Creating Better Customer Relationships Through Improv

If you utilize a pattern of affirming and building, while listening intently, you will find that the conversations with customers are more natural, customer focused, and deliver potential for increased sales.

Improvisation is the art of making things up in the moment without any previous preparation. Even though improv is most well known as an acting tool and form of comedic performance, every person in the world improvises daily. Your interaction with the grocer, the conversation you had at the bank, and even the toddlers you saw babbling at the park are moments of pure improvisation. These situations are made up on the spot with no script, and every interaction you have with your customers has some qualities of improvisation.

The whole purpose of improv is to be inventive and to think in ways that are new to you. This philosophy has crept into the worlds of engineering, theatre, music, film, writing, and even corporate America. Companies such as American Express, Dupont, Google, Hilton Worldwide, PepsiCo, and even Major League Baseball seek improv training for employees; from high-ranking executives to front-line employees, improv is being used to boost innovation, customer service, and the ability to adjust to new situations instantly.  

Improvisation is all about communication and making an impact right away with whomever you interact, which is why it is a popular training technique across so many industries. Improv helps bring variety into your workplace, so your interactions with customers are authentic, personalized, and impactful. There is an assortment of skills you learn when training as an improviser. The most important skills are Listening and the philosophy of “Yes, and.

Listen Like an Improviser

Improvisers know that the most important person on the planet in an improvised scene is their scene partner. That scene partner gives the improviser everything he or she needs to make a successful improvised scene—if that improvisor is listening. In the business world the most important person to any company is the customer, so why wouldn’t we pay attention, listen, and learn all we can from him or her?

We know that 55 percent of communication is nonverbal in person, and tone makes up 86 percent of communication over the phone. You must ensure that your customers are heard, not just listened to. The average person is not a good listener, specifically when it comes to remembering what he or she heard. People tend to stop listening when they believe they know what is going to be said next, or they believe they have a solution to what they already have heard.

Listening is focusing on the words. Listening like an improviser—active listening—is focusing on everything else being communicated with the words. It means you are listening for more than just words and you are staying in the moment. Your customers are giving you all the information you need to provide high-quality service to them, so just listen and stay in the moment.

David Pasquesi, a professional improviser in Chicago famous for his two-man show TJ & Dave, once said, “If you pay attention, rather than trying to make stuff up (in an improvised scene), everything is already there.” What David is saying is be present in the conversation and don’t focus on your response or the outcome of the conversation. Don’t plan; just listen. If you plan what needs to be done while the customer is talking, it will lead to seeking short, to-the-point answers that tend to sound impatient. This may help you find a solution, but the customer could have given you more information that could provide a simple solution to his or her inquiry.

We also must be aware of what our body, our face, and our eyes are saying to our customer and how it’s being received. Listening is simply the art of paying attention. If you can listen with a purpose, you can ensure your difficult customer is heard, which is the first step in diffusing any tough situation.

Focus more on being a People and Content-Oriented listener (Kittie Watson and Larry Barker). Focus on facts and details while still taking into consideration the story being told by the customer. When you listen for details and focus on the customer’s intonation, you build a stronger relationship with that customer and through the process of storytelling, you present your product in a much more engaging way.

“Yes, and” Like an Improviser

When you use your words to tell a story and paint a picture of your product or services, you engage your audience on a deeper level and prevent the interaction from becoming transactional. It is easy to get into a transactional mode when working with a customer, especially when you focus on the outcome of the interaction and are not present in the moment. The second tenant of improv that can help you focus on staying in the moment and ensure you are meeting all the needs of your customer is the philosophy of “Yes, and.”

“Yes, and” is the act of accepting what is offered in a conversation and adding to it. This concept of affirmation and building on the conversation engages customers in a conversation that supports their needs while allowing yourself to upsell and promote your services or products at a high level. Today’s customers are interested in personalized service and getting a great value. “Yes, and” is your ticket to accomplishing this through creating something out of nothing and preventing negation in conversation.

When you engage with your audience, you often have nothing to start with. The customer calls you, he or she walks into your store or you receive an e-mail. You have nothing to work with at the start of these interactions, so you must quickly adapt and explore where to go from there.  “No” or “Yes, but” are popular in the work place because they allow one party to maintain control of the conversation. There needs to be balance in communication between yourself and the customer. You cannot control the entire conversation because you are limiting the ability to listen and receive information from the customer. Control does not guarantee success. “Yes, and” often allows ideas to go to new places where you discover new connections with your customers.

Assuring the caller and qualifying the needs of the caller are perfect ways to “Yes, and” naturally with a customer. A statement such as “Yes, I can take care of that for you. What specifically were you looking for regarding Product/Service A?” is great example of “Yes, and” at work. You acknowledge you are going to assist him or her (Yes) and heighten the conversation by inquiring for more information (and). As the conversation continues, you might find an opportunity to upsell the customer or provide related services, and if you “Yes, and” up to this point, then upselling is more natural. Let’s say the customer says, “I saw Service A on your Website and wanted more information.” You now have a clear path to upsell with “Yes, and,” so you might respond by saying “Yes, we have Service A, and I recommend pairing it with Service B because it is a better value in the long run.”

If you continue this pattern of affirming and building, while listening intently, you will find that the conversations with customers are more natural, customer focused, and deliver potential for increased sales.

Alex Lefeld is a Training account manager with Signature Worldwide, as well as an acting and improv veteran in Columbus, OH. Lefeld co-founded Fishbowl Improv at Ohio State University and TBD: the Improvised Musical with Hashtag Comedy. He has a BA in Theatre from The Ohio State University and is an award-winning actor and teacher with students signing contracts with acting agencies in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City.