It’s Not About the Fries!

Compassion in a Phone Call

By Mary Beth Ingram

Editors Note:  This article first appeared back in 2009 and we think it’s even more relevant today. With the personal and financial crisis situations many callers are having, we need to help our agents focus on caring and compassion now more than ever.

Around the world, there are call centers that serve and support such products and services as shoes, beverages, insurance policies, discount consumer goods, biomedical products, cell phone minutes, apparel, checking and savings accounts, electricity and water, transportation services, software, cars, sit-down restaurants and fast food.

It’s all too easy to say that every call center is both the same and different, but the truth is that you have variables and constants that cross all industries, all products, and all services.

The most common, mind you the most obvious constant, is that call center professionals are on the phone with customers, clients, patients, consumers, members, and/or end-users. The most common and yes, the most obvious variable is that the product and service being discussed is as variable as your imagination can muster. But since most people call because there’s been a problem, a perceived problem, an anticipated problem, a question, a concern, and not because they are delighted with being one of your thousands of buyers of electricity, there is another common constant that is so often missed in handling calls.


A quick story … one trainer was working with a popular fast food company coaching staff in handling incoming calls. A call arrived with a very distraught customer on the line, near tears in fact. Seems this customer was having one of those days when nothing went her way, everything fell short of expectations, and anticipating chowing down on her favorite fast food meal, she left the drive thru only to discover there were no fries in the sack. Those fries represented a sort of compensation in return for a bad day; medicine for the pain of a rotten morning when things went awry; a moment of satisfaction to alleviate the crummy mood she found herself in.

Rest assured the staff person handling the call took care of everything and while there was no way to magically teleport fries through the phone, she smoothed things over with coupons for free meals after listening over and over to how upset the customer was that the fries were missing. The call went on too long but finally ended. The staff person threw her head on her desk and with exasperation exclaimed to our trainer coach, “Can you believe that! Because of a lousy bag of fries! Get a life!”

In reality you can’t blame her reaction when it stays framed in the context of a missing bag of fries. But the trainer/coach started to debrief the call by saying, “You know I was amazed too. What kind of a day do you have to have where a bag of missing fries throws you over the edge? What if we looked at this call as not about the missing bag of fries, but the reality that you just talked to someone who was emotionally raw? A customer who was on, or over the edge for a moment and you just happened to be the person in line for that barrage of edgy emoting! Think about what sends you to the edge … What does it take to put you there? I suppose we could at least be thrilled that for today it will take lots more than a missing item on our lunch tray, but we’ll probably both have days were something sets us off way ahead of schedule. What if we connected with that caller then not at the intersection of missing fries, but at the intersection of being on the edge? Somehow I can understand and have compassion for that where it’s tougher to have compassion about the fries!”

Compassion. Would it have changed how the call was handled? Absolutely. Coupons for future free meals have little impact on the immediate situation although they are appreciated. While you aren’t able to teleport fries, you can teleport understanding by the words and the voice tone choices you make that telegraph to your customer that you “get it.” The sooner they hear that, the sooner they are soothed, the better the link between company and caller and as a bonus, the quicker your staff will be on to the next call.

Easy? Yes and no because it isn’t rocket science but so few people  practice this art! First comes getting the idea that compassion, good old fashioned understanding, has a place in your phone calls. Second is knowing how to use words and voice tone to make that happen.

Mary Beth Ingram founded Phone Pro (now Bonfire Training) and now cheers and applauds the talented staff from the sidelines.