Did you get a telephone call this morning? Did a parent just have to take the time to call and tell you what great service your staff is providing? If you did receive that kind of a call, congratulations — I am sure it is well deserved.
Unfortunately, more often than not in pupil transportation, the telephone calls we receive are less than warm and fuzzy. While the majority of the callers are seeking information, such as enrollment questions, bus stop information or the occasional employment inquiry, we also sometimes field calls from people who start off upset and go straight to angry.
Clearly, there are some complaint calls that we will not be able to easily smooth out. However, with improved telephone skills, we can increase our success rate with these calls.
The bottom line is that when angry callers feel that you or your department is not taking them seriously, their next step is to contact your bosses or the local media. Avoiding that next step should be the goal of any school transportation manager. Here are some key ways to avoid getting caught up in unproductive or hostile telephone conversations.
1. Prepare yourself
In some cases, you will get an early indication that a caller may be angry or difficult to deal with. A driver might stop in and inform you that a parent may be calling, or office staff may take a message for you and give you a "heads up" that the caller was very upset.
Gather as many facts as you can before returning the call. If the caller is on hold, a minute or two is all the time that would be considered professional or reasonable to allow before taking the call. Use that time to ask as many questions as you can of your office staff about the callers concerns. After that, take a deep breath, answer the phone in a professional and courteous manner and then dive into handling the situation.
2. Don't get reeled in
Callers can be angry or upset for any number of reasons. Maybe your bus cut him or her off on the way to work. Maybe a parent was running late getting her child out the door and missed the bus and would rather blame the driver than accept responsibility. Regardless of the reason, don't take it personally. The caller is angry at the system or the situation at hand.
Do not allow the caller's behavior to dictate your responses. You have nothing to gain by getting upset or shouting a caller down. Be courteous and try to respond with factual information only. If we allow ourselves to be pulled into a confrontational conversation, the caller gains control of the interaction.
3. Actively listen
Nothing bothers me more during a telephone conversation than having to ask, "Are you still there?" This is particularly important in today's world because the majority of calls may be coming from cell phones, and you never know if the person is simply listening intently or if the call has been dropped.
If you are on the receiving end of a complaint call, you should actively listen. This means you should regularly give the caller a signal that you are still there and interested. Responses like "uh huh" or "I see" signal the caller that you understand and are listening.
Ask for the spelling of the caller’s name and write down his or her contact phone number. This sends the message that you are serious about following up. Use the person's name when speaking to the caller, and write down the facts of the caller's story. During the call, you should take notes and paraphrase the notes back to the caller so you are sure you have his or her version of the incident and that they know you have written information down.
4. Avoid "hot" language
There are certain words or phrases that can cause any telephone conversation to go south unexpectedly. Remember, the caller cannot see your body language or facial expressions and, therefore, can only make determinations about your sincerity or interest based on what you say and how you say it.
Don't cut off or interrupt the caller. If you are really interested in handling his or her concern, allow the caller to finish his or her point. During the conversation, you may identify two or three issues rolled up into one angry complaint. However, you should wait for the right time to ask if you can break down the different issues into separate concerns for resolution. Risky statements include "calm down," "you have to…," "it's district policy" and "I'll try."
During a complaint call, you will be dealing with two different forces — the caller's feelings and the caller's problem. The problem is that the bus came five minutes early. The caller's feelings could include anger because he perceives that he is the only person on the street having this problem and feels it is because the driver doesn't like his child.
Empathy should not be confused with agreeing with the individual lock, stock and barrel. Empathy means that you are trying to put yourself in their shoes and trying to understand how they feel about the matter. The right way to express empathy: "I can understand that you're angry" or "I see what you mean."
6. Keep your promises
At the end of a complaint call, a manager should make a commitment to call the individual back with a resolution or, at the very least, information that the caller was seeking. If the manager has been successful in defusing the angry call, he or she can cause more tension by failing to do what has been promised. The key tip for avoiding this situation is to under-promise and then over-deliver.
It is human nature to want to serve the caller to the best of your ability, but be careful to not set too many deadlines for yourself. If you feel reasonably confident that you can return the call with the correct information on Tuesday, tell the caller you will get back to him no later than Wednesday.
School transportation is a fast-paced, rapidly changing environment. A few small issues can come up unexpectedly, delaying your return call. You could suddenly be back at square one with the caller and undo all of the good you did only days ago.
I hope that this article has helped prepare you to take the call that could come at any moment. Remember that you cannot win them all. Everyone gets mad from time to time, especially when it comes to services involving people's children. There is no textbook answer on how to deal with difficult people on the phone. Most importantly, keep a cool head and show your true desire to provide quality services.
Michael P. Dallessandro is transportation supervisor at Lake Shore (N.Y.) Central School District and a frequent contributor to SCHOOL BUS FLEET.