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“How To Control Your Elephant” Training

Why Teflon Answers Create Very Sticky Customer Service Situations

non-stick pan

Whilst non-stick makes cooking easier, in the world of customer service it has the opposite effect. “Teflon” answers are a recipe for disaster.

The non-stick properties of Teflon are appreciated in kitchens throughout the land. There’s nothing worse than scraping the burnt remains of what was to be a culinary masterpiece from the bottom of a non-Teflon pan. But whilst non-stick makes cooking easier, in the world of customer service it has the opposite effect. “Teflon” answers are a recipe for disaster.

What do we mean by Teflon answers?

Teflon answers are where we keep coming up with different responses when a customer asks a difficult question and our first answer is not accepted. We panic, and instead of sticking with our first answer we keep slipping around trying to come up with something different.

Here’s an example:

  • Customer: You fitted free carpets for my neighbour… I want the same!
  • You: I’m not able to do that, this was individually negotiated with the customer
  • Customer: If you don’t give me free carpets. I’ll give you a very bad survey!
  • You: I can’t get those carpets anymore
  • Customer: There are plenty of other carpets you can get me!
  • You: It’s not our policy to fit carpets after completion
  • Customer: Well on this occasion you’ll just have to make an exception!

This determination to get what we want is a behaviour that we learn as children.

When dad says “you can’t stay up to watch the football”, it is very unusual for a child to accept with a meek “OK”.

The more likely reply is “why not!?” and that is likely to lead to a long string of Teflon answers from dad as he stages an ever more desperate rear-guard action, “you’ve got school tomorrow” ……”There’s homework to do” ……..”You stayed up late last night”…….etc etc.

The more time you change your answers the worse things get

You keep trying to find the answer that will make this situation go away. The atmosphere becomes tense; the customer becomes louder and speaks faster. You feel trapped in a no-win situation and you sense that the customer is not going to give up until they get what they want.

And the worst thing you can do is give in, having several times said “no”

Because now your customer may:

  • Think you are a liar
  • Never accept your first answer to any question, unless it is the answer they want
  • Disrespect you
  • Tell their neighbours that you can be bullied into submission

So the best thing you can do is ditch the Teflon and deliver answers that stick

This means that your first answer has to be your only answer, and you have to keep repeating it; in just the same way that an old record can keep repeating itself when the needle gets stuck.

This in turn means that you have to be very confident that your first answer is the best one you can give.

But won’t customers become angry if they keep hearing the same monotonous answer?

Yes, they probably will… to begin with. And you have to be prepared for this; after all, they are not getting what they want.

The customer’s reaction will also be influenced by your delivery. If you go into a monotonic and robotic mode, just repeating, repeating, repeating you may make matters worse.

But if you keep sticking in a calm, caring way, things start to change. Your customer begins to understand that you mean what you say and that there is no point in arguing with you.

I’ve never known a customer to stop arguing even when I have stuck to my answer!

If you share this view, you need to ask yourself one question – how many times did I stick?

Most of us give up after sticking just once. This is equivalent to dad saying: “you’ve got school tomorrow”……. “you’ve got school tomorrow” and then changing to something else; ……..”You stayed up late last night”…….

You need to stick at least three times and be prepared to go beyond this if necessary. You will rarely need to go beyond five times.

So I stick to my guns and the customer grudgingly accepts my answer – great service! NOT!

I agree, it does look that way. But consider the alternative. As mentioned earlier, the moment you start coming up with different answers, your relationship with your customer changes in a very negative way.

And take a moment to think about your relationships with parents, friends or colleagues. Which do you respect and value the most, the people who are firm but fair or the people who are inconsistent and always changing their minds?

OK, I’m more convinced, but just how do I make sure that my first answer is the best one I can give?

It’s all about confidence. And that confidence comes from:

  • Having a complete understanding of your policies and procedures
  • Having a complete understanding of the customer
  • Being able to give a clear explanation as to why you are giving this answer
  • Being able to empathise with a customer who clearly doesn’t like your answer
  • Knowing your level of empowerment to fix customer issues and to go beyond internal policies if necessary
  • Knowing that your boss, and your colleagues would give the same answer

Keep the Teflon in the kitchen where it belongs

There is a place for “non-stick” and that’s in the kitchen, NOT in front of a customer who is asking for something that you cannot deliver. In this situation sticking will always be better because if you use Teflon answers your relationship with your customer will be burnt forever.

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