This quarter, Key Notes On Travel (KNOT) is examining difficult clients and conversations with conflict resolution and communication expert Charmaine Hammond.
In her first KNOT webinar, Hammond offered travel advisors some advice about difficult client conversations over the telephone. Compared to in-person meetings, phone calls afford a higher degree of convenience and informality, but it’s important to account for what we lose: non-verbal cues. It can add a layer of complexity when trying to achieve clarity.
Here are Hammond’s best practices for phone etiquette and summoning the courage to dial up difficult clients.
Before the call
Aiony Haust on Unsplash
What mindset are you bringing to the conversation?
We all have clients, colleagues and suppliers we dread calling. Who has spent an hour, a morning, an entire day, summoning the courage to make the call? Hammond notes that this mindset, while easy to indulge, does not serve us any favours.
A mindset is simply a collection of thoughts, oftentimes based on personal experience and painted by assumptions. Hammond points out that these thoughts often cloud our communications and she urges advisors to shed them before hopping on the call.
“When dealing with difficult people, it’s easy to let your thoughts about that person get in the way of how we communicate,” she says. “What mindset are you bringing to a conversation?”
Instead, Hammond suggests reframing the conversation as an opportunity: “Think of it as a chance to get some clarity from your client.”
Are your non-verbals telling a different story?
LinkedIn Sales Navigator on Unsplash
In the absence of visual information, a traditional telephone call means callers must piece together verbal cues to form a complete picture.
A stunning fact to consider: only seven per cent of a message is conveyed through words; thirty-eight per cent is communicated through vocal elements and tone, and 55 per cent through nonverbal communication such as facial expression and posture.
That means advisors may carefully craft the language they use to convey a message, only to find their non-verbals tell a completely different story – even over the phone!
Hammond shares her own example: “Years ago when I first started my own business, I had a client say to me, ‘Are you in your pajamas?’ I wasn’t, but I was wearing my leisure clothing. I asked her, ‘How do you know that I’m in my relaxed clothing?’ She said, ‘I feel like you’re sitting in your chair with your feet up, in your sweats, kicking back.’ I thanked her for that feedback because that is not the image I would ever want my clients to have. She pointed that out as a joke, but it was a turnaround in how I 'showed up' on the phone. I made a commitment to be careful about how I show up.”
Self-audit: how are you showing up?
- Take stock of how you speak when you’re comfortable in a conversation.
- Note the speed at which you speak, whether you employ humour or sarcasm, your degree of inflection and the tone; it all paints the language you use.
- What happens to your speech when you feel nervous? How about when you feel backed up against a wall? What is your default reaction to being on the defensive? Do you speak faster, with greater urgency or perhaps with some degree of anxiety?
- When you take a call are you sitting at a desk? Do you prefer to stand or pace?
- If you are a home-based advisor, how do you dress during working hours?
- Have you ever recorded a conversation? It’s a fascinating – and sometimes mortifying – exercise to listen to your voice played back, but a valuable one, nonetheless.
Dealing with conflict mid-conversation
You’re listening, but are you?
“Here’s an interesting thing that happens in conversation: people zone out. In fact, some of the research states we zone out every second seconds,” say Hammond.
Why does this matter?
“When people become nervous or positional, they stay zoned out longer. When you’re talking, they’re not even listening to you; they’re in their head planning what they’re going to say," Hammond explains. "Listening is not about taking time to plan your response, your retort or how you’re going to defend yourself. [Listening] is the most difficult skill, but – by far – the most important. When you listen, you can gain such important information to solve their problem. If you can’t solve their problem, you can deal with them in a way where they exit the conversation feeling well served and supported...and isn’t that what we want?”
This all suggests that two parties can be speaking in conversation with one other, yet completely disengaged. Take care to be present and actively listen with open ears.
Complaints on repeat
Have you ever been caught in an unproductive conversation in which the person continues to repeat the same sentence? You grow increasingly frustrated because, yes, message received. After all, you heard it the first time. And the second. And the third.
Hammond lends some clarity to this scenario: “If someone keeps repeating the same thing over and over again, maybe in a louder or more demonstrative way, it usually means they don’t feel like they’ve been heard. That’s why they repeat it using different words, repeating it louder, repeating it stronger. One of the beautiful things you can do to shift the conversation in that moment is to show them they’ve been heard.”
Hammond suggests a strategy of validating the person’s feelings and navigating beyond the loop with a question.
“A simple way to do this is with a clause I use all the time. I’ll say something like, ‘I can hear this is really frustrating for you. What I’d like to know is…’ and then you ask a question. What you’re trying to do is validate their experience. You’re not agreeing with them; you’re simply saying, ‘I see this is frustrating for you,' or, 'I hear this is a concern for you,' and then you ask the question. That can take people out of [their] emotional, confrontational approach and bring them back into a conversation with you.”
Hammond also reminds us that your client or colleague may need a few prompts, citing the pitfalls of zoning out.
“Sometimes we have to repeat this a couple of times because people are in their head. [They’re] frustrated and the conversation isn’t going the way [they] hoped or planned, so they continue on that loop. You might have to come back to that statement more than once.”
Check your assumptions
Miscommunications happen all the time, from insignificant to consequential.
If you’re on a call, thinking to yourself, why can’t I communicate in a way this person can understand? then you might need to check your assumptions.
Hammond shares an anecdote: “I had a call the other day. What I discovered was, we were actually talking about two different things. They had made an assumption about what I was speaking about and took the conversation down that path. Make sure you’re clear on what the conversation is about. It might require you to ask a lot of questions.”
Confusion breeds frustration so setting a clear agenda in advance of a phone call can help ensure both parties are on the same page from the get-go.
Respectfully end the call
Alexander Andrews on Unsplash
If you’ve employed all of the strategies above to no avail, it might be time to respectfully end the call.
As much as you may fantasize about hanging up on a client – or faking cell phone interference or a poor Internet connection – Hammond cautions against it.
“I have actually seen people fake being hung up on or blame the Internet going out. I promise it will always come back to bite you. Never do things like that," she warns before acknowledging, "but this is often the way we feel!”
Perhaps remind the caller that you’re nearing the scheduled end of the conversation by saying, “In the five minutes we have left, can we agree on some next steps?” Or, if more clarity is needed, explain you would like to schedule a follow-up call so you glean more information.
Did you miss Charmaine's first two session?
Join Key Notes On Travel to get caught up, then catch her last and final session in July.
SESSION III: An interactive Q&A with Charmaine Hammond
Date: Thursday, July 18
Duration: 60 minutes
When: 10:00 AM PST / 1:00 PM EST
A post-keynote opportunity to take a deeper dive and ask Charmaine about some of the strategies she shared in sessions one and two.
What is Key Notes On Travel?