The key to providing world class customer service is being able to develop a rapport with your customers. Find out what they want from you, as well as what they think about you and your company. To do this you need to be able to communicate, and this means talking and listening.

At work, the average person spends 9% of his/her day writing, 16% reading, 30% speaking and 45% listening. Despite the fact that speaking and listening consume a whopping total of 75% of the work day, few people know how to do either effectively.

A study done at U.C.L.A. several years ago found that when you send a message to someone, the meaning is gleaned from three different sources. Twenty percent of the meaning comes from the words spoken, 25% from your tone of voice and attitude, and 55% from the clothes you wear and your body language. Yes, body language.

Body language is the single most important communication technique you should be aware of. You can learn the words and massage your attitude, but if you don’t use the right body language, the receiver will misinterpret what you are saying or think to himself, “what you said isn’t what I saw.”

The acronym that will help you better understand and improve your body language is SOFTEN.

The S stands for smile. When you meet someone for the first time, you make eleven impressions on them in just seven seconds. The first thing someone notices is whether you are friendly and empathetic, and this comes from seeing your smile. An inappropriate smile conveys just as bad a message as not smiling at all. Dr. David Lewis of the David Lewis Consultancy agency gives the following advice when meeting people with whom you are not very close but whom you wish to impress favorably. Use a relaxed smile with lips parted only slightly. At the same time, use a warm, steady gaze and allow your eyes to crinkle at the corners. To increase favor or cooperation, tilt your head sideways while smiling and making eye contact. Avoid a broad, open-mouthed smile that exposes your upper teeth. The smile is often faked and usually inspires distrust.

O is for an open stance. You can have your arms crossed and still maintain an open stance. Arm crossing means only that you are chilly or that your arms are tired. The proper stance is a way to generate receptivity, so pay attention. Women are more comfortable conversing face-to-face, while men prefer a side-by-side position that moves to a more frontal one. With this information in mind, never position yourself opposite an unfamiliar male, or beside an unknown female. Also, don’t remain standing when others are sitting unless you intend to signal dominance.

The F stands for a forward lean. This conveys a confident attitude. You are not resting back on your heels or putting your weight on one leg, rather, you are standing on the balls of your feet engaged in the conversation, using gestures and hand motions. If you are seated, you should be sitting up straight and paying attention, not leaning back in your chair trying to be “cool.”

T stands for territory. Proximity matters. The distance you stand or sit from someone sends powerful signals. We can feel very uncomfortable when somebody “invades” our space. The proper distance varies depending on personal preference and nationality. In America, there are three distances most people use whether they realize it or not.

The Business Distance is around 4 feet. When you meet someone and shake hands, and let go, you will both rock back a little and end up at about four feet. Most people, whether you know them or not, will be comfortable with this. The Social Distance is around three feet. You will know someone well before you talk this closely. The third distance is Intimate, which is about one arm’s length. To be this close, you are usually telling the person something in confidence or trying not to disturb others when you talk.

The most critical element in the SOFTEN formula is the E for Eye Contact. Have you ever heard this? “The eyes are the windows to the soul.” Within seconds of making eye contact with another person, both of you will briefly lift your eyebrows. This is a non-verbal handshake and is done unconsciously. The key point in a conversation with a customer is the length of the eye contact. In the initial stage of meeting a person, hold eye contact for no more than three seconds, then break the gaze briefly. Holding eye contact for too long can signal hostility, disapproval or a wish for greater intimacy. Your customer will feel uncomfortable.

Even though you break the gaze every 3 to 5 seconds, it is essential you maintain eye contact throughout the conversation. This will help keep your mind from wandering and give the customer a positive opinion of you.

Have you ever wondered where you should look when you talk to people? Do you look them in the eyes, or one eye, or nose, or forehead or cheekbones? People wonder about this because they are not comfortable with eye contact. You should look at one eye at a time, switching to the other eye each time you break a gaze. The other person won’t notice, your eyes will look alive and you will pay more attention while listening.

Last but not least is the N which stands for Head Nodding. This body language movement is often misused. Remember the last time you were talking to somebody who was impatiently listening to you? How did you know they were getting impatient? Because they were nodding their head frequently as you talked so you would get the message to hurry up. They looked like one of those dogs with a “bobbing” head that some people have in the back window of their cars. A group in England studied head nodding and found that men and women nod differently. Men nod “big” nods while listening, giving the speaker the feeling that they approve of what is being said. Women have smaller nods with occasional pauses in nodding, giving the speaker the feeling that they want them to “keep talking, I’m listening.” Since women are known for their above average listening skills, the latter method was thought to be best.

The whole point of all of this information is that there is more to a message than just the words. You don’t have to be a body language expert, but if you are aware of the messages your body (or the other person’s body) is sending, you will have a greater advantage in any customer interaction.

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