sure you get the help you need.”

With that we said our goodbyes. I never did get a 1-800 number, and I didn’t have any reason to call the phone company again, but if I did, you can be sure I would have called Betty!

The next time you are dealing with an emotional customer, take a leaf out of Betty’s book and implement her process for defusing the anger:

Empathize with the customer and show you understand how they feel.

Validate their emotion to calm the customer, and show them that you are their ally not their enemy.

Apologize – not for the problem, but for the fact that the company made you feel that way.

Take personal command of the situation and do everything you can to ensure the issue is resolved.

Give them your contact information in case they need to be in touch again.

Using this process you will ensure that you defuse customer anger so that you can resolve their problem, while actually boosting customer satisfaction and ensuring long term loyalty. Try it – it works!