Identify the Fight-or-Flight Instinct

25.06.2018 |

Episode #2 of the course How to serve upset customers by Jeff Toister


Welcome to Lesson 2!

Yesterday’s assignment was to identify the top five customer complaints you receive from customers.

Customer service professionals often tell me that it’s frustrating to hear the same complaint over and over again. Some feel powerless to fix it, while others feel unfairly blamed by the customers for a problem they didn’t cause. These feelings are normal, but they can also make it more difficult for us to help an upset customer when we’re feeling upset ourselves. Today, we’re going to identify the warning signs of a natural instinct that can cause us to stop helping customers.


The Fight-or-Flight Instinct

Think about situations in everyday life when you’ve been confronted by an angry or unpleasant person. Perhaps someone cuts you off in traffic or bumps you with their cart in the checkout line at the grocery store. You may have even met an unpleasant person at a party. Now think about what you naturally do in those situations. Chances are, you either argue with the person (fight) or you try to get away from them (flight). That’s the fight-or-flight instinct.

The big challenge in customer service is we’re not supposed to argue or run away from an angry customer. We’re supposed to ignore our fight-or-flight instinct and calmly help the customer.

That’s much easier said than done!


Recognizing the Fight-or-Flight Instinct

What we can do is recognize when our natural fight-or-flight instinct is kicking in and then pause before we act, so we can make a good choice. (Moms everywhere have been telling us this for years!)

Paul, a nightclub manager, told me about a customer who called in and accused a server of stealing his credit card number. Paul was certain the server wasn’t guilty, and he could feel the fight-or-flight instinct kick in as the angry customer lobbed accusations. “I could feel my blood pressure going up,” he said. “I could feel my face get flushed.” That was Paul’s natural, human reaction to the situation. Fortunately, Paul smartly paused and took a deep breath to calm himself before offering to help the customer.

Let’s do an exercise to help you identify the fight-or-flight instinct.

Start by thinking about a recent encounter with an angry or upset customer. Did you experience any of the following symptoms?

• increased heart rate

• tunnel vision

• dilated pupils

• flushed face

• dry mouth

Those are all symptoms of the fight-or-flight instinct.

Now the next time you encounter an angry or upset customer, try to notice as you experience some of those symptoms. You may also have an overwhelming urge to argue with the customer (fight) or get away (flight).

This is the moment of truth! If you can recognize this instinct, you can take just a moment to pause and consciously make a different decision that will lead to a better outcome.


Beware of Your Instincts

What happens if you don’t recognize the symptoms and just act on instinct?

You’ll risk making it worse. I once witnessed a hotel manager give in to the fight-or-flight instinct when he was confronted by an irate guest. The manager was clearly embarrassed because the guest was causing a scene and holding up the check-in line. His instinctive reaction was to confront the guest, which he did by holding his hand out like a stop sign and saying, “Sir, you need to calm down.”

You can probably guess what happened next. The irate customer exploded in rage and security had to get involved.

We definitely don’t want that to happen!

So your assignment for tomorrow is to try to recognize a situation when you experience the fight-or-flight instinct. Try to pause, collect yourself, and make a good decision when you feel this instinct kicking in.

Tomorrow, I’ll explain a counterintuitive way to defuse an angry customer.


Recommended reading

Coffee May Make the Fight-or-Flight Instinct Harder to Control


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