2020 was a year where many people’s habits, routines, hobbies, and lifestyles went through dramatic changes, and these effects are continuing through 2021.
As day-to-day encounters dwindle, it’s easy to feel a loss of connection. As distinctions between home and work life start to blur, it’s unsurprising that conversations may take on a more personal or vulnerable tone, especially with customers with whom we’ve already established a relationship.
Over the last months, I have experienced topics of conversation ranging from home office setup, family dynamics (often prompted by interruptions from children, spouses, and pets), and more serious topics such as personal and family health, both physical and mental.
The majority of folks in Customer Success, including myself, are not trained and licensed therapists. When the conversation turns personal, it can be tough to know when to further the conversation, and when to redirect the conversation back on track.
You might be delighted by this sign of trust from your client, while also feeling pulled to make sure that your conversation is professionally productive. In these situations, the best approach to take is one that shows empathy, takes a moment to strengthen the relationship, and then organically steer the conversation back to the work-related topic at hand.
My undergraduate degree is in secondary education, and through the handful of educational psychology courses that I took to achieve that, I learned a strategy that has been highly valuable to me (both professionally and personally) called the “Echo Effect.” This strategy allows you to be present, be a good listener, and be kind, while still allowing you to focus back to the main reason for your conversation.
When someone discloses something personal:
1. Take a pause so that you can process what the client said.
2. Avoid offering a solution (unless of course this is a rare moment where the problem actually does apply to your job role). You might even want to ask the individual whether they want advice or whether they just need to vent for a moment.
3. Reflect what the client said back to them. For example, if a client is complaining that they are frequently interrupted in their work space, you might start by saying “it sounds like you’re having a tough time creating and enforcing boundaries while working from home.”
Paraphrasing the individual’s problem or perspective back to them not only shows that you’re engaged in listening and keeps the focus on the client, but can also allow you to avoid veering off into a long tangent. Sometimes, asking the right questions can help the client to not only reframe but solve their own issue, which allows you to get back on track.
4. Examine how this disclosure might impact your client’s definition of success - goals shift and change all the time! If someone’s current life circumstances are no longer aligning with their goals, maybe it’s time to redefine what success looks like for them.
What not to do: avoid the instinct to offer a relevant personal experience of your own. While this might feel like a good way to show that you understand what the other person is going through, it can have a detrimental effect as you’ve essentially just shifted the focus to yourself.
I can’t condone turning a check-in call into a full-blown therapy session, but I do think that it is important to acknowledge the individual’s struggle so that they don’t feel dismissed. It is completely fine and normal to acknowledge the disclosure, thank them for their vulnerability, and then ask if they’d like to continue with the call as planned.
It may feel uncomfortable to continue on with the meeting after a personal disclosure, but it’s also important to consider that rescheduling or postponing progress is likely to pile on even more stress.
The one time I would strongly recommend rescheduling is when a client’s life circumstances are inhibiting their ability to achieve success. If someone’s life and career are in direct conflict, it might be best to suggest that the customer spends some time evaluating and reflecting on whether their success plan should be updated. If you were out for a hike and there was a hazard - such as a log, boulder, or animal - in your path, you would evaluate whether it makes the most sense to go over, under, or around.
The most effective way for you to help is to figure out what extra support you might be able to offer to the client that might help to minimize their stress within the scope of your role. Providing excellent customer service as efficiently as possible might allow you to diminish the overall level of stress that they’re under.
You likely won’t be able to fix the main issue that they brought up, but you can do your best to make sure that working with you and your company becomes a positive part of their life. (I would also caution you to make sure that you only offer support that you have the bandwidth to successfully deliver, which is a whole other topic!)
I would like to invite you to try out the echo effect strategy the next time that a conversation you’re engaged in touches on a conflict, whether this is personal or professional. Show that you’re intentionally listening by pausing, rephrasing the client’s words back to them, and summarizing that part of the conversation.
If you’re concerned about the physical or mental well-being of someone you’re in conversation with, I would recommend looking up relevant support and resources that are local to them and/or accessible online.
Kelly McGillis is a former high school English teacher who currently works as a Project Specialist at Riipen. She is passionate about creating life-long learners through self-directed and project-based learning environments.