Passing the feedback test

Conflict resolution is one of those huge opportunities that so often goes begging. Ask yourself how many times you’ve been in, or watched, this scenario unfold. A client is upset with something that’s happened or has voiced concerns about a brand or some element of the service. The immediate, almost instinctive, reaction is to jump to your own defense; to justify in your own mind why things have happened, and to look to foist that justification on the complainant.

You want to clear your name. Of course. No-one wants to be, or even to feel, like they are in the wrong.

Here’s the thing. As my colleague Janelle Barlow puts it so well in her book, “Complaint is a Gift”, if someone bothers to complain, they do so because they feel emotionally engaged enough with what is going on to interact. The opportunity here is that they are giving you feedback and they are looking for, and judging you by, your response.

Every complaint is a test – a test of your commitment to the relationship, a test of your ability to engage, a test of your people’s patience and self-control. And every response is a test too – of your ability to listen, to empathise, to be charming and engaging, and, above all, to represent and do justice to the brand.

I’m just off the phone and the local Trelise Cooper stockist has failed that test – perhaps not in their eyes, but certainly in mine – after concerns were raised about a service aspect. In response to feedback they had received, they did all the righteous justification stuff to a tee – the curt introduction, the “take control” tone, the barely suppressed anger, the disrespectful approach. I was none too impressed.

And designer Trelise Cooper herself will have no idea that this has happened. She wasn’t there – and I can’t imagine that anyone will have told her. In fact, she’s probably hard at work in her office working on ways to increase the value of her brand and her business.

Sometimes purchases don’t work out, sometimes systems don’t work or don’t work fast enough. There are probably very good reasons why, but for a customer they are actually irrelevant. The thing to keep reminding your frontline people is that logic doesn’t actually determine whether your brand passes or fails the feedback test. What counts is how the customer feels at the end of the call or the encounter.

Here’s the scary bit. Those encounters, those tests, can be incredibly short. Just seconds. And in that time, just a few sentences, a breath or two, some very long-lasting decisions can be made. For or against.

No-one’s asking or expecting the people who represent your brand to kow-tow or to blankly agree with every assertion made by every customer. But knowing how to actively listen to concerns, to calm their own emotions and to find ways to turn things round or at least part on amicable terms, agreeing to disagree, is a brand-critical skill.

Everything about communication today encourages impulsiveness, and everything about prudent brand management mandates just the opposite.

On this day, the temptation to have their say seems like it was just too much for the people in one store. I think they should have been focused on running the brand, not running their mouth. The sad, frustrating and sobering thing is the exchange could so easily have worked so powerfully the other way.