Empathize? Fix it? How to respond to workplace issues

Paul Butler, Newleaf Training and Development. Submitted photo
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As the bumper sticker says, “Stuff Happens” — at least that’s what I think it says. Where are my reading glasses?

We’re living in an imperfect world and, so, situations often occur that can be an irritant to our customers and colleagues in the workplace. How should we respond with a spirit to serve, depending on the severity of the issue?

When a customer or colleague is dissatisfied, it’s obviously important we get to the root cause of the issue. As service providers, we either completely miss the signs and clues they’re giving us or we misread the situation.

Here’s a simple and easily memorable 4-box that can help us understand the root cause and how best to respond. Picture a box divided into four quadrants — on the Y-axis is the word, “severity” and on the X-axis are the words, “our fault.” The bottom left corner is depicted as “low” and the top left corner is “high.” The bottom right corner is “low” and the top right corner is “high.”


The bottom left quadrant is low severity and not our fault.
The top left quadrant is high severity but still not our fault.
The bottom right quadrant is low severity and it is our fault.
The top right quadrant is high severity and it is our fault.

Always look at the issue through the eyes of the customer. Is the issue severe to them? Is this your fault as the service provider?

Now, let’s place some labels onto each of the quadrants with a real-world scenario.

Let’s look at the bottom left quadrant and in your mind’s eye or on your scratch pad, write the word “empathize.” When something is not that severe and it’s not your fault or your organization’s fault as service providers, the best response you can provide is to empathize.

How about the top left quadrant when the situation is severe through the eyes of the customer but it’s not your fault? Well, there’s an opportunity to be a hero.

Let’s now deal with the right-hand side of our 4-box. Remember the bottom right is where the issue is severe through the eyes of the customer and it is your fault. What should we do? Fix it!

Finally, the top right-hand box is when something is severe and it is your fault. It’s time to roll out the red carpet.

Sometimes all the customer needs us to do is to empathize. Imagine if you were a receptionist at a hotel. Someone arrives two hours later than they intended because the traffic was bad. It’s not the hotel’s fault and, in the grand scheme of things, it may not be that severe — the best we can do is to empathize.

What about if something is not our fault but it is severe through the eyes of the customer? Well, sticking with our hotel analogy, imagine if the guest goes out to the parking lot and finds they have a flat tire and they’re running late for a conference. The hotel could offer to get the tire fixed while the customer is at the conference — we have an opportunity to be a hero

What about if the issue is the hotel’s fault but, in the grand scheme, it’s not that severe? For example, the guest notices their bedside light is not working. They just need the hotel to fix-it.

The top right-hand box is when something is very severe for the customer and it is the provider’s fault. How frustrating is it to arrive and find they’ve sold your room? The hotel needs to roll out the red carpet. They need to put you in a hotel of similar or better standard.

At Newleaf Training and Development, we’ve conducted this exercise all over the world and we’ve found that the vast majority of problems fall into the “fix it” category. Another interesting learning point: If we ignore the problems that just need to be fixed, they can easily escalate into potentially costly “red carpet” items for your organization.

I hope this has given you a useful, practical framework as how best to respond to customers and colleagues, based on the severity and fault of the issue.

Paul Butler is a Santa Clarita resident and a client partner with Newleaf Training and Development of Valencia (newleaf-ca.com). The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Signal. For questions or comments, email Butler at [email protected].

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