5 journalistic techniques to use when dealing with challenging customers

I was recently fortunate enough to attend a media & press training course, where a popular and well respected journalist helped us consider our words, mannerisms, responses and impact. It was, as you’d expect, eye-opening to say the least. Through the training, the journalist shared simple tips and tricks to be more effective in a press interview, and it struck me that some of these techniques are just as effective when dealing with challenging customer situations. Whenever dealing with a customer, the intention should always be to seek a mutually acceptable resolution, but at times, customers become angry, frustrated, illogical or downright belligerent. In order to avoid being caught in a cycle of disagreement with a customer, here’s 5 techniques used by journalists to get things back on track with challenging customer scenarios.

  • Enjoy the silence: When dealing with customers, in particular when dealing with customers via chat or phone, we need to be conscious of the gaps we leave between speaking. But we also need to be mindful that some people pause to reflect before speaking, so letting a silence exist is a good thing.  Journalists use our discomfort with pauses to lure us into filling the silence. In a customer scenario, this can result in babbling, or worse, commitment to do something that was not required. Respect the silence in a conversation, and don’t feel the need to fill it every time!
  • Control the conversation: One of my current mantras is “who is the expert on our product – us or the customer?” All too often, when a conversation becomes difficult, even the most customer empathetic colleagues can turn to jelly. The customer then takes control of the conversation, steering this way and that, becoming ever more frustrated. It’s up to us, as the expert of our products and services to guide and steer the conversation. Even when handling a complaint, we know the most expedient route to resolution. Watch any political debate, and you’ll see the best journalists seize control of the conversation, asking off-script questions and running rings around the politician. The politicians who succeed in getting the conversation under control know their stuff and stick to a clear message. So when a customer starts to drift, help the customer understand the outcome you both seek, and take control of the conversation again.
  • “Matching”: Within any customer conversation, there comes a point where you may be asked about a topic with which you are unfamiliar or not comfortable to discuss. Being put on the spot when dealing with a challenging customer shows in our body language and can be heard in our voice. Skilled interviewees use a technique called “matching” to deflect a journalist’s relentless questioning. This means focusing on a particular word or phrase made by the journalist, and using that to take control of the conversation. Back in the challenging customer scenario, “matching” is less confrontational than pushing back on the customer questions. With practice, it can flow very effectively, so that the customer is unaware that you steered the conversation away from a particular topic.
  • Hypothetical questions: “What if the world really WAS square?” “Why if Father Christmas got stuck in the chimney?” We probably associate such inane questions more with children, but when a customer becomes irritated or frustrated, it can result in them trying to explore all possible scenarios to achieve the outcome they have set in their mind. “What if I had chosen to fly earlier today?” “What if the credit card had only been stolen this morning, not last week?” When faced with difficult questions, we sometimes ask irrational hypothetical questions. Journalists will do the same, asking the interviewee to imagine a scenario in order to get that hot quote. The best advice on this topic is avoid answering anything that is not factual and accurate. Answering hypothetical questions will invariably lead you onto thin ice, so stick to reality!
  • “Bridging”: Finally, skilled interviewees steer a course through tricky topics to ensure they deliver their chosen key message using a technique called “bridging”. When asked a question by the journalist, the interviewee will acknowledge the question (and potentially answer it to some extent). They will then use a “bridging” phrase to link the question into the message they wish to deliver. Think about this in a customer scenario, “I want a refund even though I’m not entitled” demand from a customer could be acknowledged, bridged with a message around the policy to then deliver the message “here’s what we can do for you”. Bridging takes practice, so my suggestion is to pick difficult scenarios that arise frequently, then role play out, using the bridging techniques.

Clearly journalists have years of training and experience to master these techniques, but as with any new skill, practice makes perfect. I hope that you can use some of these techniques with your colleagues and customers to get better manage challenging situations and improve the experience for your customer and yourself.


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