Improving Customer Service: Controlling Chemical Brain Freezes for Better Results

By Chuck Inman

How can the solutions recommended for this customer service fiasco be applied to the call center so that we can provide better care for our patients and callers?

Kristy had finally worked her way to the front of the store after standing in line for 45 minutes. She waited with about 30 other people, armed with their holiday packages at one of the shipping stores at the mall. As the line grew longer by the minute, two women behind the counter worked frantically to take care of customers. Close to the counter now, Kristy overheard one of the women behind the counter utter to herself, “Oh no, the computer screen blacked out.” One of the two computers had crashed, as the two behind the counter exchanged worried glances.

Instead of addressing those waiting in line, both employees just kept their heads down and kept working. People in line became anxious, and tempers grew short as they noticed only one of the employees servicing them. Kristy heard one clerk tell a customer, “This computer crashes all the time.”

Obviously, they weren’t prepared for an event that appeared to happen frequently. Both ladies seemed to have lost a major portion of their thinking capacity. They were knocked out of the moment and lost an opportunity to connect with customers.

What could have happened if they had stayed in the moment? They could have addressed the customers and told them they had a computer problem. They could have told the customers they rebooted, and the computer would be restored in a couple of minutes. They could have used the opportunity to get the customers to play a game by asking, “Who would like to share their plans for the holidays? We’ll give a small gift to the person traveling farthest for the holidays.” They could have even done a quick raffle of one of their office items to keep the customers engaged.

Do you remember those hot summer days as a kid when you would go to a convenience store to buy a Slurpee to cool down? Then, after a few gulps, you would get this incredible searing pain in your head. Remember how this physical brain freeze would render you useless for about 20 seconds until the pain went away?

There is another type of brain freeze, which is a chemical reaction our brain performs when we are under anxiety or stress. It is called a chemical brain freeze (CBF). This is a primitive but effective way the brain copes with the stresses and difficulties in today’s chaotic world. Our brain is trying to keep us alive, and it takes on the role of our triage center. Fight, flight, or freeze, our brain will shut down more complex thinking in order to get out of the situation and allow us to cope better. However, we don’t always perform at our best when the brain shuts down the thinking mind.

Remember that time you got so mad you couldn’t think straight? Or, was there a time you were called in a meeting and were unprepared? These situations don’t have to be life-threatening for CBF to happen. They can be as simple as having your computer shut down in front of customers.

When we are prepared and “stay in the moment,” we utilize all of our mental resources available and become creative. When you’re not prepared, we can affect customers in a negative way. Our reaction to a stressful situation can cause customers to react in a quick, decisive way that has them leaving and not coming back.

Here are four key areas to help connect with customers during stressful situations:

1) Stop what you are doing for a moment and step back to analyze the situation. Recognize the fact that your customers are going to be observing you, whether you acknowledge them or not. So, step back and try to gain an overall perspective of what is happening at the moment.

2) Take a deep breath. Literally, by taking a deep breath, you stop the chemical brain freeze that is beginning to happen. Shallow breathing causes your heart to race and your brain to dump survival chemicals into your system. Deep breathing eliminates that process.

3) Engage the thinking brain again by asking yourself key questions. What impact is this going to have on customers? If I were a customer, how would I feel? How would I want to be treated? What would be a simple solution from the customer’s perspective? By asking these questions, the thinking brain re-engages, and we can start using our creative resources to their capacity. We begin by asking questions. Sometimes it is a short-term solution, while other times it takes some longer-term decisions to meet customer needs. We need to make sure each action is directed toward helping them with their problem.

4) Be prepared for problems, especially if anticipating a busy time or complex situation. Run through some scenarios if things don’t go as planned. In a cockpit, when the caution/warning signal flashes, pilots have been trained to handle problems associated with signals. What options are available? How can we turn a less desirable situation into an opportunity to show the customer we care about them? The more prepared we are, the better we will be at handling difficult situations.

Controlling CBFs is not easy. They typically happen when things don’t go according to plan. If we don’t take control of the situation, we can wind up with unsatisfactory results. In Kristy’s case, she watched as the people in line slowly started talking among themselves and probably starting having their own chemical brain freezes. One by one, people started leaving the line and walking out the door. The long line of customers dwindled down to single digits. How much lost business happened that day? How many unhappy customers told others about the poor service? How many customers never came back?

Know that chemical brain freezes can happen to all of us, and be prepared for something not to go right. The more we can anticipate something going wrong, the better prepared we are to help our customers during these difficult times.

Chuck Inman is a leadership and emotional intelligence specialist, as well as a keynote speaker, trainer, coach, and founder of Crystal Clear Motivation, LLC. His keynote on “Customer Connect with C.L.O.U.T Bringing Value to Your Customers,” addresses key challenges in today’s world.

[From the February/March 2013 issue of AnswerStat magazine]