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Worldly Wise

When Customers Complain, Give Up the Need to Be Right

By Janelle Barlow, Ph.D.

1496512212_fg8jnal46tI had an experience in a hotel this past month that emphasized, yet again, how we can learn a great deal about customer service simply by observing what happens around us.

This experience was a minor, even trivial, example, but it made me look carefully at how the strong human need to be “right” can result in something considerably less than excellent customer service. The need to be right is an emotional need. The need to be right is a worldly need. However, when service providers attempt to fulfill their own emotional needs, this can have a negative impact on the customer. Even when you are right, it is often felt by customers to be at their emotional expense. At this specific hotel, I needed to quickly reach someone to obtain information about where a meeting was going to be held. I knew several people registered in the hotel had this information. So, I called the front desk and asked to be connected to one of their guest rooms. I was transferred from the operator to the front desk, and only then to the person I needed to reach. However, he was not in his room. All of this took time that I didn’t have.

All I got for my effort was the opportunity to leave a voice mail. Then, because of the way this hotel’s phone system functioned, I had to go through the same lengthy routing to try another person to get the information. To save myself time, in case all my contacts were not in their rooms, I decided to go directly to the hotel lobby and ask for help at the front desk rather than be put through this multistep, slow process.

When I reached the front desk, all the clerks were occupied with guests. A bellman standing nearby nicely asked me if he could help. I explained my situation, and he told me I could reach the front desk directly and get connected to a guest room without having to go through the operator. I explained that when I called the front desk, the operator answered the line and only then was I connected to the front desk clerk who had to look up the guest room number before I could be connected. He told me that I was wrong, and then he went to the telephone at the front desk to “prove” that he could reach the front desk directly. He was a little red-faced when the telephone rang directly to the operator.

The need to be right, and then to prove it, is a deeply seated human need. Perhaps it emerges from our impulse to survive. However, the psychoanalyst Karen Horney identifies it as a “neurotic need.” We can survive very well, whether or not this need is met. Whoever was right in this particular situation was not a major issue. It wasn’t a life or death situation for the bellman or myself. But, as a customer service statement, it definitely set the wrong tone.

The important issue is that the bellman felt compelled to demonstrate that his picture of reality was correct and mine was not. For whatever reason, his need to show me he was right became the paramount statement being communicated.

How can service providers around the world overcome this very human, but neurotic, need to prove they are right?

First, they need to understand this tendency detracts from customers feeling positive about their experience. From a customer’s point of view, any attempt on the service provider’s part to prove themselves right will probably result in the customer feeling scolded because they were wrong.

Second, if service providers want to be able to control their need to be right, they must work on checking this human tendency in other parts of their lives. Expecting to be able to turn off the competitive feeling to prove you’re right exclusively at work is no doubt very difficult.

In the field of global payroll, professionals can often see the mistakes they’ve made when their customers show up—perhaps they have miscalculated, have the wrong documents, are citing the incorrect regulations, etc. Or perhaps they have been misinformed or are operating from instructions that are years old. It doesn’t matter. None of your clients come to you intentionally providing “wrong” information.

How can you wean yourself away from the need to make yourself right at the expensee of your client? Here are three simple recommendations:

  1. Notice every situation, whether at work or at home, where you feel the urge to prove you are right and someone else is wrong. Every time this happens, ask yourself how acting on this urge will impact your relationship with that person.
  2. Ask yourself whether it makes any difference as to who is right and who is wrong. It may be a complete non-issue. Focus on the benefits to be gained from seeing things from the customer’s point of view.
  3. If the situation is critical and the other person needs to be educated about something, ask yourself whether there is a constructive way to help the other person without demeaning them in the process.

In my situation, how could the bellman have better handled himself when he walked to the phone to gain “proof” he was correct? Here are some possibilities:

  • He could have refrained from challenging my information, and simply focused on helping me get my needs met.
  • He could have told me that this is not how the system is supposed to work, but that he appreciated learning about it so he could fix it. He might then have asked me if it was OK if he checked it himself.
  • At a minimum, if he so desperately needed to demonstrate to himself that his perception was correct, he could have waited until I left the area to check for himself.

The key point to remember is that even if you are correct, you win few battles when you defeat your clients—especially when they are complaining.