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Family Therapy for Your Support Center

by Rich Gallagher, Point of Contact Group

What do former customer support executives do when they get old and grey? Well, in my case, I am almost finished with three years of graduate work to become a licensed marriage and family therapist. No, I am not giving up my "day job" as a writer and workshop leader on customer support, but I have been in practice as a therapist since last year as part of my school's clinical training.

So what can your support center learn from someone who is stroking his chin and saying, "Tell me how you feel about that"? Plenty, actually. There is a great deal of science nowadays behind how we resolve conflicts with people, much of which has come from the field of family therapy over the last 20 years or so. (In fact, that's why I decided to study it.) And a lot of it translates directly to things you can teach your support team about dealing with customers. Here are a few you might not have thought of:

1) Lean into people's stories. How many support transactions start off something like this? "You have a horrible product with a horrible problem that has ruined my life." Hopefully the wording isn't that strong most of the time, but nonetheless people often come to you with "villain stories" about you as they seek relief.

Because we are human, we naturally tend to "lean away" from this criticism. We minimize it, explain it,  give reasons (or even excuses) for it – or worst of all, say nothing as we blankly ask them for their serial number and operating system. Which in turn makes them feel not heard, and escalates the problem.

Family therapists are trained to lean into people's problems – even when they complain about us! This dramatically lowers the heat and makes it safe for the other person to talk. So start saying things like, "Wow, that must be really inconveniencing you!" and watch people's anger melt away.

2) Use reframing. Words can be very scary to people. But when you thoughtfully choose different words, you can soften the impact of the situation. Compare the following statements:

Your hard drive failure isn't covered.                      We have some options for data recovery.
You are going to have to wait two weeks.             This has a 14-day turnaround.
You should have made a backup.                          Situations like these happen all the time.

Do you monitor or record what agents say? Listen to these dialogues, workshop them until they sound incredible, and then teach everyone on your team what your support center "sounds like."

3) Give people power. When you take your kid in for a vaccination, what does a good doctor do? Often, she will ask your child which arm he wants the shot in. There is extensive research behind the idea that people feel better when they have more control, and the same is true with the grown men and women who contact your support center. Offer people different service options, support channels, or solution paths, and they will often respond like the intelligent adults you are treating them as.

One of the dirty little secrets of my support training business – and my graduate work – is that both involve applying secrets from psychotherapy to difficult workplace issues, because the results are often very powerful. So try putting your support team on the couch sometime, and see what it does for you!

About the Author
Rich Gallagher is a communications skills expert and former customer support executive who heads the Point of Contact Group, a training and development firm based in Ithaca, NY. His book What to Say to a Porcupine: 20 Humorous Tales that Get to the Heart of Excellent Customer Service (AMACOM, 2008) was a national #1 customer service bestseller and finalist for the 800-CEO-READ's 2008 Business Book of the Year, and his latest book How to Tell Anyone Anything (AMACOM, 2009) explores the mechanics of difficult workplace conversations. Visit Rich online at