Adjusting to the New Reality: How to Avoid and De-Escalate Customer Conflicts
This post is Part II of a series on communicating with customers about the new realities of running a gym in the age of coronavirus.
In Part I, we discussed setting up positive, proactive communication. Despite your best efforts, it’s still possible that you’ll have members and customers who are unhappy with the timing of your reopening and the policies you’ve laid out.
That’s understandable, say Jim Wetherbe and Ted Waldron, professors at Texas Tech University’s Rawls College of Business. After all, this situation is unprecedented, and as restrictions start to loosen, it’s natural that folks will have conflicting viewpoints—and empathy goes a long way toward avoiding conflicts before they happen.
Of course, as former FBI special agent and hostage negotiator Chip Massey points out, conflicts aren’t always avoidable.
We sat down with each of these experts to bring you their tips for avoiding and de-escalating conflicts with members in your communications and, as you re-open, in person.
Create Member Buy-in
Building policies based on members’ own input is crucial, says Wetherbe. He suggests tapping your gym’s “opinion leaders” (the “stars” of the gym, those climbers who show up and seem to know everyone) to lead an informal focus group on protocols to keep members safe.
“If people complain, you can make it clear that you didn’t come to these decisions unilaterally,” Wetherbe says, adding that feeling as though one is in control is a basic human need. Knowing that their own peers are on board is likely to reduce those feelings of resentment.
“If you’re anticipating conflict, you need to be there,” Wetherbe says simply. Massey also points out that there’s potential for misunderstanding when front desk staff is relatively new to the workforce and is attempting to enforce policies with older, more experienced customers.
In other words, no matter how well educated your staff is on the policies, and no matter how effectively you’ve frontloaded communication with members, it’s crucial that you’re physically there, role modeling protocols for staff and members. That way, if an unhappy member wants face time with the person in charge, they can hear it directly from you. Not only is the opportunity to have humanizing discussions helpful in de-escalating existing conflicts, but it also reminds other members that your goal is to keep them safe.
Watch Your Tone and Body Language
As Waldron points out, rephrasing a statement as a question (a technique Wetherbe suggests in our last post) is only as effective as the body language of the person doing it. That’s extra tough when your face is hidden behind a mask; we rely on facial expressions like smiling to get a point across in a non-combative way
Still, there are ways to tailor your body language to de-escalate a situation. Wetherbe recommends nodding your head and lifting your eyebrows, as well as opening your arms and exposing your palms.
It’s also possible to de-escalate conflict when members can’t see you, says Massey (the vast majority of hostage negotiations take place over the phone). Even as the other person on the line starts to escalate, keep your tone even and avoid meeting that level of aggression with your own voice.
Empathy Is Key
“Never, ever tell another person how to feel,” says Massey. Instead, he suggests, “listen to what they’re trying to say. Connect that with empathy, and you can move mountains.”
One technique Massey recommends is “emotional labeling.” When you’re in the midst of a negative interaction with a customer, that might mean saying something like, “It sounds like you’ve got a lot of frustrations today. I don’t want to be another source of frustration for you. How can I help?”
Even if you’re wrong in your labeling, he says—maybe a customer tells you they’re not frustrated, but nervous—it shows them that you’re paying attention, and that you care about them. That’s when folks start to decompress, Massey explains: “It gets them back to saying, ‘I’m a human, and another human is trying to interact with me.’”
Be Ready to Stick to Your Values
“The customer is not always right,” Wetherbe says. “Sure, most of them are. But you have to be willing to ‘fire’ a bad customer to keep good customers.” Waldron agrees, pointing out that this is especially true now, when your other members’ safety is on the line.
Empathy remains crucial here, says Massey; this might mean saying something like “I can understand why you don’t want to [wear a mask / make an appointment to climb / follow X policy]. But if we don’t enforce these policies to keep all our members safe, we may not be able to stay open.” If a member simply won’t cooperate with your policies after you’ve followed all the other steps above, Wetherbe and Waldron agree that it’s best to ask that they return when social distancing guidelines are no longer necessary—for the sake of all your customers’ health.
About the Author
Emma Walker is a freelance writer, editor, and an account manager with Golden, Colorado-based Bonfire Collective. Emma earned her M.S. in Outdoor and Environmental Education from Alaska Pacific University and has worked as an educator and guide at gyms, crags, and peaks around the American West.