by May Habib, co-founder and CEO of Writer
As we think about healthy communication at work, we’re reminded of the saga of Away. The direct-to-consumer luggage company experienced such massive growth that it couldn’t keep up with demand. As customer requests piled up despite the customer service team’s 16-hour workdays and canceled vacations, executives blamed the team for not keeping up. They reportedly became so toxic that the team virtually imploded, service quality plummeted, and the story unfolded in an unflattering media exposé.
This moment finds us with a different kind of anxiety. Pandemic-related stress is at an all-time high, and people are bringing it to work. It can show up in ugly ways, too. In a survey we conducted of 1,000 professionals, 38 percent said they experienced toxic workplace communication since shelter-in-place began. Yikes!
What about when that nastiness starts to seep into your interactions with customers? Even if underneath the surface, unhealthy customer communication can damage your satisfaction scores…and your brand.
Here are 12 steps you can take to help your customer success team stay positive and put all kinds of good vibes out into the universe.
1. Acknowledge the stress.
Your customer success team are people, too. They’re dealing with the strain of a deadly pandemic, economic anxiety, and lots of “togetherness” with family members at home. Even if you can’t fix these problems, simply acknowledging the stress they’re under goes a long way for their state of mind.
2. Care for your employees.
Maybe it’s quaran-tinis every other Friday. Or a well-timed “wellness day.” Or a cupcake delivery to employees’ homes. Whatever your flavor, invest in ways to remind your employees that you value and care about them. In turn, they’ll value and care for your customers.
3. Be ground zero.
As a leader in your company, you set the tone. Consider yourself “ground zero” for the kind of communication you want your customers to experience. The empathetic, upbeat, and kind words and messages you model to employees are the same your employees will use with customers.
4. Know what it sounds like.
Know what unhealthy and toxic communication sounds like. Unhealthy communication includes words and turns of phrase that are exclusive, condescending, or passive-aggressive and toxic communication includes comments and writing that are sexually-explicit or suggestive, bullying, racist, or discriminatory.
5. Tool for it.
There’s a raft of new tools out there to measure customer interactions, including Gong, Chorus, and Writer. Outfit your teams so you can address unhealthy or toxic communication. But give them a heads up so they know you’re doing it, and approach the oversight with sensitivity.
6. Nip it in the bud.
As soon as you see or hear ugliness, call it out immediately. Approach the person in private. They may not be aware of their behavior, so be specific and help them understand the customer impact. Later, anonymize the example and discuss the topic more broadly with the team.
7. Enforce the rules.
If the toxic communication persists, take action. Taking a hard line right away sends a clear message and ensures compliance from the rest of the team. Let them know that, even if they are on the receiving end of ugliness, it needs to stop with them – no exceptions.
8. Protect them from toxicity.
Any customer-facing team knows what incoming feels like. Equip yours with the appropriate responses and escalation processes to remove themselves from an abusive situation. They need to feel empowered to set boundaries and know that you have their back.
9. Create a pressure valve.
Acknowledge the absurd and lower the team’s stress. Bill Gates describes a “Mail Merge couch” from Microsoft’s early days. Team members sat (or laid) on it while taking support calls related to the product’s frustratingly complex feature. The inside joke helped them blow off steam and laugh at their situation.
10. Let them rest.
As we learned from Away’s cautionary tale, the stress of being on the front lines is exacerbated by lack of sleep. Prepare and plan for people to get the rest and downtime they need, even if you have to bring in temporary reinforcements or other teams need to chip in.
11. Recognize key moments.
Just as you suss out the nastiness, find and recognize the good stuff. Amplify and celebrate examples – large and small – of the behavior you want. Especially call out positive responses in the face of negativity. Create a “good karma” award and make a big hoopla out of it.
12. Make it stick.
Make healthy communication a thing in your company culture. Get on the same page with the other executives about the voice, tone, and behavior norms you want to promote internally and externally. Then, make them stick by codifying them in your employee guidelines and brand styleguide.
May Habib is co-founder and CEO of Writer, an AI writing assistant for teams. Before founding Writer, May was a vice president at one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds, where she was the first employee on the technology investment team, building a portfolio now worth over $20B. She is a member of the World Economic Forum, and is a Fellow of the Aspen Global Leadership Network.