Customer Service and Older Consumers: Keeping Perspectives Balanced

When trying to resolve customer service problems, it is important to keep our perspectives balanced. Service representatives and customers need to find ways to solve problems together. This can be especially true when working with older adults.

A lifetime ago when I was very young, I worked as a customer service representative. It can be challenging work with a lot of stress and high turn-over. Often, the service representative is the one who has to deal with unhappy customers. One time an older customer told me that I was probably going to Hell because I didn’t solve her problem exactly the way she had wanted. I had not communicated empathy for the customer’s situation.

When a representative is indifferent or gets defensive, it typically doesn’t help the situation. In fact, it often makes things worse. As an example, one individual created a YouTube video about airline representatives who had been indifferent to his efforts to get a problem resolved. His video was shared over 19 million times! Talk about bad PR!

On the other hand, when an angry customer dumps on a customer service representative, the situation can also go from bad to worse very quickly.  I once had a college student in one of my classes who was an airline ticket agent. He shared that while he should not have done it when an older customer was very rude to him, he ‘accidentally’ sent the customer’s luggage to a different location than the customer’s destination. Talk about unexpected revenge for bad customer behavior!

As Experienced, Older Adults, Trying to Get Good Customer Service Can Push Our Buttons

When service representatives interact with older customers, it can get sticky very quickly. While many of us who are older tend to have more experience being patient, it is possible that we have a little less impulse control as we age. At some point, many of us may feel like we’ve paid our dues. We don’t want to be patronized or given some simple pat answer when we need a solution to a problem. As a result, some of us can get a bit less guarded about what we might say. When we allow our frustrations to take over and don’t focus on the goal of getting a problem resolved, we can make the situation worse. I’ve been there, done that, and later regretted it.

Conflict Spirals Can Become No-Win Situations

Customer service jobs are often entry-level positions. Some individuals in these positions may not have had a lot of life experience or even sufficient training. When interacting with older adults, younger customer service representatives may make assumptions about what we actually know, or they may get defensive and respond to us in such a way as to make it difficult to resolve problems. If both parties are not careful, our efforts to get problems resolved quickly can instead develop into conflict spirals.

A conflict spiral is basically where individuals involved escalate tensions rather than seeking solutions. For example, if a customer service representative responds to a concern with a dismissive tone, the customer may react with frustration or anger. If the customer reacts in a negative way, then the service representative is more likely to become defensive and less likely to help resolve the problem at hand. At some point, the individuals involved reach an impasse.

Anger or Defensiveness Can Undermine Solutions

On one particular occasion, I needed to fly from Portland, Oregon to Minnesota for some teacher education training I was conducting. When I got in line to check in for my flight, I found out that our plane had mechanical problems and would be delayed several hours.

As I stood in line, I watched other people express their anger and frustration when they got their opportunity to talk with the airline agent. The young woman behind the counter kept a stiff upper lip and stoically told passengers there was nothing she could do to help them. Because I had a chance to observe how others were expressing their anger and how they didn’t get results, I chose to take a different approach.

When I reached the check-in counter, I approached the ticket agent by recognizing how much stress she must be experiencing. I expressed empathy for her situation. I then calmly asked if there were any other options – rerouting or something that could be done to get me to a small town in Minnesota before 9:00 a.m. the next morning. Together, we looked at some possibilities. I made it to my destination by 2:00 a.m. that morning. Had I expressed the frustration I was feeling, I doubt I could have gotten the help I did.

Resolving a Service Problem is Often a Two-Way Balancing Act

As an experienced consumer, I can prepare myself ahead of time for resolving problems. Being in the right frame of mind helps. I have to keep reminding myself that my goal is to solve a problem, not to vent my frustration. I can tell you that when I do keep calm, it does make a difference.

If I’m going to work with someone over the phone, I try to have all my information together prior to making a call. I also take notes so that I can keep organized. In addition, I have to keep reminding myself that my goal is to solve a problem, not to vent my frustration. When I remember to do this, my chances of getting problems resolved are a whole lot better. In reality, the customer doesn’t always get to be right no matter what.

Customer service representatives usually want to resolve problems as well. Sometimes they don’t have the problem-solving skills or training to resolve all problems.  However, when treated with the same kind of respect that customers usually want, many service representatives are willing to work through problems with their customers.

The solution to difficult service problems is to take a balanced approach. When solutions to problems are not clear, then finding a way to work together is a good beginning. We all want to feel respected and appreciated – regardless of which side of the counter we are on.



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