Respond Verus React

I just finished a series of customer service programs for the employees of TWC Services, a commercial equipment service company. A branch manager made a comment during one of the sessions that made me stop and think about how businesses and employees deal with challenging situations - customer service issues or otherwise.

The manager, Jim Oakley, said to the group, "When dealing with any situation, it's important to understand the difference between responding and reacting. When we respond," Jim continued, "there is some thought behind our actions. When we react, we're just making it up."

Great stuff!

Jim's comments made me reflect on those times when I handled a problem poorly. In those cases, I may have panicked a bit, grasping at solutions that might work or maybe saying something I shouldn't have said (or not said in the way I said it). Those times that I handled a problem well was usually due to responding in a way that included some thought, consideration, or experience.

For an extreme example of the difference between responding and reacting, let's look at the example of Sully Sullenberger, pilot of the plane that made the extraordinary water landing on the Hudson River, resulting in 155 passengers saved from what could've been a tragic end. His actions provide a great example of an effective response. Listening to the cockpit radio dialogue, it's clear that Captain Sullenberger responded with calm, well-trained, experience-laced, actions. Although he had to make quick decisions, he didn't lose control of his emotions or of the situation.

On the other hand, most of us have heard replays of 911 recordings in which the caller was obviously reacting to an emergency situation. The caller's panic is evident as the 911 operator attempts to get pertinent information in order to assist. Valuable time is lost as the operator tries to calm the caller down.

The challenges most of us face in our businesses are rarely life and death as they are with an aircraft in trouble or a 911 emergency call. But, how we handle challenging situations can mean the difference between a loyal customer and one who vows never to do business with us again.

So, what does all of this mean? It means that we need to set ourselves and our people up to respond instead of react. Here are a few questions to ask:

  • When an employee is unsure of the answer to a customer's question, does he or she feel confident in how to get the right answer? How to get the right answer quickly?
  • Do our employees know exactly what to do in a service recovery situation? Do we have a service recovery strategy?
  • Have our employees been trained in ways to calm an upset customer?
  • Do we discuss "what if?" scenarios in team meetings, so that employees have an opportunity to consider challenging situations while in a safe environment?
  • If a customer situation seems to be spiraling out of control, do our employees know how to get a supervisor immediately involved?

And by the way, if you're an employee in an organization, simply change the wording of the questions so that they focus on your own ability to deal with the issues. If your answer to any of the questions is "no," take responsibility for rectifying that knowledge gap - if for no other reason than your own peace of mind.

Not too long ago, I was on the receiving end of an employee's reactions to a situation. I was in an electronics store looking for portable speakers for my laptop computer. "Can you tell me where to find portable laptop speakers?" I asked. "I'm not sure if we have them," was the employee's curt reply. I took a deep breath - "If you did, do you know where they'd be?" In a bit of a huff, he stopped what he was doing (stocking a shelf) and led me up and down several aisles as he looked for the speakers; something I could've done myself.

Stumbling upon a small display of portable speakers, I discovered quite a price difference in the various brands and asked the employee what the difference in quality was (I don't know why I asked - I should've known better). "Well," he said, "the more expensive ones are obviously better." He clearly didn't know; he was simply reacting to my question.

I ended up finding another employee who knew something about the speakers, and I made an informed purchase of speakers that did everything I needed them to do. He was able to effectively respond to my needs with two well thought out questions and a knowledge of the differences in the brands. I'll definitely look for that helpful employee if I visit the store again.

While the difference between the words "react" and "respond" might appear subtle, the difference is actually quite profound. It's a difference that leads customer frustration or leads to customer delight.