Many years ago, as a middle school teacher, I attended a week-long conflict resolution course with other educators. The class was designed to teach staff how to train a handful of students to be peer mediators in their schools. It was a great program, based on the nonviolent communication (NVC) strategies pioneered by Marshall Rosenberg. It was very effective in resolving peer-to-peer conflicts because it taught mediators ways to help both parties hear the other side and express their emotions without verbal violence—defensiveness, anger, insults, name-calling, blaming, bullying, right/wrong statements, bias, or criticism.

A few years later, when I was married and had children, I attended several NVC workshops aimed at improving relationships within families through better communication. During these classes I learned to hear my husband and kids more compassionately and less defensively (although it’s always a work in progress) and I learned to express my needs and feelings more effectively. Nonviolent communication isn’t easy and it takes practice (more or less depending on the family in which you were raised) but it is well worth the effort.

Although I learned NVC with specific objectives in mind, I know it has helped in other aspects of my life including relationships with extended family, employees, and business partners. As an added bonus, and one that I didn’t really expect, it helped me communicate with customers.

Apply nonviolent communication to business

Most nonviolent communication strategies are designed for working with people face-to-face, so it can be difficult to apply the principles to an email, voicemail, or social media post. Additionally, most NVC strategies are about expressing yourself, rather than responding to someone who has communicated in a violent (see above) way. With practice at applying the principles of NVC, however, it becomes easier to respond to online criticism and disappointed customers.

Nonviolent communication can be an effective customer service strategy for your business. In the era of social media and Yelp!, great customer service is more important than ever. As much as you want to defend yourself and your business in response to a criticism, a defensive or aggressive response can be taken out of context, distorted, and used against you. A compassionate response that offers resolution, however, can be the key to securing loyal, satisfied customers.

They might not be right, but what they have to say is still valid.

One thing we all know is that the customer is NOT always right. They don’t read directions, they order the wrong thing, they make assumptions, and they often have unrealistic expectations. It’s a fact. Let it go and open up to their issue.

Don’t respond immediately, but do respond quickly.

The terrible thing about email and social media is that some people are more rude in their online exchanges than they’d ever be in person.

The great thing about email and social media is that you don’t have to respond immediately, and you probably shouldn’t if someone has pushed your buttons. When you get an angry email or ugly comment, it’s almost always best to take some time to calm down, process, and filter your words. When you do that, you can employ a proven strategy for communicating that leaves both you and your customer feeling better.

On the other hand, social media has trained us to receive immediate feedback, so it is best to respond in a timely manner.

Put on your most empathic listening ears.

Try to hear the customer from an objective, compassionate point of view.

  • Think to yourself, “This isn’t about me. This is about another human who is angry, frustrated, surprised, or disappointed.”
  • Try to recall a situation in which you’ve felt the same way.
  • Remember that you have no idea what other challenges this person is facing.
  • Focus on what you can learn from this feedback to improve your business.

Principle #1: Observation.

Customers can send emails, social media comments, or voicemails that might be ranty, might be passive aggressive, or might be brutally to the point. Your job is to boil it down as succinctly as possible and restate that back to the customer to let them know that you understand the problem.

  1. “I hear you saying you’re disappointed with my instructions.”
  2. “I understand that you’ve received the wrong product.”
  3. “I can tell you’re frustrated with our delivery time.”

You don’t have to admit defeat or come up with false promises—just understand and restate the complaint.

Principle #2: Feelings.

When you’re communicating with connected people in your life face-to-face, the Feelings Principle is all about communicating the emotion you are feeling, or trying to understand the emotion the person you’re in conflict with is feeling.

In online exchanges with customers, this can be translated into doing your best at emotionally empathizing:

  • “I know how frustrating it is to receive the wrong product.”
  • “I can relate to that.”
  • “I recently waited for weeks for my delivery, so I feel your pain.”

Principle #3: Needs.

This is the principle in which most communication falls apart and evokes the most defensive reactions, so watch out! People who don’t have NVC skills are likely to express their needs as criticism or anger. Try to get past the language and look for the message.

  • “I know you need this product quickly.”
  • “I understand that you don’t have a printer.”
  • “I get that you’re not satisfied with our service.”

Principle #4: Requests.

This is all about concrete actions needed to resolve the needs stated in the previous principle.

  • “I’ll reship your order tomorrow.”
  • “I’m willing to send you a different product.”
  • “I’ll help you through this.’

These are a few effective responses for reasonable and straight-to-the point customers. But as we all know, some people complain without communicating what they want as a resolution. The very, very, very best suggestion I received from a NVC educator Is saying:

  • “What can we do to make it right?”

The thing about this strategy is that it forces the customer to look beyond their frustration and complaints to suggest a concrete solution. Sometimes this will be an outrageous request, but more often the respect and empathy they garner from this simple question will allow them to see both sides and propose a reasonable solution. Either way, be prepared to accept it, act on it, and move on.

Here are a few examples of responding to customers with NVC priciples in mind: 

Hi Shannon. I received your voicemail and understand that you received the wrong fabric. I’m very sorry about that–I can relate to how frustrating it is to be looking forward to receiving one thing, then you get something completely different.  I know you need the fabric right away, so I’ll send it out first thing in the morning with a prepaid envelope for you to mail the other fabric back to me. Is that a solution that will work for you?
Observe and acknowledge the problem.
Empathize with their feelings.
Acknowledge their needs.
Respond to or draw out their request.

I’m sorry you thought you were going to get a paper pattern, but you received a PDF. That must have been disappointing. I’ll try to make it more clear on my website that the pattern is digital. In the meantime, would you like to try the PDF? I have a support video for putting the pattern together here if you need help, plus you can email me if you have questions. Please let me know how you’d like to proceed.

Observe and acknowledge the problem.
Empathize with their feelings.
Acknowledge their needs.
Respond to or draw out their request.

I understand that you were surprised by the automatic charge to your account for your subscription renewal. I know how difficult it is to budget when a charge comes through that you weren’t prepared for. I hope you can understand that we believe strongly in our community and want to make it as easy as possible for our members to renew, which is why we have the auto-renewal in place. We’d love to keep you as a member. Is there anything I can do that would convince you to stick with us?

Observe and acknowledge the problem.
Empathize with their feelings.
Acknowledge their needs.
Respond to or draw out their request.

We’d like to hear from you. What challenges have you faced from customers? Do you have questions about replying to customers or social media comments? Do you have suggestions for improving communication with upset customers? Please comment!

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