Customers are not difficult. It might appear that way, but it’s not the case. Rather, they become difficult. According to Philip Van Kelst, you get the customers that you deserve. The customer is a mirror for your own actions. So, in order to find the cause of ‘difficult’ behaviour you have to start with yourself. And you hold the most important key to changing customers’ behaviour.

That is the central idea of De Klantendriehoek (The Customer Triangle), written by Philip Van Kelst on the basis of his years of experience in the business that bears his name: Van Kelst & Co. Van Kelst helps organisations in the areas of effective communication, connecting leadership and respectful collaboration; the ‘soft’ side of our profession, in other words. Therefore, it is not a book about communication tools and channels, but rather about emotions and motivations. De Klantendriehoek was published in September 2016 (We at Outsource have worked on the book launch). The Dutch version is already due a second print run and the French translation has just come out.

In De Klantendriehoek, Philip Van Kelst develops a simple yet accurate model about communication with customers, the link with behaviour, and how you make the first move to direct the other person. He starts from our instinctive reactions (‘freeze, fight or flight’), and transforms them to a simple animal metaphor that helps us to react suitably in a difficult conversation.

From instinctive reactions to good communication

According to Philip Van Kelst, there are three ways to react to a dissatisfied customer: rational like a cat, directive like a lion, or empathetic like a deer. You can associate positive and negative consequences with each reaction.

  • The instinctive reaction of a cat is to freeze. It solves problems by not reacting at first. It is a distant animal that does what it wants. A cat does not feel much internally. It can detach itself from its own feelings and from what is happening. But cats also keep a cool head and always put things in a rational order. They are smart and provide the right information.
  • Lions fight. They solve problems by starting confrontations and tackling threatening situations head on. Lions destroy, but equally they can bring order and structure. The lion is a master who readies himself for action and lays down the law. But it is also the connecting power which keeps a group together.
  • Fleeing is a deer’s instinctive reaction. It is a vulnerable animal that is very sensitive and therefore extremely perceptive. The deer feels fear; it is unsure and often restless. It tries to make itself invisible or simply runs away. But the deer also has a great strength. It is empathetic and emotional and can listen well to others.

According to Van Kelst, which reaction or animal is most suitable depends entirely on the context. In De Klantendriehoek he sets out many scenarios to teach you which animal can best help you in a difficult conversation. As the conversation goes on, you usually evolve from one animal to the other. The power lies in the collaboration. But in any case, he starts off from the needs of the customer, and how the customer is acting in the conversation: from dejected to downright aggressive.

For example, if a customer storms into your office shouting, he firstly needs recognition and empathy. This is a task for a deer, which can make contact like no other. Once the customer has calmed down, the cat can help to give him the correct information and brings clarity. And finally, the lion will help to guide the customer in the right direction. He brings structure and ensures that there are clear agreements.

De Klantendriehoek is very easy to read. It is a do-book, full of exercises, cases and illustrations. You can even watch a few YouTube videos in which actors play out a scenario. From a conversation with an uninterested receptionist to the incomprehensible jargon of an architect, I often found it painfully recognisable. And I learned loads. With this model, you can not only take the sting out of a difficult conversation, but can also improve your relationship with customers. Recommended.