Pause … for Compassion

A Lesson in Customer Service

Just over a week ago, I lost my best childhood friend to cancer, that horrible disease that has stolen way too many lives far too soon. I was so grateful that my schedule enabled me to be there across the country with her during her final days. I was even blessed enough to be in the room with her as she took her final breath. Although it was all such a gift, it was a mentally, spiritually and emotionally draining time, as you can imagine.

After a trying experience like this, you begin to notice the many little ways in which people serve you and tend your wounded soul: the silence and tears shared on the phone with your BFF as you acknowledge and mourn the loss together; Chinese food, a bottle of wine and much needed laughter with a longtime friend you haven’t seen in years; the texts from those who care to check in and see how you are; the perfect books loaned to you by a loved one that are just what you needed to read at just the right time; or the surprise vase of flowers and card that a neighbor delivers with love and a hug. People are awesome. Because of this, you also notice the glaring absence of the smallest acts of kindness from strangers in moments when it would be so easy to make someone feel just a bit better on a challenging day.

In the name of Social Awareness (one of the four key competencies of Emotional Intelligence), I felt it was necessary to write this particular post based on a few customer service experiences I had after the death of my friend. As someone who conducts training classes on customer service, I share this in hopes that we all recognize the importance one little sentence can have on people everywhere who have suffered loss and have taken a moment to share that information with you in either a business or a personal capacity. Just one sentence would have offered a spoonful of comfort at a necessary time. Can you guess what it might be? It is simply this:

“I’m sorry for your loss.” 

That’s it. Just four little words. It seems basic enough, right? Something that should almost be second nature? But apparently it’s not. 

I think perhaps people sometimes don’t know what to do when confronted with death. That’s okay. I get that. It’s not a comfortable thing. But having compassion for someone in that situation can help keep emotions in a more “normal” place for both you and your customer. Let me explain. 

The morning my friend passed away, I knew it was time to book my flight back home since I had just bought a one-way ticket there. An American Airlines AAdvantage member, I went online and looked for flights home where I could use my miles. Not having any luck for flights that day based on the number of miles available for my use, I called their customer service line. I enjoy traveling on AA and had hoped my circumstances, which I explained to her, might create better luck when working with a human being rather than a computer. It did not, and there was a $75 expedite fee on top of it all. I hadn’t known about the fee that occurs with miles use without a 14-day advance purchase. Good to know, but unwanted in that moment.

While I was disappointed that she was unable to accommodate my needs that day (because, as she told me, the same information was available on her computer that I had seen online), what was more disheartening was her lack of warmth during the process, given the information I had shared with her. It felt more as if I had inconvenienced her by calling to book my flight rather than handling online myself (which I would not have done from public wifi anyway). Trust me, when you are making a call from a hospice room, you just want someone to be nice to you. That was missing. She also missed her opportunity to extend a little empathy to make it all right with the four magic words that would have set my soul at ease in that moment. At no time during the conversation did she ever acknowledge the magnitude of what I had shared with her and say, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

I found that her somewhat cool approach that lacked compassion made me feel more on edge and frustrated by my circumstances. She didn’t even seem to care what had just happened in that room not even two hours beforehand, and that bothered me. It felt as if she didn’t even hear me or care about what was so monumental to me. Luckily, I practiced my Self-Management skills and breathed my way through it. You think to yourself in this situation, “Hmmm. Maybe she was having a bad day.” I certainly was, after all. Geez. It left a sour taste, but I moved forward with arrangements to stay one more night and fly out the following day (see Chinese food, wine, and laughter comment above – thanks Bryce!). 

It Happened Again!

After making it home, I realized I had some electronics that needed to be returned to Fry’s. I had been on my way to do it prior to my trip when a car pulled across a driveway I was trying to enter, causing me to hop a curb and pop my front tire. It really was quite spectacular. You’re sorry you missed that one! Anyhow, because of tire replacement and store location I ran out of time to get my items back prior to travels once I realized my friend was entering her final days and I flew out to be with her and her family.

The Fry’s customer service guy sounded slightly accusatory when I stepped up to the counter, asking me, “Was something wrong with it?” as I set it down and told him I had a return. I told him it just wasn’t what I needed. Upon looking at my receipt he flatly informed me I was past the 30-day window for return. (That 30 day policy was not printed on the front of the receipt, by the way, and I was only a few days past the mark.)

I proceeded to tell him about the flat tire and my travels due to the sad circumstances that occurred. He looked at me warily and with mistrust, again telling me I was past the 30 days. It dawned on me that a smile had never crossed his face from the moment I stepped up to the counter. No care. No understanding. No acknowledgement. NO magic sentence! I am sure he is probably a nice guy at heart (he reminded me a bit of Healy on “Orange Is The New Black”), but it just flipped my switch! I said, “Are you serious?! I’m about to cry here!” 

And I was. And I did! My eyes started to tear up as I prepared to ask for the manager. I have managed a customer service team and I realize many people try to pull things over on customer service reps; but just as with our judicial system we should really look at people as innocent until proven guilty. I wasn’t making up those stories, and I was barely past their time frame! He then took my next move and called his supervisor over, which I appreciated.

The manager was kind and accommodating, and quickly agreed to take back the items and generate the refund despite my few days of lapse. However, neither of them looked me in the eye from that point forward as I stood at the customer service counter silently weeping, my grief coming quietly unleashed while they took action with the register. I had to ask for a tissue, which was quickly accommodated in the form of a rough paper towel torn from a continuous roll. That made me giggle internally through my tears as I realized they were an all male group who were probably unaccustomed to reducing a customer to tears. Note to everyone: It is always good to keep some Kleenex boxes on hand … one never knows. 

As I returned to my car with my refund receipt, I let the grief I had been  denying wash over me (thanks, Fry’s guys!). It arrives again now as I write this post on my Southwest flight back to my hometown for my sweet friend’s celebration of life service … I am once again crying on a plane, damn it. I did that last week on the way home as I processed the loss. Sigh …. breathing deeply. Ahhhh. Funny how that always works, the breathing. I love the gift of presence and Self-Management. And I reflect that one of my Southwest curbside baggage agents came to greet me when I checked in today, saying he could tell I’d lost some weight since he’d seen me last, bless him! (Southwest, I always say your SNA curbside agents are the BEST!!) Okay, smiling now. And breathing again … oxygen is good. Life is good. 

On a Personal Note

I want to share one final story with you that brought this full circle for me. I mentor a young man through my volunteer work with CASA, and he has been assigned to me for nearly six years. When I told him of my travels and my friend’s passing, he didn’t say anything in response. I said, “You know … when someone shares information like that with you where someone close to them has died, it is typically customary to say, ‘I’m sorry for your loss.'” 

He still didn’t say anything, and we moved on to deciding where we wanted to go as I pondered why this phrase is missing so much these days. “I planted the seed,” I thought. “It’s all I can do.” After getting our food later and sitting down at the table, he paused and said, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

I looked at him and smiled, seeing the sentiment take root in him. I felt such peace and gratitude. I said, “Thank you,” and asked if he wanted to see a picture of us together at our senior prom. He did. We laughed and went on to have a lovely day. 

That’s really all it takes. If you ever encounter someone who has just experienced the unfortunate death of a loved one, simply say the magic words: “I’m sorry for your loss.”

It acknowledges the pain and lets someone know they are not alone in this world. Even as strangers, we can generate empathy and compassion to another person who is experiencing grief and sorrow. Not only does it comfort the individual who is feeling that loss by calming them and letting them know someone cares, it makes you a connected and more compassionate human being in the process. 

Thank you. Truly.

Valerie M. Sargent is a dynamic speaker, trainer, consultant and executive coach. A natural and engaging motivator, Valerie is a Level I and Level II TalentSmart Emotional Intelligence Certified Trainer and President of Yvette Poole & Associates. She helps individuals and organizations increase their EQ, managing emotions and relationships better on the job for maximum performance. Her signature message, “It’s in the Pause”® focuses on the need for Self-Management skills to preserve positive relationships in the workplace and beyond – follow her blog: https://itsinthepause.com/). For more information: http://ypooleandassoc.com/  or http://valeriemsargent.com/.

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5 thoughts on “Pause … for Compassion

  1. Val, first I would like to say again, ‘I am so very sorry for your loss’. The world’s loss really. After I read your FB post last Tues, I was thinking about what a nice person Jen was. She was much more than nice. She actually ‘glowed’. I ‘thought’ it was her beauty. She was pretty on the outside, but there was a ‘radiance’ about her. It ‘ finally ‘ dawned on me it was not beauty she radiated with, it was ‘GRACE’. There are not many souls like that. I am glad you began writing this blog. I am glad you shared your experiences with ‘less than’ compassionate people in the midst of your journey of grief. I have just read your previous entries and greatly appreciate what you have to say. I believe I was lead by the ‘Powers That Be’ to read your words. I am at a point in life where I, myself, am struggling. I am the caregiver for my Mother with dementia, and have ‘NEVER’ put ‘myself’ first. Now I need to learn how to do just that. Coming to terms with ‘everything’ is so very hard. Thank GOD for therapy, yoga, and meditation. I think for everyone it is a continual process, to realize, to know, and to change. I would like to thank you for your insights, and again Val, I am so sorry for your loss.

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    • Hi Janice. Thank you so much for your kind words. Jenny did certainly glow, didn’t she? I think your comment regarding her grace is so true, and so appropriate. Thank you for pointing that out. I miss my friend. 😦 I really appreciate your thoughts, and I am so glad that you are finding some solace or comfort in what I have written. I am so sorry that you are dealing with the effects of your mom’s dementia. Hang in there, and please remember that in order to take care of others, we must first care for ourselves.

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  2. I’m sorry for your loss Valerie, Thanks for a true statement of how uncaring and cold people seem to be… Yes we need more kind words to one another!!

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