Infusing Your Customer Service With a Little Empathy

Today’s blog post is written by Dustin Morris, Client Administrator, PatronManager. 

As many who manage patron relationships know, customer service can be a tenuous balancing act. A job with many, and occasionally contradictory, rules can place customer service representatives in tricky situations. Individuals in these roles need to be personable and accessible while acting as ambassadors for their respective organizations. This can be especially challenging in instances where for any number of reasons emotions start to run high.

Research shows that 51% of customers will terminate their relationship and business with a company after one negative experience. There is the old adage that “the customer is always right,” but realistically speaking, that is not always the case. Keeping this in mind, what can be done to prevent one tense interaction from escalating to a patron walking out your door never to return again? How can you preserve a valuable patron relationship without compromising the integrity of your arts organization’s policies? To ensure positive patron experiences and to navigate the occasional tumultuous situation, consider the idea that empathy is key.

Recently, I attended a performance where prior to curtain I witnessed a troublesome interaction between a patron and a box office employee. While waiting in the will call line, I overheard the staff member in question tell the patron that there were no tickets reserved under their name for that evening’s performance. The patron insisted that they had reserved their ticket over the phone. Several tries later and the staff member still could not locate the reservation, and a heated argument ensued. The encounter concluded with the patron storming out and left a group of people waiting for their tickets feeling very uncomfortable.

The above situation might sound extreme, but prior to joining PatronManager, I worked for multiple theatre companies and witnessed similar interactions. Though each organization certainly succeeded in establishing and maintaining patron relationships, there were rare, unfortunate encounters that ended in fractured ties. This, however, does not need to be the case. Here are three things to keep in mind if and when a patron interaction starts to get tense:

First, show the patron that you are listening. Let them explain their situation, even if it feels long-winded. Don’t speak over them, and if you feel the need, repeat back to them what they said to confirm that you heard them. Listening to your patrons is the only way to gather the full scope of information necessary to address their problems. Had the box office representative from my anecdote paused to let the patron in question feel heard, things might have ended differently. The situation might not have been completely resolved, but at least the patron would have left knowing that the representatives at this organization heard their concerns and would endeavor to prevent this from happening again in the future.

Second, consider what your patrons know and what they do not know. We can often take for granted the information we are aware of as employees of our organizations. You know the different policies and limitations of your company, and sometimes those are not always transparent to your patrons. It’s extremely important to consider whether or not your patrons are fully informed of what’s happening. (Even better, consider posting new policies when they are formed in a public space like your lobby or on the main page of your website, not buried deep in fine print — everyone loves transparency!)

I, of course, was not privy to the specifics of the incident I witnessed, but from what I overheard, the representative could have explained what was happening from the organization’s standpoint better. Maybe there was a glitch in the system the day the patron had called to make a reservation. Perhaps the patron had actually made a reservation for a different show thinking it was the one happening that evening. Or maybe the organization put a new policy in place that required patrons to check in 24 hours in advance or their tickets would be released. In each of these scenarios, a patron wouldn’t necessarily have the full picture, so make sure to approach each interaction you have from their point of view.

Third, remember that you are an extension of your organization. The frustrated patron from my recent box office experience left disappointed with the theatre as a whole and not the individual box office staff member. Organizations should introduce staff to methods that empower them to engage with disquieted patrons, and provide training and literature on tactics to help them avoid becoming defensive. Personally, I have practiced keeping a short list of things I do when I start to feel irritated by a situation, which includes asking for help, excusing myself momentarily to take a deep breath, and maintaining a daily practice of meditation.

The customer service balancing act can be tricky at times, but following these tips can help to build a culture of empathy at your organization. Then, the next time a customer experience goes awry, your staff will be empowered to help ensure that your patrons feel heard, informed, and respected which will ultimately lead to longstanding, healthy, and happy relationships.

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