Last Sunday, while driving back from the lake house, I got into a car accident.

Accidents are always stressful. The adrenaline dump triggers our biological fight or flight response. To make matters worse, I had my five-year-old Edison and two-year-old Maxx Marley in the car while my wife was still at the lake. It was a three-car accident and despite our local no-fault insurance rules, the other drivers seemed intent to yell and scream and carry on.

I'm thankful no one was hurt, and grateful that the damage (other than my pride) was limited to the cars. All my stress disappeared when I arrived at the body shop and met Ish. 

Ish is the receptionist at the body shop and thus the first person stressed out customers engage with. He deployed some legendary customer service--I use the term intentionally, as I saw an industry award on the wall congratulating the body shop for "legendary" customer service. Within minutes I was calm, collected and able to make better decisions.

Now that I've had a chance to think about it, I've realized there were five elements to Ish's approach that made it so effective:

Keys to Legendary Customer Service

  1. Empathy. Ish's first question was "how are kids?" This helped remind me that no one was hurt, and that was most important. It also made me feel like Ish genuinely cared for me and my family as human beings, not just people who were about to give him business.
  2. Calm. No matter the chaos around him. Ish stayed calm. His tone was always relaxed and confident. I immediately got the sense that I was in the right place, and that Ish's team knew how to deal with my issues.
  3. Respect. Notwithstanding how agitated and demanding I was when I came in. Ish showed me nothing but respect. He only used my formal titles, calling me "Dr. Wise" or "Professor Wise." No matter how long I rambled, he never interrupted.
  4. Active listening. Active listening is a communication technique that is used in counseling, training, and conflict resolution. It requires that the listener fully concentrate, understand, respond and then remember what is being said. Ish made me feel heard, which built both respect and empathy.
  5. Planning. Ish deals with this issue every day. He's prepared, and has processes in place to help. After declaring the car unsafe to drive, he immediately got on the phone with a rental company they worked with and hand them deliver me a rental SUV. His team helped me transfer and install the car seats for the kids. To me, this was incredible. To Ish, this was simply good planning.

Empower the Frontline

These five keys are important for you to know as a business owner. It's even more important that your front line staff knows, but is trained and incentivized to provide extraordinary customer service. According to Dealing with Difficult People, a report from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, the three best ways to empower your front line staff to deal with customers in crisis are:

  • Give employees the tools they need. When it comes to handling stressful situations at work, employees need the authority, guidance, and skills they need to make appropriate decisions.
  • Increase employee satisfaction. Customer dissatisfaction can be a natural outgrowth of employee dissatisfaction with their work. 
  • Teach employees conflict resolution skills. When it comes to learning how to deal with "difficult" customers, customer service personnel are often taught to adhere to simple rules of thumb, such as "The customer is always right." But when dealing with difficult customers, employees need more than just platitudes; they need tools.  Conflict resolution training can be a powerful means of enabling employees to defuse rather than escalate confrontations with angry or otherwise difficult-seeming customers.

American Express reports that 55 percent of U.S. consumers who planned on making a business transaction, but didn't, decided not to because they experienced poor customer service. That's a lot of missed revenue.

It also shows the dire need for increased training and empowerment of front line staff. After all the only thing worse that not making a sale is not making a sale because of your team's poor customer service.