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A customer service guide to conflict resolution

Proven tactics for winning over unhappy customers.

By Amanda Roosa, Content Marketing Manager

Published January 19, 2021
Last updated January 20, 2021

Most people would rather live a life free of conflict than spend their days full of conflict resolution scenarios. But anyone in customer service can tell you conflict is an inevitable part of working with people.

Fortunately, conflict resolution doesn't have to be a dreaded ordeal to work through.

"Conflict brings out truth, creativity, and resolution," wrote veteran hostage negotiator and conflict management expert Chris Voss in his 2016 book, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It.

Voss and other conflict resolution experts see conflict as a valuable opportunity to uncover crucial information. When done well, conflict resolution can rescue business relationships and build trust with customers. To adopt a healthy (and profitable) approach to conflict resolution, all you need are the right mindset and tactics.

Why conflict happens—and what it means for your business

Conflict occurs when two or more parties can't agree on a course of action. Usually, it's because they have a difference in perspectives, values, or opinions. Failing to resolve conflicts with customers can have a negative impact on retention, loyalty, and brand awareness.

According to the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2020, nearly half of customers say they would switch to a competitor after just one bad experience. In the case of more than one bad experience, that number snowballs to 80%.

Those are high stakes! With masterful conflict resolution, you have the opportunity to defy those odds and talk customers down from the edge of leaving. In one conversation, your customer service team can transform a potentially harmful experience into a positive interaction.

The neuroscience behind customer conflict

Getting into the heads of angry people is the first step to mastering conflict resolution. The more you know what's going on inside, the better equipped you'll be to regulate emotions and guide productive conversations.

Thanks to neuroscience, psychology, and sociology, we now have insight into what's happening in the minds of people who clash:

  1. Conflict causes stress, and stress causes poor communication.

    When two people can't come to an agreement, the brain has a stress reaction. Stress reactions cause muscles to tighten, voices to increase in pitch and volume, and hearts to beat faster. Cognitively, it's harder to comprehend, think clearly, or put thoughts into words.

  2. Poor communication escalates the conflict.

    When you're struggling to communicate, you risk triggering further stress and misunderstandings.

  3. Resolving conflict requires a calm body and mind.

    Once someone feels understood, the brain releases oxytocin (aka the "bonding" hormone). This hormone helps reduce stress and helps people work together.

  4. Innate conflict styles can help or hinder conflict resolution.

    Based on our backgrounds and temperaments, we all gravitate to different conflict styles. These are typical roles we play during a conflict. Some of us are seekers—we welcome the opportunity to debate or discuss differences. Some of us are avoiders—we prefer to go with the flow and dread disagreements. Many of us are somewhere between. Conflict expert Amy Gallo describes this as "a continuum from seeker to avoider." To adopt a different conflict style, you need the right mindset and a certain emotional intelligence level.

  5. Despite our bodies' responses, we can tame the stress and meet customers' needs in any scenario.

Learn more about how conflict works.

The types of conflict that can occur in customer service

According to Dave Dyson, Zendesk's senior customer service evangelist, "Customer service conflicts involve misunderstanding each others' intent, motives, or ability to affect change."

Customer service conflicts can play out in several ways. In each type of situation, there's a risk of personal egos interfering with finding a resolution.

  • Customer vs. agent

    This scenario commonly comes to mind when discussing customer service conflicts. A customer is upset that something isn't working the way they believe it should be. In this instance, it's crucial that the agent set aside any personal interests and adopt an empathetic negotiator's role.

  • Peer vs. Peer.

    This conflict occurs within the customer service team or between customer service and other departments. While finding a resolution without intervention is possible, both parties need to commit to working through their differences.

  • Agent vs. manager.

    This tricky situation happens when an agent and a supervisor have a difference of opinion—typically over work output, growth opportunities, or unfair treatment. Both the manager and agent should show empathy and use negotiation tactics to resolve the issue. It also may be necessary to bring in a third party to clear the air equitably.

When you let someone else's anger shake your commitment to finding common ground, conflict negotiations can fall apart. Everyone loses. With the right tactics in place, you can work through even the most high-stakes conflicts to find win-win situations.

Learn more about managing customer anger.

Six essential customer service conflict resolution strategies

Conflict resolution happens when there's an agreed-upon action toward solving the problem. Ideally, all parties walk away feeling like others heard and respected their ideas. The process of reaching that satisfied state requires a careful balance of self-awareness, listening, empathy, and insightful negotiations.

Pause for a self-care check

Immediately before participating in a difficult conversation, you must ground yourself emotionally.

"You can't give away what you don't have," says Brigit Ritchie, CEO of learning studio WE and co-creator of the Relational Mindfulness framework.

Relational Mindfulness helps you create the calm, focused attention you need when listening to grievances and working toward solutions. One technique of Relational Mindfulness is the self-care pause.

"It can be as simple as pausing to take deep breaths and check in with your body," says Ritchie.

Taking a mindful moment before diving into conflict is a quick way to release stress-reducing hormones in the brain. That way, you can bring a calm, open, clear mind to the table.

Here are some other ideas for preparing your mind and body for conflict resolution:

  • Listening to a favorite song
  • Smiling
  • Drinking water
  • Watching a heartwarming video
  • Taking a quick walk in nature

By building Relational Mindfulness into your daily routine, you'll be better prepared to face crises and conflict.

Learn more about Relational Mindfulness.

Practice reflective listening

Once you're ready to open a discussion, start by listening to what the other person has to say about the problem. You can use the following listening technique in any conflict scenario, but we'll focus specifically on dealing with angry customers.

"Listening" is more than "not talking" (although that's an essential component). It also means setting aside your agenda—temporarily—to truly understand the customer's point of view. It's also about gathering information critical to finding an agreement once you're ready to negotiate.

Reflective listening can help you hear the customer out and show them that you truly understand their problem.

  • Choose the best communication channel.

    Show that you're listening by creating an environment where you can focus on your customer's problem. "Offering to open a live chat or phone call makes it easier to communicate and shows you care enough to focus all your attention on this issue," says Dave Dyson.

  • Let the customer speak...

    and speak some more. Now it's time to let the customer have the floor. Give them space to tell you their side of things without interruption.

  • Show that you're listening without breaking their flow.

    Use small verbal responses like "Uh-huh," and "I see" to let the customer know they have your attention. It also encourages them to keep talking—which is what you want. Dyson calls these cues "verbal nods."

  • Take notes.

    Keep track of your customer's story by jotting down key bits of information they're providing. Dave advises that you write down "any ramifications for them that they're communicating, and their feelings about the situation."

  • Reflect on their version of the situation.

    Once the customer has given you a complete picture of their situation, it's time for the "reflective" part of reflective listening. "Ask, 'Can I summarize what I heard?' and start with 'I hear you're feeling upset about . . .'" advises Dyson. Mirror what the customer told you the best way you can without minimizing their experience.

Through de-escalating emotions and giving customers a chance to express themselves, you gain their trust. When you establish a common understanding of the problem, you can work together to solve it.

Diffuse disagreements with Tactical Empathy

When it's your turn to speak, Tactical Empathy can help you show the customer that you understand, even when you disagree.

"Using Tactical Empathy, you demonstrate that you recognize the other side's perspective and can articulate it in a strategic, even proactive manner—even when you don't like their perspective," says former FBI hostage negotiator Christopher Voss.

Apply some of the following Tactical Empathy dos and don'ts to create good faith and trust as you move forward in negotiations.

  1. Do use a "DJ voice."

    A warm, calm tone of voice can help cool hot customer emotions. Voss compares this controlled vocal modulation to that of a late-night radio DJ. "Be soothing, using upward inflections when you're inquiring about something, and downward inflections when you're being understanding," says Voss.

  2. Don't deny or disagree.

    Avoid turning a conversation into an argument. "Even if you don't agree with what the other side is saying, you don't need to tell them as much," Voss says.

  3. Do label emotions.

    Use labeling to verbalize unspoken sentiments. Instead of saying "I don't want you to think/feel . . ." use phrases like "It seems like you're feeling frustrated about. . ." or "It sounds like you don't like . . ." Even if you mislabel their feelings, the customer can correct you to get on the right page.

  4. Don't just say, "I understand."

    Instead of merely stating that you understand (which the customer will distrust), use the earlier-mentioned reflecting technique to verbalize everything you know.

  5. Do listen for "That's right."

    "If you can get a person you are arguing with to the point of saying 'That's right,'" says Voss, "they are signaling, subconsciously, that they believe you understand their perspective."

Use Tactical Empathy to disarm heightened emotions and get your customer to a point where they feel completely understood.

Negotiate with a cool head

Once you've established that you understand your customer's point of view, it's time to work on the problem together.

"This is the point the customer is going to ask, 'So what are you going to do about it?'" says Dave Dyson.

It helps to keep an upper-hand while making your customer feel like they're in charge. Dyson offers some key negotiation tactics that will keep things on track.

  1. Ask what the customer wants to happen.

    Would they like a full refund? Do they want someone to fix a technical issue? "The ultimate solution might be something other than what they're asking for, but this is an important starting point," says Dyson.

  2. Look for gaps in understanding.

    The customer may not be able to articulate what they need. They may base their assumptions of what they need on incorrect information. "Don't judge the customer for being wrong, but don't follow them down that rabbit hole, either," Dyson advises. "Instead, ask questions to make sure you're on the same page—and the right page."

  3. Ask for permission to summarize.

    Defer to the customer, but make sure you have the details correct on what the customer wants.

  4. Don't sugar-coat bad news.

    If you can't deliver on what the customer wants, be frank while keeping their feelings in mind. Help them prepare for disappointment with phrases like "I know this isn't what you want to hear . . ."

  5. Offer workarounds.

    If you can't provide the desired solution, explore other possibilities together. Give them options you can offer instead. "Your customer may not be thrilled at the idea, especially if it takes extra work to deliver something that's not quite what they want, but they'll usually appreciate the effort to see them through," says Dyson.

  6. Show gratitude for feedback.

    Any interaction with a customer is an opportunity to learn. Make sure your customer knows that you value their feedback, even when it's negative.

At this point, you should come to a course of action—or at least the next steps toward resolving the problem. Even when your customer doesn't walk away happy, both of you must know that you did everything you could to help them.

Hire and train for conflict resolution skills

Your company's approach to conflict resolution is only as good as the people you hire. When building a conflict resolution culture, it's essential to look for emotional intelligence in employees and coach them to develop skills further.

When interviewing potential employees, ask them how they've handled conflict in the past:

  • Have they ever gotten mad at a customer? Under what circumstances? How did they deal with the situation?
  • Have they dealt with an angry customer who was right to be angry? Consider how their response changes if they perceive the customer as right vs. wrong.
  • How do they take care of themselves after a difficult conversation?

Listen for responses where the candidate uses some of the conflict resolution tactics we've mentioned above. It's a good sign that they're a strong candidate for the job.

As for coaching, Dyson advises that team leaders walk agents through customer conflict scenarios.

"Educate them on how conflict works, ask how that resonates with the team, and explore how they can apply conflict resolution scenarios through role-playing," says Dyson.

Give agents on-the-job training: Listen in on customer calls, and provide feedback immediately afterward. A quick post-mortem will provide context for how they can make the next customer conflict go smoother.

Model the skills you want to see in your team

As a manager, you have plenty of opportunities to model the skills you want to see in your team. Dyson recommends adopting conflict resolution strategies in your day-to-day interactions with your team.

  • Show how to actively listen and reflect on issues in team meetings or one-to-one sessions.
  • Label emotions when handling disagreements between team members.
  • Identify gaps in understanding between teams when collaborating.
  • Offer gratitude for feedback, even when it's negative.

Conflict resolution is about strengthening relationships

Every customer service team deals with angry customers or interpersonal conflict—it's part of the job. But the wrong mindset about conflict can lead to high employee turnover and low customer loyalty.

Rather than treating conflict as an unavoidable ordeal, approach it as a chance to make relationships even more meaningful. Coach your team to view disagreements with a sense of curiosity. Equip them with the conflict resolution tools to get to the bottom of the problem.

In one masterful conversation, you can tame an angry customer, learn more about their needs, and brighten their day.

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