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Customer Service: The Problem Isn’t Always the Problem

Once years ago, a well-dressed professional barged into my office, ranting and raving, with spittle coming out of her mouth. Her eyes showed rage. I clarified the obvious by saying, “I can see you are upset. Please let me give you a minute to collect yourself.” Then, I listened.

She told me her daughter’s bus was on time, but her daughter never made it on board. Just before the bus arrived at their house, her daughter had soiled her dress and it was picture day. Grandma had dementia and wandered away, it was the first day of the mom’s new job and her husband announced he was leaving her.

Have you heard the saying, “The problem isn’t always the problem?”

We all receive complaints from parents, school administrators and drivers. What should we be asking about why the person calling is concerned? It may not be about the bus ride or whatever the stated reason is. What could happen if you approached the concern with the intention of learning what the real issue is behind the volatility and the emotion? If you listen correctly, you might even have a new best friend by the end of the conversation.

Do you remember the first work phone call you took from an upset person? What went through your mind? In looking back to one of my first experiences, I remember a person who was not very willing to listen to what I had to share. Every time I tried to speak, they seemed to interrupt, correct or criticize.

If you are like me, I would rather not take those difficult phone calls, to begin with. The thought may upset your stomach, make your palms sweat or cause you to procrastinate. How do you get past this anxiety?

These experiences led me on a journey of self-exploration and learning to discover various ways to help others. It helped me move past worrying about justifying my actions, or the actions of my drivers.

Finding Common Ground

We must invest in ourselves and find resources to help us grow. Read books, find a mentor, and attend state and national conferences. Have a plan for dealing with difficult concerns. It is important to find common ground with the other person. Listening closely may discover the real problem behind their emotions. If you can address a problem early through understanding and empathy, you can de-escalate the situation.

If someone leaves a message, call back, and do so within a reasonable time period of 24 to 48 hours. Try and find out the basis for their concern prior to returning the message. Decide who in your department can best answer the questions. You do not want the angered customer feeling like they are getting the run around by being passed from one person to the next.

Gather as much information as you can during the call. Take notes. Introduce yourself. Begin your conversation with a question. “How can I help you today?” “What is the concern?” “I understand you had something you would like me to know?” Your goal is to listen and to reach an understanding.

Be patient and let them vent. If they are abusive or insulting towards you, let them know the behavior is unacceptable and you will hang up if they continue. That said, remain calm with an even tone of voice. Inside you may not feel calm. Hang in there. The more relaxed you are able to remain, the more they will calm down, talk and get to the heart of the matter.

If they raise their voice, respond with a lower volume. Do not let your emotions show. It helps to keep your face neutral. Do not take a position. You are listening. Take notes. List the date, time, their name and an overview of the concern. If things go badly, these notes will be your only, vital memory to give your attorneys.

During the conversation, remember to occasionally use their name. Ask clarifying questions. Establishing empathy is not only important, but it is also crucial. Using statements like, “If that happened to me, I too would be upset.” As they run through their course of emotions, understand they may repeat themselves several times. If you need time to investigate, ask their permission for you to call them back. Share or coordinate a specific time you will be calling, that same day or the next. Ask them to please call you if they have not heard from you by a certain time. Again, give them your name and direct phone number.

When you do speak with them again, follow your plan of listening, establishing empathy, asking questions, investigating, following up, and providing results or an outcome. Do not react with emotions, do not justify your position and do not offer excuses. Stating the law or district policy may escalate the person. Once you have an understanding, move promptly to investigate, resolve or take action.

The Benefits of Taking Time to Listen

Recently, I was blessed with taking the two-day course, “Outward Mindset,” that was taught by the Arbinger Institute. During one of the sessions, a police officer shared a personal experience. His SWAT team had the highest arrest, conviction and complaint record. While successful at its core mission, the department was spending a great deal of money on legal fees to defend its actions.

His story of the difference the training made was incredible. The change occurred during a drug bust. His team went to a house, broke down the door and sat all the occupants on the floor. One man refused. In the past, an officer would have forced the guy to the floor by any means necessary.

But after attending the training, the officer asked why he was refusing to sit. The man explained he had just had knee surgery. Screws inserted into his knee, as well as a brace he wore, would not allow him to bend over without causing severe damage. So, the officer had the guy face the wall.

What a learning moment. The officer stopped his routine long enough to ask a question and listen to the explanation. This moment of listening allowed him to pursue a different (more appropriate) course of action.

While this exchange was going on in the living room, women and babies were crying elsewhere in the house. In scanning the room, the team realized that one of the officers was unaccounted for. Immediately, the team looked for their partner, only to find him in the kitchen preparing milk bottles for the babies. He brought out the bottles, and within moments, the mothers viewed the SWAT team in a completely different light, because of that one officer’s empathy.

What does all of this have to do with your situation in the transportation department? First and foremost, you should never stop learning. Continuously improve yourself. Number two: Application. Number three: adjust and adapt. Number four is learn empathy, develop respect and think outwardly. Then, number five is the last step: Take action.


Editor’s Note: Michael Shields is the director of transportation for Salem-Kaiser School District in Oregon and is a member of STN’s editorial advisory board. He is also a past-president of the Oregon Pupil Transportation Association and a former conference co-chair for the STN EXPO Reno.


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