interpersonal communication for customer service

Don Crawley: My guest today is Lisa Voso of Voso Impact, Inc. a communications and speech coaching firm. She works with executives and professional speakers on their communication skills including both their speech performance and their content development. She holds a master’s degree in communications and a law degree. She has participated in national speech competitions, served as a litigation attorney and communications instructor. Her work today is to help others speak with impact. Lisa, welcome to the Compassionate Geek.

Lisa Voso: Thank you for having me.

DC: Today’s workplace includes a greater diversity than perhaps at any time in history. What are some of the different challenges that affect people in the workplace because of that diversity?

LV: One of a company’s greatest assets is diversity and also causes a lot of communication conflict. What happens is when someone offends our core values, something that’s really meaningful to us, that can dive us into our red zone, and that red zone is a place where our emotions are high. We can’t think strategically there or linearly; we’re thinking emotionally. From that emotional place conflict can happen. That conflict can start to become systemic and a conflict habit loop starts.

DC: When you say “offends our core values”, you’re not talking about people who take offense at something that someone says in politics or in the media, you’re talking about something that really goes against what we believe are core values. Is that correct?

LV: That’s correct.

DC: So how should we deal with those challenges?

LV: A way of dealing with it is an acronym A-R-S and what that stands for is awareness, recognition, and strive. Awareness means what’s my own communication style? What do I prefer? For example, do I prefer email or face-to-face communication? How fast do I want people to respond to me and how fast do I respond to others? And packaging: am I more direct? Am I a little bit more quiet, a little bit more passive—all those things, being aware of those things makes a difference. That gets to then recognition, recognizing that somebody else communicates differently. Those three things might not be true for you. The method that you like might be different than me, how quickly you like me to respond and maybe you’re not as direct as I am. Those things make a difference because I think we get into the mindset that people need to convert to our way of communicating.

DC: It’s the exact opposite.

LV: It’s the exact opposite. Step three is strive, striving for open, flexible, respectful communications with others.

DC: So it’s interesting, what I hear you saying is that we often frame communication based on how we understand our communication to occur, how we want people to communicate with us and yet if we’re attempting to communicate with another person, the real test is whether they got the message that we intended, and in order to achieve that, we have to frame our communication in their terms rather than on ours. Is that right?

LV: In meeting in the middle so that let’s say, for example, you really like face-to-face communication, but I’m an email person. So I want you to email me all the time. I don’t want you to come down to my office necessarily to talk to me because I like to click on email but you continually come down to my office. I don’t talk to you about it; I just don’t say anything, but I continue to get frustrated diving into that emotional red zone. As you come into my office every time to talk to me face-to-face, I have a little bit more frustration, and then my getting into that red zone happens a little faster each time. Then you and I, all of a sudden, are in a communication habit loop that’s really negative.

DC: I see.

LV: So I don’t necessarily have to either get you to convert all the time to email or that I always have to talk to you face-to-face. It’s a matter of us having communication that says  “When is it okay for us to email so that we’re meeting part of my need and when is it that we talk face-to-face I’m meeting part of your need?” It’s not actually on one end of the spectrum or the other, but someone has to step towards the middle.

DC: In negotiating those terms then we find some means of communication that works for both of us.

LV: Absolutely, and the irony is just having the conversation, just being candid and coming out of the habit loop, to have a conversation, say hey, you know, I really want to hear everything you have to say and because I have so many things going on, email’s great for me because I can make sure that I read everything that you say in the email and respond to all of it because sometimes, especially in the mornings when I’m fighting with all these other things, I don’t give you enough attention and that’s not what I want to do. I don’t want to give you any negative energy. So can we find some happy medium where I’m honoring what you need and balancing the high volume that I’m managing at the same time?

DC: It goes back to that Meryl Runion concept of “Say what you mean and mean what you say. Don’t be mean when you say it.” Get it out there and talk it out.

LV: That’s exactly right.

DC: Now let’s talk about technical people trying to communicate with nontechnical people. This is the Compassionate Geek blog. It’s about technical people, and our challenges in dealing with others in the workplace. So what are some of the difficulties that technical people have in establishing appropriate or effective communication with nontechnical people in the workplace and then how can we overcome those difficulties?

LV: One issue that they deal with is speed. Our communications have become fast and fragmented; I mean volume emails coming, people coming to talk to you, trying to manage all of that at one time, fast, fast, fast. Not only is it coming in fast but the responses have to go out fast. Another challenge that they’re dealing with is emotions. We are so emotionally connected to our technology. It has to work; it has to be fast. It has to work the right way. They are dealing a lot with emotions and people not having things work. That’s going to be very difficult too. The last one I think is translation, that technical people speak a different language than the rest of us.

DC: Yeah.

LV: I equate that sometimes to lawyer language and non-lawyer language. It’s kind of that same thing, and there’s no translator.

DC: Makes sense, yeah! So what can we as technical people do to overcome those difficulties?

LV: So the solution to this problem is listening for what’s important, and what that means is in communication people disclose what they what really is most important to them in two ways. They do it through their nonverbal cues; they also do it through their use of adjectives. So let me give you an example. Let’s say you and I are having a communication, and at some point in the communication I say this is really, really time-sensitive. As I said that I committed to saying the word “really” twice, I also over-gestured as I said it. We disclose in our communications what’s most important to us all the time. However, what gets in our way is I’m thinking to myself this person has already talked to me three times about this. Or, the way they’re packaging this is just frustrating. I wish they would calm down, or this is my fifteenth call like this today. If the focus is on me, I’m going to miss the disclosure. I’m going to miss what it is that you’re telling me that’s most important. If I can identify that, if I can see where you move your body the most, if you give me a heightened adjective, if I focus on that and then when you’re done asking a question about that, I have built a bridge so quickly in communication, but I can’t do it if the focus is on me.

DC: So if I can summarize what you just said, there are really two components that need to be at work in technical people speaking effectively with nontechnical people, and the first is put the focus on the person with whom you’re speaking. So it’s not on yourself, but it’s on the other person. The second is to be aware and to watch for nonverbal cues and even verbal cues. You mentioned the use of adjectives specifically but really just to be aware of what the other person is doing. Did I get that correct?

LV: That’s exactly right because the more emotional someone is, the more they’re going to use a word that matches their emotions. So I’m not going to use the word okay if the word is hate. I’m going to inflate my linguistic choices to match the emotion that I’m feeling. I’m also going to move my body more dramatically around the thing that’s more important to me. You can do this whether it’s written communication like email or a face-to-face. We do the same thing.

DC: So let’s move on now to talking about inter-generational communication. We talked about some of the communication challenges. We’ve talked about the difficulties that technical people have with nontechnical people, but in today’s workplace there are really four generations, maybe three and a few of the Veterans or Traditionalists, but the Traditionalists, the Baby Boomers, the Gen-Xers and the Millennials. Communication styles vary greatly between the different generations. So what are some of the techniques that we can use to achieve effective communication if we’re a Baby Boomer talking to a Millennial or Millennial talking to a Gen-Xer or a Traditionalist trying to communicate with a Millennial? What are some of the techniques that we can use to achieve effective successful communication between the generations?

LV: Knowing about this topic, my master’s thesis was on this because how in America right now we’re seeing high turnover rates; we’re seeing morale drop. We’re seeing a lot of conflict in communications in the workplace and so much of it has to do with the differences between generations, and the reason they’re different is because in a generation you can go through life experiences that are shared among all those people that grew up during that same time whether they were political influences, social, environmental, those things. They then have shared core values, beliefs and attitudes, and from that they have very particular communication styles. For example, if you talk about the Traditionalists born before 1945. They went through World War II; they are conservative. They have communication styles that their preference is to talk face-to-face.

DC: By conservative since we’re in an election season, you’re not talking about politically conservative, you’re talking about how they’re conservative in their actions and responses.

LV: That’s correct. Yes. In part that was related to the Depression so they conserve resources. Oftentimes they would conserve canned foods and things like that, and their communication style preference is face-to-face. Their core value is respect. That’s really important to remember as we move into the baby boomers born between 1945 and 1965 and the years vary a little bit depending on the expert. The Baby Boomers are still our largest generation even though some of them are retiring; they are still the largest generation that we have. They went through Woodstock; they went through Vietnam, civil rights, women’s rights. A huge change happened during that generation, and one of their core values is recognition. In recognition their communication preference is you ask them.

DC: So ask me how I want you to talk to me. I really want you to send me email. No, I want you to come down and visit me or whatever it is.

LV: That’s right. So, me assuming because you’re a Boomer that you want a face-to-face would be inaccurate. The way that I bridge a communication gap with you is I ask you which ironically gets to the Gen-x’ers which some of the most conflicting generations we have are between the Boomers and the Xers, Xers born between 1965 and 1985, and they’re actually our smallest generation. They were latchkey kids. The divorce rates were skyrocketing during the time that they were growing up. You’ve got the Nixon scandal; you’ve got the Cold War, lots of disappointment, lots of time also for them to be alone while both their parents were working. That was the first time in our country that you really had a lot of parents working at the same time so the kids were home alone making their own snacks, doing their own homework, that sort of thing. Their big number one core value is independence. That becomes difficult if their talking to a Baby Boomer. To be independent means you want to pick email as your communication choice because you get to decide when you write back, how you write it. You can hit that delete key, reconstruct it. It gives you a lot of independence, but Boomers need recognition. How do I recognize you if I wait a day to email you back? How do I give you recognition in the moment when you communicate with me when you spend ten minutes giving me all this wise information, and in that moment I’m panicking because I need to process. I need to think about it before I give you a response, so I leave you hanging. I’ve just offended your core value as a Boomer instantaneously, not intentionally.

DC: Wow! So again it goes back to if the Gen-Xer wants to communicate with the boomer, the Gen-Xer needs to ask the Boomer how to communicate. What about the other way, what about if the Boomer needs to communicate with the Gen-Xer?

LV: Send a short email. Ironically there’s a balance between the two so when is it that we need to have a longer face-to-face and when is an email going to be okay and there’s that balance between the two because sometimes the face-to-face is much more appropriate and much more efficient. And sometimes the email can handle these other things, but if we’re not talking about it, we’re only in conflict about it.

DC: Got it! Then how about the Millennials?

LV: Millennials born between 1985 and 2000, and that generation is the second largest generation that we have. Let me tell you what’s interesting about the millennials is they were born during the technology era, video games, cell phones, personal computers.

DC: Totally connected.

LV: Totally connected. That’s not it though. I think what people forget about them is they’re the generation that started ratings and reviews. They at the age of ten could go on Amazon and report that they liked the toy or they didn’t like the toy and their opinion mattered. So, then as they come into the workplace, their [inaudible: 14:14.7] matter. So when they enter the workforce they believe that their opinion should matter, but they’re all the way down at the bottom and the Boomers and the Xers aren’t inviting their opinion. I mean, they’re down at the bottom. They’re a new hire. I don’t want to talk to you and have your opinion be heard. So the greatest turnover you see as Millennials just moving, they’re at a company and then they leave, but if you ask them—which is part of what I did in my master’s thesis is I asked them—I asked why do you leave? Well, because I don’t feel part of the company; they’ll never let me give my opinions.

DC: Wow! In the studies that I’ve done about the generations at work—which is a fair amount—I’ve never run across that, but that makes total sense that they’re accustomed to having their opinion validated.

LV: And their core value as collaboration and the idea of collaboration means whether you agree with my idea or not or use my idea, it doesn’t matter. It’s that I have a platform to be heard.

DC: Wow! The other thing that I’ve noticed about Millennials is that don’t even bother leaving a voice message; send them a text. Don’t even bother leaving voicemail.

LV: You want to know what’s interesting about the Millennials, their number one communication preference, whatever’s the fastest.

DC: Yeah.

LV: They will get right up out of their chair and come talk to you if it’s the fastest way to get it, but if you’ve hung out with them too long and then give them the answer fast enough, they’re probably not going to revisit you face-to-face again because it just took way too long. Some of them don’t really like voicemail; some of them don’t love text messages. They actually appreciate there’s something lost in text messages. But the bottom line out of all the surveys that I did and all the studies that I’ve done, they just want whatever’s fastest.

DC: That really underscores an important concept and that is we’re stereotyping. We’re creating gross generalizations, and they may or may not apply to specific individuals but across groups of people, these tend to be true.

LV: True. The reason the research is so powerful is because what we find in generalities is that as a generation experiences certain things together, they have tendencies that tend to be the same. If you change, for example, one thing, so, for example, if I was a Gen-Xer and I was raised by a Traditionalist, I am going to have a different set of core values because of that parental influence than I might if my parents were Baby Boomers.

DC: Got it. Makes sense.

DC: Let’s talk about technical support people now because a lot of people who are watching this video working in technical support either directly or indirectly—maybe that is their job description or maybe that’s just a fact of something that they do—and in technical support we have ticketing systems often in place that allow us to keep records of the particular issue that we’re dealing with and they do a very good job of getting the particulars of the issue and having that history, but what they don’t do well is they don’t establish one-on-one communication. I’ve had managers come up to me after presentations and speeches and at workshops saying that they felt like sometimes their technical support staff members were hiding behind the ticketing systems and not really achieving good communication with end users. How would you address that?

LV: I think that part of that is, what’s in my tool bag? Do I actually know how to manage this person who’s really emotional about this situation because I’m technical? I want to go fix their problem; I want to do it as fast as I can, but submerged in all that is the emotions around what’s happening. That’s really difficult to deal with. I think it’s really hard plus most technical people are dealing in volume. So they’re dealing with a lot of that all at one time. So how do you manage that? What is it that we can train them to help them when they’re dealing with emotions to A-R-S? Can I be aware of what my style is? Can I be aware of where you’re at, and can I strive to get it quickly by listening for what you need to the solution quickly? That’s sort of the idea of creating a safe space for technical people to practice this where it’s not an immediate situation because we have to take into account how much volume is coming at them at one time, not just the number of calls but if your technology breaks down—that’s emotional; I feel that way—if something happened with my cell phone or my computer it’s catastrophic in the moment and so I don’t know that I’m going to be on my best behavior. I’m giving my not-so-great behavior to this person who just wants to fix my problem. So I think it helps them to be able to listen for what people need and get to that really quickly and have a chance to sort of explore that when they’re not dealing with the customer, that they have the training in a situation where they get to think about it off line.

DC: Lisa, what are the most common communication problems or challenges or difficulties that you see in the workplace and what are the best ways to overcome them?

LV: I think a lot of that has to do with communication flow, our ability to be present with another person, to be open, to actually tell somebody that the communication isn’t working, to break that negative communication habit, it’s really hard. It’s much easier once the habit starts. They’re habits; they’re easy. We don’t have to think about them. It’s much harder to come out of that and say you know, there might be a better way for us to find some middle ground, but that takes courage, a lot of courage. How do you get to that kind of courage, especially when we’ve now gotten to some place bad? How do you and I break out of that bad habit? I think a lot of that has to do with being aware of our own communication styles of recognizing others, of striving—which naturally happens once we have those first two elements to strive to be open and respectful to each other. I feel like not only is this possible for everybody to do, it’s essential.

DC: Our guest today has been Lisa Voso of Voso Impact, and Lisa, this has been wonderful hearing from you about the communication challenges and tools for dealing with those challenges in the workplace. Can you summarize what we’ve talked about in the first part of the visit?

LV: Sure. First we talked about the acronym A-R-S, being aware of our own communication styles and preferences, second recognizing that someone else is different.

DC: So recognition.

LV: And not necessarily demanding, but also you have to try to be communicating the exact same way that I do; that’s part of recognition.

DC: Being flexible and communicating in the style that works for the person with whom you’re trying to communicate.

LV: Which is step three which was striving for exactly what you just said.

DC: Got it! Excellent! Anything else you want to add to what we’ve talked about?

LV: I’d like to say that we have a tendency to get into communication habits and patterns that don’t serve us because when we’re in conflict with one another, it doesn’t serve me and it’s not serving you either. It doesn’t feel good on either end. I invite people to really look at their communication habits particularly the ones that aren’t serving them and really look on how to break them, how to come out and have a conversation with someone about finding some middle ground. Again, don’t just invite this. I think this is absolutely possible and I think it’s essential that we’re doing this.

DC: So really work to communicate about communication.

LV: That’s exactly right.

DC: Lisa, thank you very much.

LV: Thank you so much.

DC: I’m Don Crawley. I’ll see you next time.

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