Using Email to Resolve Conflicts Is a Reliable Way of Making Everything Worse

If you're solution to the problem is anything more complicated than "I am really sorry, it's all my fault'' you need to talk to the person.

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By Kevin Hart

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Conflict takes many forms and, in customer service, it typically begins with a misunderstanding. A simple misunderstanding or mutual mystification can quickly become full-blown acrimony if not handled appropriately.

In the fast-paced world of email and texting, tonality, inflection and meaning are lost. As part of your client service strategy, consider this simple equation: conflict + email = more conflict.

Related: 3 Ways to Use Conflict to Strengthen Your Startup

Via email, a well-meant turn of phrase or candid, nurturing feedback can turn sour in a hurry if interpreted incorrectly. When conflict of any type arises, people are often too quick to use email to try and resolve the problem. Never use emails to resolve conflicts. It does more harm than good.

People assume the tonality and meaning, turning what might be a straightforward comment into something completely different. These assumptions are a recipe for disaster, especially in professional services organizations. No matter your business, it's all about customer service. Serve your customers to create raving fans, and you win!

Here are a few tips for successful conflict avoidance and resolution:

Deal with the problem before it's a problem.

When you know something's brewing, or if that voice in the back of your head tells you something is amiss, don't ignore it. That's your customer service instinct telling you to take action. Call or go see the customer in person to make sure things are crystal clear. You'll avoid the pain and agony that's surely coming down the road.

Eliminate mutual mystification.

If you get off a call or finish a meeting and you're not sure what's next or, worse, you fear the client doesn't know, take care of it immediately. The longer you wait, the greater chance that mystification will evolve into misunderstanding and beyond.

Related: Don't Let Generational Conflict Kill Your Small Business

Use active listening skills.

Wikipedia defines active listening as "a communication technique used in counseling, training and conflict resolution. It requires that the listener fully concentrate, understand, respond and then remember what is being said." IMHO, it's simpler. It's repeating back to someone what you understand they are saying so they feel understood. A wonderful side benefit is that you gain deeper understanding too.

Difficult conversations are best in person.

Holding people accountable or having a fierce conversation is best done in person. It gives you better understanding of tonality and allows you to observe body language. Also, there's more room for two-way communication. We encourage face-to-face meetings to resolve conflicts. If that is not possible, a phone conversation is the next preferred way to determine how to move forward.

Related: 4 Reasons Why In-Person Meetings Provide Unmatched Value

Use call reports.

After a meaningful conversation, especially when confronting an issue, capture the conversation via email, and list what's been discussed and agreed upon. You can then reference the call report down the road if there is any question about next steps.

The evidence on workplace conflict is eye-opening. Avoiding or solving conflict across an array of situations can be applied to customer service. These four tips for avoiding workplace conflict arise from a great deal of research and provide a different perspective.

If we can agree that excellent customer service is the path to great success, we're on our way. This article paints a great picture of how important customer service is to your business and why it's your most important metric.

Customer service is an art form and demands a "way" of doing things. For us, it's the EMA Way, a set of behaviors and attitudes that deliver a consistent customer experience. Be clear, unambiguous and never rely on email to tackle problems. Go get "em.
Kevin Hart

Senior Vice President and Managing Director at EMA Boston

Kevin Hart is co-founder, president and creative director of Newton, Mass.-based HB Agency, a marketing and communications firm. As a creative director, graphic designer, and writer, he has guided award-winning advertising and branding engagements for clients such as Aviat Aircraft, EMC, Harvard University, HP, Milton CAT, Northeastern University and Soapstone Networks.

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