Subtext in customer contact - try this!

A practical exercise to understand customers better

Luvvies (that's us theatrical types) tend to drone on about one or two subjects pretty much constantly. Besides fourth walls, the indisputable fashion merits of roll-necked pullovers and how awful the audience is, one of our favourite themes is "subtext".

Subtext is what is left over when you take the written lines away from a role. In other words, it is what the character is thinking. The same piece of text can have different subtexts depending on the context, character and interpretation of the role.

"I love you!", for example, could have a bunch of different possible subtexts, including...

"I want to sleep with you!" "Don't leave me!" "I'm sorry!"
"I'm leaving you!" "Help me!" "Goodbye!" "You have to die!"
"Don't hurt me!" "Mmh. Please do that again!"

Get the idea?

Here's an exercise that generates lots of insight: set up a couple of your team to simulate a customer encounter (yes, the dreaded roleplay). Try to be as real as possible. Now go through the encounter again, and for each statement, think about the subtext - what the customer or team member really means.

(A fun and practical way to do this to have someone stand behind each speaker, perhaps with their hand on the speaker's shoulder. Just tell them to "say out loud what you think he is thinking". This impro game will give you the rough idea.)

For example, when the customer says "Do you have anything simpler?", his subtext speaker might "This has more features than I need". But they could equally say "I don't understand this, I must be stupid.", or just "I cannot afford this, I need to get out of here."

This is a powerful exercise for two reasons. Firstly, it can sensitise team members to see the customers' point of view better.

Secondly, you can use the subtext of the customer's words to think about replies that truly address the customer's needs - or at least pin them down more precisely. (The three versions above would all need very different answers, and two of those answers must be delicately phrased to avoid making the customer feel awkward).

Remember, it is only by deeply understanding your customer's needs and expectations that you can hope to exceed them. And exceeding expectations is what creates the emotions that bring customers back again and again.

Script pic by kevinthoule at Flickr

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