Lance Burdett used to be a crisis negotiator. Now he helps councils handle angry, aggressive or threatening customers. He spoke with Ruth Le Pla about silence, managing five generations’ worth of anger and the surprising power of humility.
Lance Burdett used to make a living talking people down from the ledges of tall buildings. Ok, that was just one of his many roles. For 13 of his 22 years with the New Zealand Police, Lance worked as a crisis negotiator and instructor. He specialised in suicide intervention and in predicting violent behaviour. He became the lead negotiator for the Police. He was part of the VIP Protection Squad and spent two and a half years running the witness protection team.
For the past five years Lance has been helping councils work out how to reduce tensions when speaking with customers. His local government client list includes Auckland, Tauranga, Hamilton, Timaru, Waitaki, Bay of Plenty, Marlborough, Kaikoura and Canterbury councils.
Lance says a negotiator’s course with the FBI sparked his deep dive into the psychology of human behaviour: dealing with emotions and learning how the brain operates.
His past work included doing security assessments. It was about understanding how and why people react in certain ways when they enter a place. “Here’s how it works,” he says. “I’ll ask somebody what primary school they went to. Then I’ll ask everyone else in the room ‘who was thinking of the name of their own school rather than what that person was saying?’.
“That’s the way our brain operates. Information comes into our brain, an emotion is attached to that piece of information, it all gets flicked to the back of the brain which says, ‘um, have we got any terms of reference?’ And the answer is, ‘yeah, last time you were in here this happened’.
“So, bang, that goes straight back to the front of the brain which says, ‘this is how you need to react’.”
Anyone who has ever walked into a council office and had a negative interaction will remember every time they go back into that same environment, says Lance. “They’ve got the sights, sounds and smells of that place and straight away they’re already in a negative state of mind. That’s how our brain remembers things… the environment has a major impact on how we behave.”
Cut the tension
Lance is now MD of WARN International (it stands for wellness, awareness, resilience and negotiation). The consultancy helps individuals and organisations develop communication skills, and personal safety and resiliency techniques to deal with angry, aggressive or threatening people.
His work has also morphed into the psychology of safety and security in workspaces. He helps clients remain safe and secure, teaching them how to de-escalate tension from the start of interactions. These days his security reviews are based not on target hardening – the process of making a building a more difficult target. He focuses on welcoming people.
He’s not singling out particular local authorities but does concede that, from what he’s seen, the smaller councils are more likely to be getting it right. Their size means they can move faster.
It could also be the demographics. It’s a big generalisation, he notes, but people who live in smaller communities are generally more patient. “The bigger councils have a lot of trouble. The more interaction, the more people you have, the more difficult it becomes.”
Customer-facing staff have been trained to be “too nice” to customers in the past.
Lance helps people working at councils understand how the human brain works and gives them techniques for de-escalating tricky situations.
“We can’t help anyone else unless we’re in a good state of mind ourselves,” he says. “You’ve got to be selfish to be selfless.”
Lance teaches course participants breathing techniques for dealing with their own emotions, including the involuntary ‘fight or flight’ response which, he says, individuals now typically experience around 15 to 20 times a day.
“When somebody rarks up in front of you, you can use this technique to bring you back down to a reasonable level so you can deal with that person effectively.”
He also shares an “intuitive and simple” model for front-line council staff to communicate with people from different generations.
“We’ve got five generations now that all react differently when angry. Our minds think in the same way, but we react differently according to our generational type.”
When silence is golden
The classic question is what to say to an angry person, he posits. “Nothing. Until they’re finished. But what we try and do is attack back. That’s a self-defence mechanism hard-wired into our brain. The default setting in our brain is anger. If we become hungry, we become ‘hangry’. That’s how we’ve survived.”
“What’s the difference between anger and aggression?” he asks. “It’s not the words used: it’s where the words are directed. When they’re aimed at you, that’s aggression.”
Lance reckons customer-facing staff have been trained to be “too nice” to customers in the past. The knock-on effect was anger on both sides when conflict arose. “We use a lot of humility these days,” he says. It’s counter-intuitive but it works.
Difficult customers get two warnings. Why two? Because most people have said things in the heat of the moment that they may later regret.
The warnings are subtle and said with humility. The first one: “Hey look, I’m just having some trouble helping you at the moment.” The second: “As I said before, I can’t really help you right now”.
And if both warnings fail? “Invite people back rather than step them out. We say to them, ‘look, you might want to come back in a couple of days as we might have things sorted by then’. Or ‘it might be helpful if perhaps you go away and have a little think for a short period of time and perhaps come back when you’ve got some more information’.
“Something that just says, ‘you’re welcome back but don’t be a dick’.”
Lance says the words used are “very, very important” and is happy to provide exact wording at his workshops for anyone wanting them. He argues that organisations need to put more thought, resources and training into customer service.
“I worked in the 111-call centre for a number of years and for all that time we’d been saying, ‘you need to re-staff’. ‘Aw no, we can look at short cuts, we can look at changing our processes. We can look at, we can look at, we can look at…’
“They finally bit the bullet and said, ‘actually, we do need some more staff: we need to train them differently, we need to give them opportunities because that’s the first point of contact’.
“I just phoned a contact centre right now and my call went straight to overseas. So here we’ve got an American-sounding person using American vernacular. ‘I’m sorry to hear that you’ve got a problem with your computer.’ ‘No, you’re not. You couldn’t care less’, was my answer and there was dead silence. ‘Excuse me?’ ‘Well, you couldn’t care less, so don’t say it if you don’t mean it.’
“It’s important to show the bosses that’s what’s going on because staff are getting slammed these days.”
Take a deep breath
Lance says many organisations have become so specialised that they’ve lost the art of customer service. Anyone making an enquiry gets the run-around. “That’s got to go to the planner, that’s got to go to the environmental impact team… to the legal team, the building team, the plumbing team and, by the way, we might have to have somebody else come and have a look at this part of it.”
The examples in our conversation so far have looked at traditional face-to-face interactions. But Lance says his thinking and methodology applies equally to all other council communications methods such as email, phone or Facebook.
“When you go to any organisation what’s the first thing you’re after? You want them to listen.
“Even in this conversation, you’ve been thinking about other things including what’s your next question.” (Guilty as charged.) “That’s what we all do. We’re doing it more and more and sometimes missing the point.”
He says the attention span of the average driver is now just 90 seconds. Ten years ago, drivers could stay focused for minutes: 10, 15, 20, even 30 minutes.
“In the 1990s and early 2000s our attention span during a meeting was 20 to 40 minutes. Now it would be less than half of that. It’s because our brains are going faster. Information overload, higher expectations and lack of socialisation: those are the three things that are impacting on us.”
Lance says breathing is the number one thing that controls people’s thoughts when they are in emotional situations.
“Say, for example, you have a phone call from somebody or an interaction at the counter. Take a big deep breath, hold it, count a couple of times, and then put a smile on your face: even if you’re on the phone. Smile and in your head say, ‘new customer: let go of the last person’.
“That keeps you alert. You have a different tone to your voice. That smile gives you a little shot of serotonin which makes you happy. Fake it until you make it. Then you’ve got a sing in your voice and straight away people are engaged.”
Lance says the smallest things make the biggest impact in human interactions. People remember that extra piece of customer service. They are wired to remember the negative. So, the only way for them to remember a positive is to treat them in a way that says they’re special.
“Instead of saying, ‘I’ll have a look at this and see what I can do’. You might say, ‘I’ll have a look at this and see what we can do’. There’s a difference. It means ‘I’m going to take ownership and the organisation is behind me.’ That creates more rapport.
“Just change your words. Changing ‘I’ and ‘me’ to ‘us’ and ‘we’ is changing how you establish rapport with people.”
Scripts and the three As
How would you feel if you were on the receiving end of one of your council’s customer service ‘scripts’? Not good, I bet. When Lance Burdett asks customer service team members this question that’s the kind of response he gets. More to the point, he says many team members don’t even like using them. They tell him they have to do so.
Lance, who heads up the WARN International consultancy, says he’s not against scripts per se. But he argues that scripts are only a guide and no-one should be made to stick to their every word.
Any script that’s more than three years old should be thrown out, he says. “Things change. Even in the past three years, we’ve got a little bit shorter in our interactions.”
Lance says it’s important to make the conversation about the other person. “So, I teach something called the triple A technique: Agree, Acknowledge and Assure. You agree with the other person if you can, or make it sound like you’re going to agree with them. You acknowledge the situation they’re in and then assure them by telling them what’s going to happen.
Customer: “Your policies are damned complicated.”
Service provider: “That’s a good point. You know what, you’re right they do seem complicated. And it’s frustrating if you don’t understand it, isn’t it? Let’s have a look and see what part of our policies or procedures you’re having difficulty with.”
Lance teaches even shorter responses when he works with transport officers in Auckland.
Customer: “Your bus is late.”
Bus driver: “Yeah, you’re right. It is.” (Tone of voice is important here.)
Don’t apologise, says Lance. “People know that’s disingenuous. It’s not your fault. So, be honest. Communication these days is HOT: Honest, Open and To the point.”
Focus on your staff and the tools they use. That’s the message from Warn International MD Lance Burdett when asked how councils can best improve how they interact with customers. “Give your staff the personal tools to engage with people… And check if the tools you use in your office have been updated.”
Lance says he often hears customer service staff asking customers to bear with them as their computer is a bit clunky and they’ve got to run three or four different screens to be able to help them. That, he says, is not good enough.
Meet Lance at the ALGIM Spring Conference
Catch up with WARN International MD Lance Burdett at ALGIM’s Spring Conference in Christchurch where he will be making a presentation and running a workshop.
In his presentation, Resilience: Challenging life’s challenges, Lance explores the three main reasons why stress levels are increasing and how to mitigate those stressors. He will also teach simple ways to reduce worry, get to sleep faster, reduce waking between 3 and 4am, minimise overthinking and remain focused across the entire day.
Participants in his workshop on Designing a welcoming experience get to examine the environmental factors that contribute to a safe workplace, how the psychology of safety operates, and how to communicate effectively to reduce tension when speaking with customers.
The conference, which focuses on customer experience and web & digital, is being held at the Christchurch Town Hall from September 15 to 17.
For more information go to algim.org.nz/Spring-Conference
This article was first published in the September 2019 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.