Assume Competence When Serving Clients in Business and at Work

Assume Competence:  Assume the person with a disability knows what they are doing and where they are going. Don’t assume someone with a disability needs your help. Offer assistance only if someone appears to need it and always ask how to help before you act.

– From the American Bar Association’s website on Differently-Abled Etiquette (terminology mine).

Last week, I was in the client seat, picking up business equipment I had purchased on the phone the previous day – I’m a repeat-business customer.

Upon arrival, I was routed to a customer service specialist, who asked to see my electronic receipt with the order number and my ID. I peered myopically at my smartphone, scrolling down to the email with the receipt, which was near the top of my email inbox. “You can enter the name of our company in the search box and find the email quicker that way,” the specialist (customer service absent) remarked to me, curtly and unsmiling. Clearly, I was taking too much time for them as other clients thronged around us on the sales floor. “I know,” I responded as I located the email. The PDF attachment was not appearing in the email. I checked the vendor’s free internet connection on my phone’s settings. “You’re not connected to our WIFI,” the specialist, observed. Now I was getting impatient. “I know,” I responded again. “See, your WIFI is not allowing me to connect.” The specialist peered at my screen, and held out their hand.  “Here, I’ll connect the WIFI for you.” I looked at the specialist. Clearly, I was old enough to be their parent, and the curt / unfriendly tone of their communication to me impacted as the assumption was that I was too old (and therefore incompetent, contrary to the reality of my geek competencies) to connect to WIFI myself. I definitely get more geek respect from my 14 year-old son than from this recent college grad. “Thank you, I think I can handle connecting to WIFI myself.” I continued. WIFI finally connected, I opened the PDF receipt. No order number. “There’s no order number on this receipt,” I reported to the specialist, showing them the receipt. They looked at the receipt, and at me. “This is clearly a web order, and not a phone order,” they concluded, curt and unfriendly tone continuing. “I ordered the equipment on the phone,” I responded. “Clearly, there’s an issue with your internal process, not my purchase.” The specialist peered at their device. “I’ll be right back,” they reported.

A few minutes later, the specialist emerged with my order and wordlessly handed it to me; then, they quickly turned around to “service” the next client. No thank-you, no sorry-to-keep-you-waiting, no we-appreciate-your-continued / repeat-business. Ugh. Especially since my business consists completely of providing client service supporting the success of my clients, I detest receiving poor client service, particularly when making a significant business equipment investment.

My first instinct was to bring my substandard service experience to the attention of the manager-on-duty. However, consistent with my value system to communicate directly with the person causing the issue and in turn support our mutual success going forward (e.g., no triangling, no third-party communication), I returned to the business location and asked to speak with them again. “Since my business is to coach and give feedback to support success, I need to let you know that I was not happy with the level of service I received from you today. You appeared to be impatient; and while I’m clearly old enough to be your mother, I’m also clearly a high-functioning end-user.” Still curt and unsmiling, they replied: “I wasn’t impatient; that wasn’t my intention. And I work with several older co-workers.” I persisted. “Your interaction with me telegraphed impatience, and that I was not technically competent.” They thought about the feedback for a minute. “I’m sorry, that was not my intention. Perhaps I should have asked you if you needed any help, rather than trying to do it for you or just telling you how to do it.” I nodded. “That’s a good start.  However, it’s the impact and the tone of your communication that matters the most, not just your intention.”

They were definitely not pleased. “Listen,” I continued, “I’m giving you this feedback directly, rather than go to your manager – coaching people to support their career success is what I do. Where do you want to go with your career?” They knew immediately. “Visual merchandising,” they replied. I nodded. In all likelihood, they were better with facts and things rather than people interaction, and people interaction probably stressed them out, especially given the amount of clients milling around the sales floor that day. “Something to think about,” I concluded.  “I need to get going – thanks for listening to the feedback.” I took a peek at their LinkedIn profile after I left – clearly smart and well-educated – and their LinkedIn profile picture showed the only smile I saw from them. In hindsight, when I was their age, fresh out of college, I needed to be the smartest person in the conversation. Older and wiser, in order to ensure that no one is marginalized, I assume competence in all client interactions and from everyone in the conversation, unless a client tells me otherwise.

How will you assume competence in your client interactions to support the success of all involved, in business and at work?


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