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The Unspoken Language of Complaint Management

An apology is much more convincing to an angry customer with the right combination of nonverbal cues.

Posted by Jake Edmiston on June 5th, 2015

Some industry observers will tell you customer service jobs are going extinct – almost as if it’s general wisdom.

Call center agents and their ilk consistently crack top-10 lists for “jobs that won’t exist in the future”. Studies say consumers just don’t want to talk to anyone anymore, they want “self-help” online. Even IBM’s Jeopardy-winning supercomputer has been repurposed to serve as a robotic customer service agent.

But advances in the industry that diminish person-to-person interactions are ignoring a key factor in complaint management – one that behavioral analysts say is the fastest way to diffuse a customer complaint.


The Desire for a Human Response

The industry shift to web-based service could be based on a misconception that customers only want to speak to a human being if it promises to be more efficient. But the impulse to seek out person-to-person interaction is far more complicated, says specialist and author Patti Wood. Humans are hard-wired to pick up on a range of non-verbal cues, she says, and those cues are crucial in handling complaints.

“When we’re angry, what we’re seeking is an emotional response,” says Wood, an expert in non-verbal communication.

The customer service mantra of “I’m sorry,” has a subconscious effect that calms customers, if said with the right combination of pauses, tone of voice and guttural sounds, Wood said. But the apology is much less convincing when those cues are absent.


What You Aren’t Saying is More Important

“We want someone else to feel our pain,” says Wood, who trains call center agents on “mirroring and matching” techniques that let a customer know the agent empathizes with them.

Follow these Best Practices for Handling Complaints to boost customer loyalty and cut the cost of resolving complaints in half.

According to Wood, it can be as simple as saying, “Oh I get it, that would make me so upset.”

But it only works if it’s coming from a human voice. Written messages, via online chat forums or IBM supercomputers, lack non-verbal cues that make up the majority of communication.

Nonverbal communication can be split into two distinct areas: body language and paralanguage. The latter is a collection of hidden messages codified in the way customer service agents speak.

“Paralanguage is all the nuances of the voice,” Wood said. “Voice tone tempo, speaking rate, accent, pausing, guttural sounds.”


The Rule of 7-38-55

Even now, industry experts consistently point to a 40-year-old theory that trumpets the importance of nonverbal cues when trying to convince a customer that you empathize with them.

In the 1970s, Professor Albert Mehrabian’s 7-38-55 rule claimed that the two nonverbal communication channels were far more convincing than words alone. According to the UCLA professor, words make up only 7 per cent of communicating feelings or attitudes.  The tone of voice (paralanguage) makes up 38 per cent and body language has 55 per cent of the weight.

Mehrabian’s rule proves the necessity of person-to-person interactions in letting customers satisfy their need to vent, though Mehrabian’s research applies only to face-to-face communication.

“Venting is always critical at some juncture in customer service,” Wood said. And while face-to-face meetings aren’t always possible, she says phone conversations can provide enough non-verbal cues, through para-language, to properly resolve the complaint.

“When someone calls a call center,” Wood says, “what they’re really saying is ‘I need that human element through para-language.’”

Jake Edmiston
Jake Edmiston

Corporate Journalist

Jake Edmiston is a former Corporate Journalist at i-Sight who now writes for the Financial post.

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