Is There a Drug Against Rage?

I’ve never really had too much sympathy for drug addicts. I’ve always assumed that their behaviour was selfish and self-indulgent, and that they should be prepared to live with whatever consequences overwhelm them.

Of course, one incident changed my mind completely. I felt excruciating pain in my abdomen one morning, and knew that it was a kidney stone passing through. My wife rushed me to hospital and my agony and screaming must have created some sympathy in the doctor, who immediately injected me with the analgesic drug called pethadine. I cannot adequately describe the incredible sense of relief that I could feel literally moving through my body. Within seconds a wonderful sense of relief overcame me, and quite embarrassed by my overreaction, I started to wonder whether the kidney stone pain had even existed.

This relief is probably similar to the rush that drug addicts feel, and while I hope I never have to endure this again, I have found a new understanding for drug addicts. And I cannot tell you how much I appreciated what that doctor did for me.

You may be asking, “What does this have to do with customer care?” I bet that just about everyone reading this column will have at some stage experienced the occasional rage that customers experience when they deal with businesses. Like kidney stones, bad things happen to good customers, and it makes them very demanding and unreasonable as they vent their fury. It stays clearly in their mind as they replay the incident over and over again, and they do the_ “I should have said…”_ thing. I know that I have certainly vowed never to return to the handful of businesses that have abused me, and in fact go out of my way to avoid them.

For example, I tend to travel a lot on airplanes, and when my clients want to book me on a flight I specifically ask them to not book me on our national airline, SAA, even if it means that I have to pay in extra to fly with others. Another example: I used to love the ribs at the Black Steer steak house chain, and after one particularly awful service experience at one of their stores, I have never been back. To this day I punish myself by refusing to return, and I mourn the loss of those ribs from my life.

Is there a cure for emotional pain that is as dramatically and instantaneously powerful as pethadine is for physical pain? I can’t guarantee it, but the closest we can get to quick emotional pain relief is empathy.

Empathy is what takes angry customers from ticked off to tickled, and it has a way to turn customer frowns upside down. It helps you to connect with customers completely and meaningfully, and gives them emotional acknowledgement and validation. They feel valued. It reassures them that you know what it’s like for them, and that you are on their side. Perhaps most important of all, customers who are emotional and upset are not really able to think straight, and to listen to you logic, so you first have to get them calm and rational.

Needless to say, asking or telling them to calm down will have the opposite effect. Empathy, and the resulting trust that is created, improves relationships and communication, reduces tensions and conflict, and helps to diffuse angry people.

So what is empathy? Most definitions say it is about “walking in the other person’s shoes.” However this definition doesn’t really help us to understand exactly what you need to say and to do, or how you need to behave, in order to be empathic. It is the skill of being able to let the other person know that you truly understand what it’s like for them, although you cannot say it in those words. The moment I tell you that I really know what it’s like for you, your retort will probably be “No you don’t!”

So how can we let them know that we know what it’s like for them? By telling them what you think they are feeling. You have to tell them using words that we use to describe human emotions, or at least analogies that do the same.

A good way to begin a sentence to show your empathy would be to say something like…

  • “If it was me, I’d be feeling really…,” or “If I was in your shoes, I would be…” and then complete the sentence by using words that describe the emotions that you guess they are feeling.
  • Alternatively, you can say, “It sounds like/ looks like/seems like you are really feeling….” And finish the sentence again.

So, for example…

  • “Wow, Sir, if it was me I would be feeling really humiliated and embarrassed.” Or…
  • “Ma’am, in your shoes I’d want to just come in here and strangle somebody.” Or…
  • “I can see how upset and angry you are about the way we treated your son.” Or…
  • “Sir, it sounds like you feel completely frustrated and hopeless with our business, and just wanna get out of here.” Or…
  • “I guess you feel that we are completely cold and out of touch with your needs, Madam.”

Of course, some customers will simply not respond to your willingness to help. (We like to call them The Customers from Hell.) And most customer complaints need more than just empathy…

  • You also need to respond immediately so that no time passes between the complaint and your commitment to fix it.
  • You need to apologise and make things better, first by getting to the bottom of the problem and then by fixing it with a specific plan of action. And you may need to offer some compensation for what they have lost.

But we have definitive proof that unhappy customers forgive, re-buy and recommend when their complaints are properly handled, and, in fact, they are even more loyal than customers who constantly enjoy their experiences. And empathy is right at the heart of it.

Like the pain-killer that the doctor injected into my vein, empathy can instantly relieve emotional pain and get those customers on your side without too much effort. It is probably the most powerful tool you have for developing better relationships.

So swallow your pride, put aside your ego, and do what you need to do to get this customer on your side. If you choose apathy over empathy, you will have to pay the price.

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