During a break at a conference, a woman named Marge told me about an experience she recently had at another conference. It seems that she'd been talking to the keynote speaker when he abruptly turned away and started talking to someone else. I asked if he had cut her off in midsentence. No, she admitted. She had finished what she was saying, but was about to say something else when he rudely turned away.
Marge sounded deeply offended at the way she felt he had treated her. In her view, the speaker couldn't be bothered with her.
Could it be, I asked, that his apparent rudeness had been unintentional and that he'd offer a heartfelt apology if he knew of her reaction? She said she didn't care; he was in the public eye and should know better.
Marge's reaction got me thinking about the ease of causing offense in a different context: when working with customers. How often do we make a comment, use a phrase, glance a certain way, or do something seemingly innocuous, and in the process unintentionally offend a customer? How often do we do so, and not even realize it because the offended person doesn't tell us and give us a chance to apologize or correct a misinterpretation?
Over the next few months, I described Marge's experience at some of my seminars, and asked participants if they could think of situations in which an inadvertent word or action might offend customers.
Their response: Indeed, yes. How? On the phone, by sounding unenthusiastic, bored or distracted. In a class, by flipping through notes while someone is asking you a question. At a customer gathering, by looking at your watch while a customer is speaking to you. By looking around the room—particularly in the direction of the exit!
Or by not waiting that extra fraction of a second after the customer finishes speaking before turning away, as though you can't wait to escape.
If you serve and support customers, they may hold you to a higher standard just as Marge held the speaker, and they may think that you too should know better. Therefore, it's wise to reflect on the impact you might have on them, and to be sensitive to their reactions to your words and actions. You don't have to go to extremes and worry about whether every syllable or blink or nod might cause offense. Just be mindful of your behavior, and you'll be less likely to allow a careless word or action to create negative perceptions.
Having given a keynote presentation just an hour before this conversation with Marge, I was careful to remain enthusiastic and wide-eyed, while letting her fully and completely have her say. Then I smiled my biggest smile, told her how much I enjoyed speaking with her, and carefully—very carefully—took my leave.