Getting transactional with customers

In 1964, the psychiatrist Eric Berne published his bestselling book ‘Games people play’. The book outlined his theory of ‘transactional analysis’ as a way of interpreting and describing social interactions.

The title of the book refers to a series of specific situations and behaviours that are often repeated by humans – in both functional and dysfunctional relationships.

An example of one of the games is named “Now I’ve got you, you son of a …” Consider where a plumber makes a mistake on a £300 job and underestimates the price of a part as £1 when it should be £3. The customer won’t pay the entire £300 unless and until the plumber accepts the £2 error – instead of just paying the bill of £302.

Berne’s lessons can be important to those of us working in customer services and interacting with the general public on a daily basis. By having a toolkit of games that customers might play, it can help to improve engagement and customer satisfaction.

The most common complaint is that agents ‘just don’t get it’ – there is no appreciation of what is really important to the customer. The agent might just follow a process and this causes anger in the customer when to stop and listen and to plot a new path would be more appropriate.

One of Berne’s key observations is how people relate to each other and communicate in a way that defines and reinforces those levels. This can be simplified to the parent-adult-child model Berne devised.

Clearly it works best when interactions between two people are operating at the same level, such as a child-child or adult-adult interaction, but sometimes an authoritative interaction may need to be conducted as parent-child. In customer services though, it is not appropriate at all for an agent to slip into the kind of interaction mode where the customer feels the agent is instructing or ordering them around.

This may seem obvious, but it is something we are usually not aware of – particularly when communicating in English. Some languages, such as Japanese, reinforce these interactions through the use of honorifics such as sama, san, chan, or kun, but in English we have a linguistic meritocracy – with all the trouble that can cause if someone just feels they are not being treated as an equal.

So agents can benefit from a self-awareness of these interactions and how language can be used more effectively. It does need good listening and empathy skills, but these can all be trained. Combine those skills with knowledge of transactional analysis and you might just have some agents that are ready for anything.


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