Managing Conflict in Customer Service: Have a P.E.P. talk


In 2008, I started a small business renting living Christmas trees in pots as an alternative to cut or artificial trees. In 2012, we pitched the company on ABC’s Shark Tank, and were joined by billionaire investor Mark Cuban. Our business grew exponentially - bringing along with it the opportunity for conflict. 

One of our challenges was in customer service.

The good and bad news was just how passionate folks were about their time-treasured holiday symbol of hope and joy. Before an acceptable tree was safely in their home, customers tended to get a little animated.... And while they were overwhelmingly supportive and excited about our company,  the challenge of delivering 250-lb. living trees in Southern California traffic was creating situations that put our customer service elves in tight suspenders when customers  expressed their impatience.

For these precious moments we liked to give our customers a "P.E.P. talk."

P.E.P. stands for Promote Passion, Enroll, and Problem Solve…

Step 1: Promote PASSION while modelling empathy.  If our customers were not passionate about their living Christmas tree, they wouldn’t be paying to get it from us. The last thing we want to do is solve the problem by crushing their passion. Quite the opposite. Let’s celebrate their passion! 

The idea comes from the art of Kung Fu: to blend with a would-be attacked, rather than defend "against." Here is how it works in customer service...

Caller: “I’ve been sitting around the house all day with my kids waiting for our tree! We haven’t heard from anyone. You have terrible customer service.”

Customer Service Elf:  “Sounds like you are really frustrated by the lack of accurate communication you’ve received around this tree you care so deeply for.”

One of two things will happen:

1. They will feel heard and less likely to raise their voice or be insulting.  They are also likely to say something more pleasant back in return.

2. They will confirm your assessment of how much they actually care about the tree and lessen their critical tone of voice.  

Step 2:  ENROLL your passionate customers in your challenges.  People are more sympathetic when they understand why you do what you do, how it is you do it, and the challenges involved.

Customer Service Elf: “We truly appreciate you joining us on our mission to change the way California celebrates Christmas. A lot of Christmas Magic goes into having dozens of living people delivering hundreds of living trees … Will you let me reach out to your elves and see if I can get you a more accurate ETA?“

Step 3: PROBLEM-SOLVE together. Try to sit next to them instead of across from them. 

If you become defensive, you put yourself in striking distance of a verbal attack and further entrench the customer in their position.  By focusing on a counter-attack or resolution right away, you also miss out on the opportunity to learn from valuable feedback about what’s working well as well as how the service could in fact be improved.

Customer Service Elf: “Your experience sounds frustrating. What communication would have made this experience more jolly? We are always trying to do better - how would you suggest we handle this in the future?”

In the fight to be right, you may lose a long-time customer and supporter.  Approaching them as a peer solving this together, they feel valued and you have a greater chance of finding a satisfying solution for both - and even parting as buddies.

In Bill Ury’s book, Getting to Yes, he suggests ‘building a golden bridge’ for challengers to retreat on. This means giving them the space to change their feelings and hostile position. If we react to the negative sentiment, we don’t give them the chance to follow up with the real reason for their call: THEY CARE ABOUT THE SERVICE YOU ARE PROVIDING. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t bother. 

The P.E.P. Talk - try it out for yourself.

Whether your wheelhouse is customer service, consulting/coaching, working with teams in a tech startup - or, frankly, if you find yourself in any interaction involving 2 or more people - you try a P.E.P. talk. You have an excellent chance to shift potential conflict into satisfying results and happier people.

How does your organization handle conflict with customers? Share your experience in the comments below. If you’d like to talk more about embracing constructive conflict in your customer relationships, please feel free to schedule a conversation with us here.