Safety as a Customer Service: Effective Communication for the Safety Professional
We were somewhere in Virginia. The mini van we had rented was at about a quarter of a tank when we decided to pull over and fill up. We had put several hours behind us since our first fill up that morning after departing Tennessee. It was me, my wife and our four kids; an angry teen, two hyper preteens and a baby. We were on a quick cross country, on our way to attend my younger sister’s wedding in upstate New York. We were driving from just outside Houston, Texas. As is good practice for our family trips, we encouraged everyone to hop out and stretch their legs as I prepared to top off the mini van. I reached in the pocket of my wind pants (excellent for long distance travel, extremely comfortable yet functional) only to come up empty. My wife had been driving the last leg of the journey and I was co-pilot in the passenger seat. I walked over, opened the door and checked the middle console. Nothing. Floor boards, side door pocket, sweat shirt pocket. Nothing. No wallet… Only panic.
After a brief freak out, I was on the phone less than five minutes later with a representative from my bank that also offers insurance products that I shall not name but they deal with veterans and their family members. Rhymes with Blue S A A. In the short amount of time it took for me to get a hold of the customer service representative, The reality of our situation began to dawn on me. We were nearly a day’s travel from home or our final destination. We were almost mid-way in our trip. If my wallet was truly gone, we had no access to our money. No gas, no hotel, no food beyond the road snacks we had in the van. We were up the creek and I had lost the paddle. The customer service representative introduced herself and asked how she could help. Doing my best (and failing miserably) to maintain my composure, I explained our predicament.
Mr. Boreman, I need you to take a deep breath. I understand that you are emotional and I definitely understand why. Just know that I am going to do everything in my power to help you and your family. We are not going to leave you stranded out there, Okay? Now… let’s start by putting a temporary hold on your card in the off chance it was stolen and then we will look at options for getting you some cash and a new card so you can get on your way. How does that sound?
Was I completely at ease? No. Did I feel at least a little better about the situation? Absolutely. I knew I had some back up. Someone was going to help me. After the young lady’s assurance, I felt like we were now a team ready address the issue together. She didn’t know it at the time (and neither did I) but she had planted a seed in my brain that would eventually change the way I performed safety interactions. To this day, I don’t know if the young customer service technician was formally and expertly trained or if she had picked up her disarming charm somewhere along the road of life. Either way, it was effective. What she had done was to take a situation that was already elevated, defused my tension and formed a bond to get us both working effectively on a solution. Expertly executed efficiency. Sorry, my Daughter is learning about alliterations in school.
I came into safety at a time I affectionately call “The Death of the Safety Cop”. Those of you that have been around a while might remember him. Hands on his hips and a judgmental sneer on his face. The safety cop used terms like “caught” and “busted”. Safety interactions were usually one sided and consisted of chastising at best and a one way trip to the gate in the worst case. What I refer to as the death of the safety cop is the time when we began to realize that interacting with people in that manner was not only ineffective but it was actually turning people off to the idea of getting on board with a proposed safety program. Educating people became the goal. You cannot, no matter how you try, force someone into believing in your cause. Safety cops guaranteed compliance with safety programs but only when the safety cop was around. Contempt for safety personnel bred non-compliance consistently. If you truly want people to buy into a safety program, they have to believe in it. They have to own it. To do that, they have to understand not only the intent of the program but the intent of the person selling it to them. Yeah… that’s you.
Last Christmas my wife and I decided to get our eldest daughter and middle son new smart phones. We called our wireless service provider who I also shall not name but sounds like ray tea and fee. The order was placed for two phones and two days later we received… one phone. The phone we purchased for our daughter was on a delivery truck according to the tracker. The phone stayed on the delivery truck for nearly two weeks. Then the delivery service finally decided to mark it as lost. My wife began the phone calls with the wireless provider in an attempt to have them reissue a new phone. Christmas came and went. No phone. No progress. Time elapsed and my wife’s temper grew… and grew… and grew. Finally, after several weeks, one particular day of being transferred for the sixth time and having to explain the situation yet again, my wife finally lost it. As she began to explain her frustration to the customer service representative, the woman on the other end began to speak over my wife, “Ma’am, Ma’am, Ma’am”, in a tone that sounded dangerously close to ordering, told my wife to… are you ready for this? “CALM DOWN”. As the words rang out from the phone’s speaker, I swear I heard that tune that plays when Pac-Man dies. Ya done goofed, customer service lady.
The word communication has a few different definitions but they all point to the same result; the successful sending and receiving of information. The part that many people forget during the communication process is the latter, receiving part. In the case of the missing phone, tension was already high when the customer service representative came into the situation. How often does that happen in safety? When tension is high, the recipient has built a wall that sometimes can prevent that successful transfer of information. As the sender, it becomes our responsibility to try to defuse the situation. Speaking over the other person, name calling or other seemingly aggressive behavior will only aid in distancing the recipient and ensuring the communication fails. Lastly, as a general rule, yelling signals the end of the conversation. Walk away and try again later.
So… Prior to arriving at the gas station, I was sitting in the passenger seat, as it was my wife’s shift behind the wheel. As I attempted to stretch out as best as I could, my wallet fell out of my pocket and onto the floorboard. Being the same color as the mini van interior carpet, I just didn’t see it the first two times we searched. I found it a few minutes into the phone call, much to my evenly split embarrassment and elation. We were quickly back on our way but not without an important lesson learned. Communication is a skill and when practiced and used properly, can be highly effective. As we also learned, when used poorly, it can fail miserably and make the process of transferring information much more difficult. The other lesson was to keep a better eye on my wallet.
I will be presenting “Safety as a Customer Service: Effective Communication for the Safety Professional” at various safety conferences throughout 2019. Don’t forget to check the events calendar on the home page and come out to see me. If you would like more information or to schedule a presentation for your event or work group, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.