Knowing the right thing to say

I used to think I was pretty safe from saying the wrong thing. After all, shy and quiet person that I was, I rarely said much at all. Besides, when I do speak, I think about what I’m going to say before I say it. I prefer tact to bluntness, and I qualify my statements with words like “might” and “for the most part.”

As a young adult, however, I learned (from friends who cared enough to give me constructive criticism), that I sometimes managed to offend people by what I failed to say. (My mother had seen no need to teach social courtesies, and I had to learn to say things like “God bless you” when someone sneezed or “Thank you” after visiting in someone’s home.) Also, while my quietness sometimes gives people the impression that I am a deep thinker, other times it gives them the impression that I am aloof or snobbish.

So I’ve worked at talking more, and not always planning everything I’m going to say ahead of time (which is tough for me, because I don’t think well on my feet). Over the years I’ve become more comfortable with making small talk, and with jumping into conversations without waiting for someone to ask my opinion. Sometimes I even start to think of myself as a decent conversationalist. But then some situation comes up which disabuses me of such notions.

My job that past several months has involved a lot more interaction with people I don’t know than in most of my previous jobs. (I did work as a bank teller for a few months, but the nature of the job provided enough structure to the interactions I had with people, that it wasn’t much of an issue.) I now sit at the front desk, which makes me the de facto receptionist. And I frequently deal (primarily by email) with people throughout the corporation who have submitted procurement requests.

I watch other people interact with visitors, and they seem to do it so smoothly and comfortably. I still have trouble deciding what is the best way to ask visitors for their names when they do not volunteer them, or whether to just call the person who is to meet with them and say, “You have visitors.” If I try to talk with them while they wait for someone to come meet with them, I worry that I am being overly chatty or informal. If I just say “Please have a seat,” and continue with my work, I worry that I am being cold and unfriendly.

I decided to see if the portal where I can take online courses had anything to help me. I finally settled on one called “Communicating with the Customer.” A lot of it had to do with talking on the phone, which is something I do as little as necessary, but some of the principles apply to any form of communication. Even if I am not a “customer service specialist” (the intended audience of the course), I’m sure I ought to be conveying friendliness, confidence, a desire to help, and a firm knowledge of procedures for getting requests fulfilled promptly and correctly.

Being friendly doesn’t seem like it should be too hard. But I’m never sure what degree of formality or informality a given situation calls for. The course says to use titles (Mr., Mrs, etc.) for formal communication, and to avoid humor or non-business topics. For informal communication, use first names and include humor and social talk (family, sports, etc.) Fine – if I just knew when to use which.

One of the delivery people who comes almost every day clearly prefers a highly informal approach. The first few weeks, his habit of chatting every day as though we were old friends made me very uncomfortable. (I found out later I was not the only one to feel that way with him – another woman filling in at the front desk called him “creepy.”) By now I’ve gotten used to him and it doesn’t bother me so much, though I still find myself wanting to return to my work before he is ready to return to his truck.

Do I strike any of our visitors that way? I recognize many names from email communications and sometimes try to use my memory of a recent transaction or support request to establish some level of connection. But with my memory for detail I am far more likely to recognize their names than they are to recognize the name of the support analyst who processed some probably minor part of their requests. I try to curb the impulse to say things like “Didn’t you just buy a new keyboard?”

The course also recommended trying to match the customer’s style of communication, in level of formality/informality, speed of talking, etc. That’s not hard with visiting salespeople who communicate with others for a living. With some other visitors, however, it is likely to mean that neither of us says much of anything. I fluctuate between chattiness and taciturnity, and can’t decide which conveys a better impression (no doubt somewhere in the middle is best, but I have trouble finding that middle).

Then there are the things I’m not supposed to say. Things that seem harmless to me turn out to convey a less than professional image. If I say as little as possible, I am less likely to make those mistakes, but then I probably come across as disinterested. When the course gave multiple choice questions as to the appropriate response in a situation, I did choose “fair” or “appropriate” responses most of the time. But real situations are fill-in-the-blank, not multiple choice, and I’m often at a loss how to say the right thing and avoid saying the wrong thing.

For instance, “I’ll try” conveys a negative message, according to the course. I’m not sure exactly why – perhaps because it implies that I don’t really expect to succeed. (Of course, I’m also not supposed to promise unless I am able to deliver on it.) If “I’ll try” – innocuous as it sounds to me – is the wrong thing to say, who knows how many other things I say that are not better?

I’ll be happy to learn the right things to say – it’s just that there seem to be so many pitfalls I’m probably not even aware of. I know now not to say “I don’t know” – I am to say “I’ll check on it and get back to you.” I’m not supposed to say that the person who normally handles the request is out of the office, I’m supposed to turn it over to whoever is filling in for that person (even if I suspect it won’t get handled as efficiently as usual). The course says not to say “we can’t do that – company policy.” The goal is to meet the customer’s needs.

But what do I say when the company policy is that I can’t do what the customer wants? (I don’t know if the fact I deal with internal customers rather than external customers changes this.) Today I had someone who wanted to use Skype. I checked with my manager, and was told we do not support it. I informed the customer of this – and was told he only wanted access, not support. A co-worker pointed out that it might have worked better if I had stated that our network does not support using Skype. (Actually, it works just fine – but it’s apparently a big security risk if people use it to transfer files.)

I suppose a lot of this just comes with practice, and the only way to get practice is by dealing with people. A couple of decades ago I’d have been terrified to sit at the front desk (I did work as a Saturday morning receptionist for an oral surgeon for a year or so, in my mid-twenties – and I dreaded going in every Saturday). Now I enjoy the variety it adds to my job (I get to deliver flowers to co-workers, direct people to meeting rooms, sign for packages, tell job-seekers how to apply using the internet, and collect money for jeans day Fridays).

But I wish I knew which of my attempts to communicate (formally or informally) are the most appropriate.

6 Responses to Knowing the right thing to say

  1. modestypress says:

    By and large, the people who strike you as most confident are just as insecure. Everybody is good at something and not so good at something. Everybody is confident in some situations and insecure in other situations. If you are dealing with somebody who is insecure but just putting up a front of being confident or dealing with somebody who is really confident with the situation, how do you know the difference? You don’t, do you. Nor do they know about you, do they?

  2. Karen O says:

    I agree with ModestyPress. (Hi Random!)

    How about, instead of “I’ll try”, you say, “I’ll do my best”? That gives the impression that you’ll do what you can, but is not a promise that the desired result will happen.

  3. Margaret says:

    Yes, I thought the same as Karen about “I’ll try.” People who try to make a good impression on others (rather than simply being truthful) may say “I’ll try” when they don’t really mean it, and the other person knows or suspects that. So if they really do mean it, they might say, “I’ll try really hard to accomplish that.” By the way, when did you begin this job? I don’t remember anything about you changing positions in your company. What happened to the job you used to have? Also, why do Fridays involve money (I know about wearing jeans on Friday)?

    • Pauline says:

      I didn’t exactly change positions, I just got some new responsibilities, doing some of the work that used to be done by someone who no longer works here. I wrote a post about it some months ago, back when I was overwhelmed by trying to learn all the new stuff. I’ve always liked having a variety of stuff to do; what’s different this time – besides more contact with people I don’t know – is that I do work for two different managers, in areas largely unrelated to each other.

      I don’t know how the jeans Fridays got started here, but our dept fellowship committee designates certain Fridays (with approval from the dept head) as jeans days, and we can wear jeans if we pay $5. Sometimes the money goes into the fellowship committee’s fund to pay for dept cookouts, more often it’s to raise money for charity (and on a few occasions, to raise money for a co-worker with cancer or some other expensive crisis). Last month we had a whole jeans week for an organization that serves senior citizens (meals on wheels, etc.) This week it’s the local humane society.

  4. renaissanceguy says:

    A friend of mine was told by somebody in the IT department at her work, “I’m trying to help you.”

    She said, “Trying is not what counts. Success is what counts.”

    She said it because she knew that the lady was actually just trying to pacify her and was not doing anything at all to actually remedy the problem at hand.

    When it comes to knowing what to say and how much, I think it is best to take your cue from the other person. In a business setting, it is probably best to greet the person in a friendly manner, take care of them in the appropriate way, and then leave them alone. If they choose to chat, then go ahead.

    You can also get cues from their body language. People give cues that they want to say or ask something else but are not quite sure that they should. Then you can say something like, “Is there something you wanted to ask?” or “Can I help you?”

  5. Karen O says:

    I guess you should NOT say, “Hey, Dude! What’s your problem?” 🙂

    On yesterday’s WMB WVs, I found myself changing “I will try…” to “I will do my best to be an understanding, accepting, & loving MIL to Ryan.”

    Thought of you when I did that.

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