Oh, what an exhausted and exhausting topic, but I had an epiphany about myself on my morning drive to the coffee shop this weekend, as one is loathe to do, so I am going to share it anyway.
“What’s your generation going to do when we’re all dead and there is no one left to blame for your problems.”
Despite their protests, it’s my parents’ fault…
I have occasionally been accused of speaking over people, ending their sentence just before the period. I have been accused of not being a good listener, because I move on to the next thought without responding to what the speaker just said. I have been accused of not being interested in other people, because someone will make a declaration about themselves and I will make a similar declaration relating to my own life.
From my perspective, none of the things I have ever been accused of regarding my communication style in this instance are true and it always puzzled me.
Which brings us to this weekend. I was having a conversation with my husband about his great day at work and when we ended the conversation and I left the room I had an overwhelming urge to go back and ask if he had finished what he wanted to say. And he hadn’t. He was trying to tell me he got a raise, but we never got around to that because for every one thing he would say, I would follow it with an anecdote about my day.
Him: “I had lunch with my interim manager today…”
Me: “Oh, that reminds me! I have lunch with my coworker tomorrow! I don’t have to pack my sad sandwich!”
Him: “She was pretty happy with my work...”
Me: “Well, you’re good at it – Weren’t you going to work on Peter’s yard this weekend? I have to write that down, so I don’t forget.”
Him: “She said I’m really easy to work with and everyone likes me…”
Me: “I like you too – easy to do! What was that dish you had last week you said you liked? I’ll make it for dinner.
My husband is not a talker in the traditional sense. He talks to live; he doesn’t live to talk if you know what I’m saying, and often complains of trying to engage in the conversation when I am around my family. He says as soon as he thinks of something to say we’ve already skipped four topics ahead. What I realized this weekend, which was illustrated by my lack of “listening” in the above, is that as kids my brothers and I were taught to hold a conversation based on free word association. My parents were livid if you didn’t hold up your end of the conversation with something other than “good”, “fine”, “yes”, “no”. And, as we were teenagers for quite some time, and kids before that, we weren’t really interested in what they were saying, which meant holding up our end often resulted in changing the topic, usually back to us, and loosely based on something they just said. Luckily, my parents’ communication style was the same or similar so they would also then move the conversation along to another topic. And this would continue…for hours.
This tendency was highlighted for me much earlier when I owned my own business. I had become quite comfortable with a regular customer. We would chat for hours and he came in every day. Then, one day he interrupted me and almost screamed, “you’re always *insert expletive* interrupting me!” That’s when it occurred to me that even though I felt comfortable with him, there was still, and would always be, an imbalance in the relationship. He only wanted me to be comfortable enough to make him feel comfortable. My actual personality, and deeply ingrained communication style, had wandered too far back to its happy place in a professional setting and I needed to return to my customer service face.
He was a regular to me because he came in the most, but to him I was still the lady at the coffee shop. I was someone he was paying to provide him coffee, and an atmosphere of service, which in this case meant engaging conversation. Everything I said to him, and to all of my customers, was only meant to drive a goal, either their comfort, my sales, or both. My personality was not the point; we were not friends.
If you listen, not even that hard, you will hear the same from your staff. And if we take a moment to look in the mirror, we will notice ourselves doing this in the lane as well. There will be those patients who come in often enough that we feel very comfortable with them. We know a lot about them. And they have occasionally graced us with questions about ourselves, to the point that we start to let our personalities show. Your team starts using their first name. They tell them off-color jokes they heard at a barbecue. They are a little less buttoned-up around them and may even neglect to greet them properly in favor of a patient who has never been there before.
All of this is a mistake. In the end, customers, like someone telling us a story about their day, both people we care about but in different ways, are expecting us to listen in the way that they need to be listened to. In a service organization, like a retail store (your optical), or a medical establishment (your lane), patrons are there for themselves, not to make us feel heard or engaged in any way. Don’t get too comfortable, remember the hierarchy, who is paying who here, and what level of service do they expect and deserve.
Very often, in order to consistently exceed customer expectations, we must work to create a customer-facing personality that is not natural to us. We must remain cognizant of the feeling our patients have when we do engage them in conversation and be deliberate about the outcome we are trying to create, constantly, and intentionally steering the conversation back to that goal. Sales, after all, is not getting someone to like you so they will buy your product, it is meeting them where and how they want to be met, and making them feel comfortable enough to trust us to give them something they never knew they always needed. Trust is built on consistency. Our patient experience will not be consistent if we are engaging them too intimately in conversation, and letting our personality do the talking.
Susan earned her bachelor’s degree in Fashion Merchandising Management from FIT and studied branding abroad at the University of Westminster. Her most recent positions include Merchandise Manager for Cohen’s Fashion Optical and Northeast Regional Trainer for Solstice Sunglasses. Susan started her own business in 2009 and sold it in 2016 to return to Connecticut and begin working for IDOC, helping other small business owners find success on their own terms. For questions or comments about this article, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.