When was the last time you spoke to customer support? Bet you didn’t reach out to them to speak about how awesome they are?

Most people, myself included, only contact support if there’s absolutely no other way to get something done. I’d much rather fill ten online forms than call my bank, phone carrier, or accountant. If, and only if, I run out of other options, I may consider jumping on a call–and by that time I’m already tired, confused, and grumpy.

Knowing this, I can’t help but empathise with customers who reach out to us. Given how upset and frustrated I must be to even consider speaking to someone, I’m impressed how most of them are very polite and friendly. It’s a pleasure to assist them with whatever problem they have, and seeing their gratefulness is my biggest reward.

Still, for every few dozen polite customers, there’s always the one way past their boiling point.

Sometimes it’s due to a bug, other times it’s due to a misunderstanding. In most cases they’ve had a pretty bad day.

I know how it’s like to be too upset to hear any rational arguments. This doesn’t make it any easier to be on the receiving end of sarcasm, accusations, shouting, or foul language. After all these years, these things still do push my buttons sometimes, especially if I’m having a difficult day myself.

Once I feel the adrenaline rushing through my veins, it’s tempting to defend myself and the company I work for. “If you followed our guidelines on how to test new updates, you wouldn’t have this problem now”. “You completely misunderstood the document that we’ve sent”. It might be perfectly true. This doesn’t make it helpful, as it will only set the stage for the rest of the conversation in terms of whose blame it is.

Another strategy is to ignore the emotional content entirely and focus only on the technical part of the problem. This might sometimes work, if I’m able to solve it all on the spot. In most cases however, I can’t do a thing if the customer doesn’t cooperate. And the one thing that guarantees they’ll ignore my instructions completely is saying “Hi there! My name is Maria and I’m happy to help you with this :-)”. Good for you that you’re happy. You know what I am? I AM BEYOND UPSET with this unbelievable mess that you guys created. Now go and clean it up.

The only way out is all the way in

When someone’s shouting and swearing, it’s tempting to reject their entire message as violent and untrue. But deep below the anger there’s often a call for help. I get to choose whether to address the words themselves, or the pain that lies beneath.

When someone says “your product is a fucking piece of shit”, they don’t actually mean it. What they often mean is there’s a deadline tomorrow, their client is impatiently lurking over the shoulder, and no matter what they do, the credit card form just wouldn’t show up, the whole store is non-functional, and everything is heading towards a disaster.

Hearing the first sentence, I would be justified to take offence, say I will not tolerate verbal abuse, or tell them they’re more than welcome to choose someone else’s product that is not shit. I’ve been tempted to do this, multiple times. But if my job taught me something, it’s that no one really means to be mean. They are doing whatever they can, from whatever tough place they found themselves in, hoping this will help alleviate their pain. I’m quite familiar with how it’s like to be in such state.

It’s not easy to acknowledge the pain that someone’s going through. My high empathy often turns me into an emotional sponge, for better or worse. Opening up to other people’s emotions means I might get flooded and overwhelmed, especially if I have no tools to help them. I have seriously no idea how nurses, doctors, social care workers, or therapists can deal with life and death problems they face in their work. Seriously, big kudos to y’all.

It’s not easy to acknowledge the pain, but it’s the only way out. Unless you think I’m on your team, there’s little chance you’ll follow my requests, without which, we’re both stuck. We can spend all the time in the world talking about policies, recommended processes, things that should have been done, or words that shouldn’t have been said. Or I can see through the clumsy words you used to describe your problem and say “I hear you. I can only imagine how stressful it must be to hear the clock ticking before the great launch tomorrow and still be unable to accept any payments. I would be terrified myself! Let’s see how we can fix this together.”

Wouldn’t it be great to do the same when talking to family and friends?

It’s ironic, but in my personal life, I am often that person who screams and panics a lot. I spend all day managing emotions of strangers and have little space left for other emotional challenges. When these inevitably come, I tend to get overwhelmed.

My partner often wonders if customer support is the best career choice for someone as empathetic as me. From time to time, I wonder about this as well.

But no matter what I do for a living, I can’t run away from people and from the pain that they carry. I tried shutting down to it, and believe me, it’s not a great option either. Ignoring the feelings of others only leads to hurt, resentment, and misunderstanding that can live on for years.

Perhaps I should view my work as a practice ground. If I practice this emotional alchemy when it’s not live or death, doing this will come easier when it matters most. It’s easier to see through the anger of someone I don’t know at all, than through my partner upset about the things I hadn’t done, or a political discussion over family dinner. But with time and patience, I’ll eventually get there.

For deep under every angry statement about immigrants, white men in red hats, or mess on the kitchen counter, there lies fear and hurt that has nothing to do with the issue at hand. And if you address it directly, people will put their guard down, knowing you’re on their side.

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