I recently traveled and because of delays arrived to my hotel late in the evening. So, naturally being a bit cranky, I was eager to check in and relax. I stood in line at the registration desk behind two women. As I already confessed to being cranky, I deemed their purpose as less important than mine. They didn’t have luggage, and seemed to be asking questions about the layout of the hotel and the history of the building. I sighed and shifted my weight from hip to hip. I was annoyed at the staff member for not asking them to hold their questions so she could take care of my needs first, because obviously my eye rolling indicated that I was more important.
Then I realized this was a test for being trauma-informed. The staff member won, and I failed. She didn’t treat the women like their needs didn’t matter. She didn’t prioritize my needs ahead of theirs. She didn’t dismiss them as being less important. She was exemplifying good customer service by patiently answering all their questions. She focused all her attention on them, in that moment, before moving on to another customer.
Poor customer service would have been to ask them to step aside so she could attend to me. It would have meant they had to wait until my needs were met before theirs. She could have pushed their questions on to someone else, or referred them to a website, or told them to ask someone else in the morning. But that would have made them feel small.
Customer service is about one person at one time. Mark Cuban explains “It is so much easier to be nice, to be respectful, to put yourself in your customers’ shoes and try to understand how you might help them before they ask for help, than it is to try to mend a broken customer relationship.” Whether your mission is to sell shoes, market a basketball team or provide literacy tutoring, you need to have strong customer service.
Trauma-Informed care is not a new idea—it is basically customer service for people who have had bad things happen to them. But the great thing about it is that its implementation does no harm to anyone. If you’re lucky enough to have lived a blessed life, you will only see a trauma-informed system as good customer service. It is similar to the Americans with Disabilities Act. A handicap accessible door does not have a negative impact on a person without a disability. It either creates no change in their lives, or in some cases it enhances it—say if you have your arms full and can’t open the door, or if you are pushing a stroller. But to the handicapped person it is a necessary addition to the functioning of their lives.
Customer service is not just for businesses. Non-profits need to start thinking about who their clients are and how they serve them. For example, schools can re-think parent engagement as parent customer service—it’s discouraging for a parent to be engaged with their child’s school if they are treated as a liability rather than an asset. If you want repeat customers, and in this case parents consistently participating, then you need to make the experience of value for them, and respond to their needs.
To be trauma-informed means to present a culture without judgement, that puts customer needs first, that creates trust and treats people with dignity. The staff member at the hotel did exactly that for the women ahead of me in line. Those women weren’t wearing a sash that says “treat me nice, I’ve had something bad happen to me.” It doesn’t matter if they have or have not experienced a traumatic event. What matters is that they were treated like they mattered, and that they didn’t walk away from the desk feeling insecure. And that’s a feeling everyone can agree matters.
“To listen closely and reply well is the highest perfection we are able to attain in the art of conversation.” – Francois de La Rochefoucauld, Essayist