Up Front Communication

Helping people and businesses through the art of communication

Honey and vinegar: preferred consumer advocacy tactics

(Forgive me a moment while I brush the dust off my keyboard)

I’m a bit of a Jekyll-and-Hyde when it comes to how I gear up for a bit of advocacy.  When I’m around my friends or family and telling them about the Thing That Annoyed Me, and how I will be standing up for myself, I’m all bluster.  It really can get quite ridiculous; the more irritated I am about a situation, the more verbose I become.  I rant and rave and pull out every ten-dollar polysyllabic word in my arsenal.  With sweeps of my arm and flashes of my eyes, I illustrate the full, colourful degree of my vexation.

This is a good tactic for me.  Not only does it let me get all my emotion out, it also allows me to puff up my chest and get nicely wound up.  Without a good winding up, I may back out of my plan to stick up for myself and my expectations.  This terrifies my mother, who often worries that my standard approach to lodging complaints is to march in, eyes and guns a blazin’, and rain holy hell on the first customer service agent I encounter.

Thankfully, Mom’s notion of my style of lodging complaints is false.  God forbid I actually go out-of-doors and attempt to confront the irksome party while in full rant mode.  That would be disastrous and would more likely result in me being carted away to the asylum than refunded my money.  I am a firm believer that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and while a story of someone standing their ground and demanding satisfaction is entertaining, a calm demeanour and helpful attitude is much more effective.

The problem with the “stick it to ’em” approach is that it makes the person on the other side of the counter quite defensive.  It doesn’t matter if the defensiveness is borne out of fear or irritation – either way, it makes that person less willing to help you.  But applying honey to your tone and words does not mean simpering or becoming a patronizing twit.  Rather, it involves taking the attitude that your feedback is helpful and the person you are speaking to wants you to be happy and is willing to cultivate goodwill.

The key is to go in without fear of reprimand but also without fomenting anger.  By all means, you can be annoyed; a bit (note: a bit) of irritation in your voice can help get your point across.  Instead of intending on going in there and making the target of your complaint see things your way, go in with the intention of helping that person improve their service for their customers.  This can be difficult to do when you feel wronged or ripped off, as I had in my most recent experience.

In order to keep my cool, I first get very clear about what it is I am complaining about.  Write the situation down, focus on the particulars that you are angry or upset about, and stick to those points.  This falls under my advice to always keep your main point at the top of your mind in any conversation.  If you find yourself getting off track or expanding your complaint to tangentially related or unrelated things, focus back on the thing that initially prompted your ire.


Next, make the following assumption:  The person I am/will be speaking to does not know about or is not directly responsible for my lousy experience.  They are simply the person who gets saddled with my complaint.

This assumption helps me to depersonalize the encounter.  Recall how I’ve spoken about needing to depersonalize high-emotion interactions so that you do not become angry or defensive?  Well, this is the same idea only you are doing the depersonalization for the customer service rep.  You are not angry at them, per say, you are angry at the situation that brought you here.  If you are complaining about a specific individual and have the option to deal with someone other than them, for Pete’s sake, exercise that option and talk to someone else.  This will redirect your anger away from the person you are complaining to.

Third, know what action the person you are complaining to can make to satisfy you as a customer, and ask directly for that action.  The person you are speaking to should not have to magically divine your heart’s desire.  They don’t necessarily know if you want a refund, or exchange, or additional services.  Being straight forward about what you want them to do makes it significantly easier for them to respond to your complaint as quickly and efficiently as possible. Ask for what you want.*

And finally, remember to breathe and relax.  It always comes back to that, doesn’t it?  Well, my constant harping about the power of breath and relaxation absolutely applies here.  There is a reason why we describe people as “huffing and puffing” when they are worked up.  If you are about to initiate a confrontation about a lousy customer service experience, give yourself a second to breathe, focus, and go in with a more neutral mindset.  It really does do wonders.



*Of course, you might not get what you want, but at least the person you are complaining to will know what will appease you right off the bat.

Short term revenue

During today’s indulgence in YouTube-hosted business advice, I received an excellent bit of wisdom from the ever-charming Marie Forleo.  She stated that we should not be afraid to sacrifice “short term revenue for long term gains.”

This advice resonates when it comes to communicating with other people.  So often, we are focused on the short-term “revenue” – which I’ll call “wins” – in our conversations and interactions.  These wins are those little quips, digs, or snappy comments that give us the feeling that we’ve gained a rung on the argumentative ladder.  These are intoxicating moments where we think “gotcha!”  Maybe the dig made the other person acquiesce to our point of view.  Maybe the other person didn’t say much at all after that and the argument, debate, or conversation stopped.

Behold, the short-term win!  But did you actually win, and if so, what was it you gained?

Did the dig, the quip, the gotcha moment cause the other person to understand your point or your side?  Did it help drive you towards the goal of the conversation or increase your understanding of the topic at hand?  Or did it just cause the conversation to end?

Often, our communication goals can be rather long-term.  Sometimes, the thing we hope to resolve in a short encounter actually takes a considerable amount of time to work through.  In the real world, productive arguments are less like a political leadership debate and more like an ongoing negotiation.  You give a little, you get a little, and as the negotiation pans out, everyone usually comes out ahead.  That is the long-term gain.

The difficulty here is that the negotiation approach inherently takes time, compromise, and the suspension of our ego.  We want to win; it feels so damn good to win!  But it is very likely that the short-term win created a new tense dynamic in the conversation that actually derails your end goal.

When hashing out differences with someone else, keep things in perspective.  Do you want to harangue them into a corner, shame them into silence, to belittle them into admitting you are right?  Or would you rather get them to see where you are coming from, explain their own position, and then have the two of you come out of the encounter with a better solution – or at least a richer understanding of the issue?

I’m willing to bet it’s the latter.