What President Clinton Can Teach Us About Customer Service

February 25, 2013

When he was running for President in 1991, then-candidate Bill Clinton had a list of three fundamental campaign messages posted on the wall of his campaign headquarters:

  1. Change versus more of the same
  2. The economy, stupid
  3. Don’t forget health care

These three messages embodied the heart of what the Clinton campaign wished to convey to the country, which they did to the tune of a successful presidential election.

How was the Clinton campaign able to convey its message so effectively? One reason was the rhetorical skill of the candidate himself.

Regardless of political affiliation, almost no serious political observer dismisses President Clinton’s incredible political skills, and among the President’s most estimable political skills was his ability to pivot almost any discussion to one of his key campaign themes.

Ask him about defense, and by the time he got to the end of the answer, he was discussing the economy. Ask him about western water rights, and he would pivot from that to clean water and then from clean water to healthcare.

The ability to pivot is the ability to direct a conversation to where you want it to go, and accordingly, pivots can be one of the most powerful tools in a customer facing professional’s arsenal.

But pivots must be used with care.

Pivoting for Customer Service Must Be Done Well

Pivots can be done poorly. Poor pivoting is one of the reasons most politicians seem dishonest, and President Clinton’s pivots, though smooth, were often so smooth that they would infuriate his detractors — earning him the disparaging moniker Slick Willie.

In a poorly done pivot, it is obvious that the person is not even attempting to answer the question they were asked. A masterful pivot is not about avoiding questions or accountability; a masterful pivot is about focusing the conversation on what is productive.

In the case of customer service, many customer facing professionals lack the ability to pivot well. Why? Because they respond the way most conscientious people do, by trying to directly answer the question they were asked.

And by continuing to answer the question they were asked…

And then answering it some more…

If the question is a productive one (what are you going to do about this?) then pivoting is not necessary, perhaps some simple reframing will suffice.

However, if the question is an unproductive one (is it your whole company or just you that’s incompetent?), then pivoting can help you shift the conversation to more productive territory.

How To Use Pivots With A Customer

Here is a quick example of pivoting in a typical customer service situation:

The customer asks, “Why didn’t your salesperson explain to me that the sale ended yesterday when I called her this morning? Because of her, I drove 40 minutes for nothing.”

“I certainly understand ma’am. It is obvious that information would have prevented this situation and you driving down here. But since you are here, let me help you make the best out of this situation now. What I can do for you is…”

This is a time pivot and is one of the most useful pivots when dealing with an upset customer. The customer is focused on what went wrong in the past; you want them focused on how it is going to be better in the present.

When done well, pivots can be an effective tool in a customer facing professional’s toolbox. A great exercise for your team is to write down the top customer complaints your company receives and then experiment with different types of pivots to see which ones are most effective.

Just remember, if you tell your customer “it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” you’re not pivoting, you’re avoiding the question altogether.

PS. This is a post about customer service, not politics. Just sayin…

11 thoughts on “What President Clinton Can Teach Us About Customer Service”

  1. Hey Adam,

    Today my wife called a company to complain about the bill and the guy on the other end had probably just completed pivot training 😉 He immediately did the “since I have you on the phone … here’s what I can do to maintain you as a loyal customer.” (Way better than my experience with a certain mobile co a few weeks back!) We did get a much better deal after this call. It could also be the fact that I asked her to call because I didn’t have time and she has a much nicer voice, of course.

    1. It’s a good thing, you know who in your family should make those calls. 🙂

      My wife came back from work yesterday and said — hey, I used your pivot thing today. So, that was cool. It really is an effective technique if done well.

  2. Interesting post.., putting things in a clear perspective.
    I can imagine it takes considerable skill (and/or training) to pivot properly.., good skill to have.., in a lot of situations…

    1. You make a good point Roger. Not everyone can do it well. It’s sort of like sales. Some people are naturals, some people can be good with the right training, and some people just shouldn’t do it. People who can’t learn to pivot well probably shouldn’t be in customer facing positions. That being said, it does take practice and experience for even pros to get good at it.

      Thanks for joining the conversation!

  3. I wonder what Gini has to say about the pivot. This sounds very tricky and can land a novice in hot water. I have to give it a go. The funny thing is that when I have attempted something like this in the past I have been called a salesman. I wonder if the salesman in me felt that was a compliment?

    Great tip. I will consciously give this a go and see if it works. 🙂

    1. I bet Gini probably has an opinion, as it is a significant technique in media coaching (for better or worse).

      I think one of the keys with pivots is to prepare for the things you typically run into and prepare ahead of time for how you would pivot away from them and what you would pivot towards. That way, you have comfort in the answer and don’t come across as uncomfortable. I think great salespeople (I’m not one, for the record) use every sales technique in the book, but they know how to do it so smoothly that it doesn’t feel “salesy.”

      Let me know how it goes.

    2. It happens all the time. We teach people how to do this in media training. If done poorly, it does come across as you’re lying or spinning the truth. The point of it is to teach interviewees how to stay on agenda and not let journalists define what it is they’re going to talk about. This is very important in highly regulated industries and when an executive is under fire. It’s why you see it so often with politicians: They don’t want to talk about anything but their own agendas.

      1. And that’s the hard part with politicians. Most of them are so ham-handed and obvious about it that they come across as, well… politicians.

  4. Pingback: What Are the Next 10 Words? A #CustServ Lesson from The West Wing

  5. This is what we call “blocking and bridging” in media training. Same principles, but I like to use the football analogy, particularly when I’m working with sports fans.

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