Article

Styles and methods of conflict management in customer service

Published August 11, 2021
Last updated August 11, 2021

Most people try to avoid conflict in their day-to-day lives, but anyone in customer service can tell you conflict is an inevitable part of working with people.

Fortunately, conflict management doesn't have to be a dreaded ordeal to work through. When done well, conflict resolution can rescue business relationships and build trust with customers. To adopt a healthy (and profitable) approach to conflict resolution, all you need are the right mindset and tactics - in other words, some different methods of conflict management that you can adopt for your business.

Why do conflicts happen?

Conflict occurs when two or more parties can't agree on a course of action. Failing to resolve conflicts with customers can hurt retention, loyalty and brand awareness.

According to the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2021, nearly half of customers say they would switch to a competitor after just one bad experience. In the case of more than one bad experience, that number snowballs to 80%.

Those are high stakes - so it’s crucial that your business can identify the source of conflict early, and resolve it quickly. That’s where a conflict strategy comes into play.

Conflict styles

Before looking at conflict management styles, it’s important to understand the different ways people handle conflict - all of which you might find in the same customer service team. Thomas Kilmann devised the Conflict Mode Instrument which identifies five conflict styles.

Accommodating

Someone with an accommodating style will try to keep the peace and find a solution that puts the needs of others ahead of their own.

In customer service, this could be an effective conflict management skill if your company is clearly in the wrong, or if the issue at hand doesn’t cost your team much time or money to resolve without compromising.

Avoiding

Someone with an avoidant style will do anything they can to evade conflict. This is rarely an effective conflict resolution strategy for customer service teams as it goes against all the customer service trends of quick responses, proactive support and helpful agents. However it could sometimes be a necessary way of dealing with conflict, such as hanging up the phone if a customer becomes abusive.

Compromising

A compromising style looks to find a solution that feels like a middle ground for all parties. This could be used when the type of conflict needs a quick response, or if you’re looking for a short term solution to a problem.

Collaborating

A team member with a collaborative style will look to create a win-win situation for both parties. This is often what customer service teams are aiming for: a solution that keeps your customer happy whilst also not costing your business, in terms of time, money or reputation.

Competing

Someone with a competing style will take a firm stance, refusing to back down or see the other party’s perspective. Whilst this might not seem like the best approach for customer service teams, it could be useful for long-term conflict resolution management.

Conflict management examples

When might these conflict styles come into play for your real-life customer service teams? Here are some scenarios they might commonly encounter.

Dealing with angry customers

Customer support teams, unfortunately, have to deal with angry customers on a near-daily basis. When it comes to angry customers, assertiveness and cooperation is usually the best port of call, and an accommodating approach can work well here too. Whatever their issue, a sincere apology and an offer to listen to them can go a long way to smoothing over the conflict.

Abusive customers

Sometimes, angry customers become abusive customers. If a customer support agent has tried every other approach and the person on the other end of the phone, email, or live chat, becomes abusive, the agent may adopt an avoiding strategy and terminate the conversation.

A broken product

Sometimes a customer will contact your team, upset that a product they’ve purchased is broken, or they can’t set it up properly. It’s the agent’s job to establish whether it actually is broken, or whether the customer isn’t following the instructions properly - after all, the customer isn’t always right. For this type of conflict, a compromising approach would work well.

Creating a conflict management model

Every customer service team deals with angry customers or interpersonal conflict - it's part of the job. But the wrong mindset about conflict can lead to high employee turnover and low customer loyalty.

Rather than treating conflict as an unavoidable ordeal, approach it as a chance to make relationships even more meaningful. A conflict management model is all about using different techniques to resolve issues effectively, and you can coach your team to view disagreements with a sense of curiosity. Equip them with the conflict resolution tools to get to the bottom of the problem.

Six essential conflict strategies

Conflict resolution happens when there's an agreed-upon action toward solving the problem. Ideally, all parties walk away feeling like others heard and respected their ideas. 

Pause for a self-care check

Immediately before participating in a difficult conversation, you must ground yourself emotionally. Taking a mindful moment before diving into conflict is a quick way to release stress-reducing hormones in the brain. That way, you can bring a calm, open, clear mind to the table.

Practice reflective listening

'Listening' is more than 'not talking' (although that's an essential component). It also means setting aside your agenda - temporarily - to truly understand the customer's point of view. It's also about gathering information critical to finding an agreement once you're ready to negotiate. Reflective listening can help you hear the customer out and show them that you truly understand their problem.

Diffuse disagreements with Tactical Empathy

When it's your turn to speak, tactical empathy can help you show the customer that you understand, even when you disagree. It will disarm heightened emotions and get your customer to a point where they feel completely understood.

Negotiate with a cool head

Once you've established that you understand your customer's point of view, it's time to work on the problem together, often using a collaborating approach. It helps to keep the upper hand whilst making your customer feel like they're in charge.