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How I’ve turned my delayed luggage experience into a masterclass on managing difficult conversations

I’ve been eight days without my luggage and I’m still counting. Airport staff shortages and the various strikes affecting cabin crew and airport workers are making me lose hope.

So I decided that I had the perfect opportunity to turn my KLM customer services calls into a masterclass on managing difficult conversations.

These are five actionable steps that you can use to effectively manage your next difficult conversation with customer services:

- As it’s likely that you’ll have to wait at least 30 minutes to talk to a human, if possible try to do something fun or relaxing while you’re waiting for the call to be answered. The first time I called KLM I was having a coffee on the terrace while reading a book, and the second time I was answering work emails. I was definitely grumpier the second time I called, and as a result my second conversation was more frustrating and unproductive than the first.

- Start on a positive note: Rather than “Finally!” or “Hello, my luggage has been missing for eight days. Your website isn’t giving me the latest information, so I had to call you to find out what’s really going on” (in not a very friendly tone of voice), you could say: “I’m glad I can finally talk to you! You must be very busy with all the chaos in the airports right now. I hope you aren’t dealing with a lot of angry passengers.”

-Create empathy and connection right from the start: You could say “I imagine you must very busy, and dealing with people who’ve lost their luggage must be difficult for you. It’s my intention to make this call positive for both of us. I don’t know about you, but I really need it!”

- Let them help you: Many of us want to complain and vent when we call customer services. We talk about everything that went wrong and forget that the people at the other end might really want to help us. I gave the people I talked to some facts and information about why finding my luggage was important, and asked their opinion and advice. I tried to connect with them rather than treating them as if they were useless at providing help in stressful situations. I gave them enough space to show that they cared, and I acknowledged the pressure they were under. If they made a suggestion I’d say ”Thank you, that’s very useful – I didn’t think of that!

- Find the brave and empathic ones and be a cheerleader for them. Some of the people I talked to gave me standard answers, but others were ready to go further and give me extra information and resources. Look for them and connect with them. Celebrate the fact that they’re being generous and going the extra mile. Make their call with you a pleasant one.

You might be wondering what I’ve achieved by managing difficult conversations with customers service in this way.

- I still have no luggage, but I’m not miserable. Yes, I’m still wearing my mum’s and friends’ clothes, and that’s no fun, but because I was able to create a connection in these conversations, my level of stress went down. I can see that not much can be done, but feeling that people cared about my experience made a whole of a difference.

- I have a better understanding of what’s going on and how to make the right claim. No, I don’t have my luggage, but in my conversations with customer services I was advised to go to the airport and check with Groundforce, the department that deals with lost and delayed luggage, which I did.

I went to the airport and talked to the staff and got a clear picture of what was going on and how little they could do at that moment. By the time I arrived at the airport the guy at customer services had already sent them an email enquiring about my luggage, showing that he was following up on my case and doing his best to sort it. That was really reassuring.

The best difficult conversations don’t end up all the time with you achieving your goal but with you and the person you are talking to not feeling like if you are in a battlefield.

Mastering difficult conversations involves learning to accept situations in which little can be done.

This doesn’t mean that you become passive in unfair situations, but rather that you know when to complain and to whom.

Managing difficult conversations is also knowing when not to add more distress to an already distressing situation.

When things get edgy Pema Chödrön advice is asking ourselvelves "Am I going to add to the aggression in the world? Am I going to practice peace, or am I going to war?”

Sometimes when nothing can’t be done, the best possible outcome in a difficult conversation can be doing no more harm and helping people to care.

Picture by Jasleen Kaur


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