How Kindness Is Good Business

How Kindness Is Good Business
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Would you invite your debt collector to your wedding? If she were Christina Harbridge, you just might.

Harbridge isn’t your average debt collector, and neither are the men and women in her employ. The average collection rate for collection agencies is 9.9 percent, and yet Bridgeport, Harbridge’s agency that she sold before founding Allegory, Inc., had an average rate of 32.2 percent. Harbridge attributes the agency’s success to a crucial but oft forgotten philosophy: Be nice to people.

Harbridge has been working in the collections industry since she was a teenager. In those early days, she saw many coworkers who were friendly in the breakroom but became different people on the phone. Working with clients somehow transformed them into angry, passive-aggressive strangers who cared more about ending a call than helping the caller. But in her experience, the employee with the most thank-you cards is the same employee with the most collections.

In an in-person interview with Christina, she outlined some tactics (also included in her new book, Swayed) you can use to increase your thank-you notes and earnings no matter what your industry is or who you’re working with.

1. Build relationships and trust.

“I taught my team that the number one goal of a collection call is to establish enough trust that the client will tell you the truth,” Harbridge says. A relationship can’t be built in a single phone call, though. Bridgeport employees regularly sent clients “get well” cards and helped them find jobs. “We were giving them a feeling that they weren’t getting anywhere else.”

2. Don’t tell people to calm down.

When clients are agitated or passionate, the last thing they want to hear is that they’re overreacting and need to calm down. They come to you seeking validation and a solution. They want you to match or exceed their concern for the problem. “Discomfort is a sign that something is going right,” Harbridge says. Time spent soothing discomfort is time wasted; you should be solving the problem instead.

3. Be curious, not controlling.

When a client comes forth with a complaint, fight your natural impulse to correct or instruct. Instead, try to understand why your client has a complaint in the first place. Harbridge recalls her son coming home one day and saying loudly that he hated school. Her first thought was to tell him that school was important and leave it at that. Instead, she recognized that this was a huge change in attitude for her son and asked him why. He answered, “The substitute teacher put her hand over my mouth today.” Asking instead of telling revealed a different problem and allowed her to face it head on.

4. Practice empathy.

“Empathy is not a strategy, it’s a feeling,” Harbridge says. “When I watch a CEO ‘do’ empathy, it doesn’t work very well. When I watch them feel it, it’s different.”

David Swank at Psychology Today writes, “Lack of empathy can cause companies to make catastrophic blunders that alienate their customers or employees and it can even incite violence.” However, true empathy is not based on a single decision and takes consistent practice. Start small; simply listening and repeating can be a powerful foundation. “Sometimes just listening without judgment is enough to convey cognitive empathy. Communicate to the person in an authentic way that you understand what they are experiencing.”

5. Make sure authentic concern is in your voice.

The problem with authenticity is that it can’t be faked, and an angry person will know when you’re putting up an act. Like empathy, this will require consistent effort to develop. In this article, Travis Bradberry, author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, gives 12 habits you can develop to become more genuine in your business interactions.

6. Put their opinions first.

The devil doesn’t need an advocate, and your clients don’t want to hear the other side’s point of view. That will only make them see you as being allied with their enemies, and they’ll be even less inclined to cooperate with you. You can still offer an opposing opinion, but do so with the explicit purpose of explaining “why,” not “you’re wrong.”

7. Ask for examples.

We naturally resist complaints from others; our bodies want to maintain an equilibrium of comfort. But if you fight that impulse and ask the other party to give you an example to support their complaint, you can make things easier for both of you. “If I can ask for a specific example, it gets people more focused,” Harbridge says. “Then, if they don’t have an example, tell them to go get an example and come back at 2:00.” People feel the need to be understood, so helping others to express their complaints clearly fosters trust and invites them—without asking—to calm down.

8. Don’t get protective.

It may feel right to protect your team against the big bad client, but this is often counterproductive and decreases your ability to handle a situation. “When we get protective, we often act in ways that put my team in the position of being a victim,” Harbridge says. Instead, she teaches her teams soothing mechanisms that empower them and facilitate constructive conversations with customers.

9. Don’t make others feel small

Don’t use passive aggressive or cutting language. “People are emotional and irrational,” Harbridge says. “When we make them feel small, we might get compliance but not commitment.” This applies to all types of relationships, but it is safe to say that making a customer feel dumb is a bad idea.

10. If a client is yelling, call attention to this.

At Bridgeport, 71 percent of the incoming calls were people yelling. When people are angry, they are irrational. That doesn’t mean you need to yell even louder to get them to stop or say, “I’ll wait for you to calm down.” Get them talking more, and you’ll find yourself surprised for the better. Besides the tactics given above, you can invite them to calm down by asking for guidance. For example, “How would you coach me to handle this now?” Questions like this call attention without making accusations. So get them talking more, and you’ll find yourself surprised for the better.

Being nice in business means a higher level customer service and intracompany interactions. It requires that you reevaluate yourself and your employees, identify weaknesses, and commit to being better. You’ll find that not only your business improves, but your quality of life and job satisfaction as well. Be the kind of person your clients include on the wedding guest list, and watch your profits soar.

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