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When customer support becomes grief counseling

Tragedy is difficult; managing someone else's grief, nigh on impossible. What should you do when that grief comes from a customer? How do you provide good support after a customer dies?

Customer service life lessons

Years ago I managed the box office at a non-profit theater—the kind with stages, not screens. As is common in a community arts organization, I built long-term relationships with the patrons. It was the customers that kept the place alive: grandparents introduce grandchildren to their first theatrical experience, parents gift tickets to children on special birthdays, first dates turn into anniversary nights out. It's remarkable to partake in someone else's joyous occasion, night-after-night.

But not every patron interaction is a happy one. Customers, like all of us, will inevitably experience death. And the closer you are to a customer's life, the harder it is to hear about their loss. Of course, all of us at the theater were sympathetic in these situations: "Refunds? Of course, keep the tickets, be our guest. Change of schedule? Not a problem, come when you feel up to it, we’ll get you in. Passing them on to another family member? Again, we’ll take care of it."

I vividly remember my first experience dealing with the loss of a customer. A long-time patron of the theater called in tears, to inquire about changing a name on one of her season tickets. This was the day after her husband had passed. She was, understandably, having a very difficult time. And admittedly, her grief shook me. All I could think was, "This isn't important. Why not wait a few more days? Theater reservations don’t really matter right now." I tried as gently as I could to nudge her. "I can take care of this for you at a better time," I said.

“What would be a better time, Avi?" she asked. "When I’m dead too? Would that work for you?”

The intersection between grief and customer support

This call had nothing to do with changing tickets. The woman and her husband had loved the theater together, and this was about tackling something important to the two of them. And for the first time, she was doing this on her own.

In Tough talk: writing condolences for a coworker, Leslie O'Flahavan shares five ways of comforting a colleague: Share a memory, make a specific offer of help or companionship, send a card, share a quotation, and avoid I language.

On many levels, the same advice applies for grieving customers as it does for colleagues. You need to be compassionate and listen. You should carefully mirror tone, cadence, and speed of the conversation. You must carefully read the situation and never jump to any kind of solution.

The memory of my first conversation as an unintended grief counselor has never left me. My customer's startled reaction and pointed question made me understand that she didn’t want yet another thing hanging over her head. She didn't need another thing to schedule; she wanted to take care of something. I immediately apologized and we stayed on the phone as long as she needed. Customer support became grief counseling. In due time, the woman returned to the theater. Sometimes with family, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone.

In a support job, you find yourself intersecting with the best and the worst parts of life.

Avi Warner is passionate about building beautifully simple customer support software. When he's not creating new experiences for support teams across the world, he's running around with his dog Buster or playing banjo in his backyard. Find him on Twitter @aviwarner