Lack of humor in customer service no joke to workplace skills expert, new Northcentral graduate

For someone who makes his living writing and speaking about workplace "porcupines," Northcentral University graduate Richard Gallagher is the least-prickly person you'd ever meet.

Slings and arrows and barbs are part and parcel in the workplace, Gallagher said at a Friday evening reception for Northcentral's Class of 2011, noting that customer service can be a particularly spiky situation nowadays.

"Information technology has made communication a lot faster but also much more vulnerable to misunderstanding and, sadly, to miscommunication," said the best-selling author and career skills improvement lecturer.

The Master's in Marriage and Family Therapy diploma he received this June at Northcentral's commencement not only augments his career on the lecture circuit — 40 to 50 speeches a year — it also opens the door to his lifelong goal to practice what he preaches in a more intimate environment: with families in conflict.

"The same anxieties that create conflicts in customer service situations, or chill a workplace environment among fellow employees, can create dissonance and dysfunction at home," Gallagher said.

Gallagher's work has been called "pioneering," a classification he appreciates but quickly explains as "basically The Golden Rule retooled for the digital age."

"But, it is much more than just taking what most of us are taught repeatedly in childhood — be nice, say please and thank you, do unto others, etc.," he said. "It involves specific procedural skills for how to acknowledge people and defuse conflict — skills that most people do not know until they are taught them."

As he notes in the introduction to the No. 1 best-selling career skills customer service and business humor book on Amazon, What to Say to a Porcupine, although customer and peer relationships are the underpinnings of the workplace, "sadly, there is often a singular lack of good humor" in art and craft of customer service.

Gallagher, who displays singularly ample good humor and grace greeting friends or meeting strangers, wraps his message of civility skill-building and service — both to customers and fellow workers — in one of the most ancient styles of storytelling: the fable —in particular, Aesop's Fables. Each of the 20 humorous tales ends with a serious moral, including: Listen to your customers; Don't be a snipe; Shine when things go wrong; Good products don't excuse bad service.

"Everyone knows what it feels like to have a customer service representative helping you to get off the phone instead of helping you get a problem solved," he said. "Knowing the difference and practicing the skills to make a prickly situation different makes all the difference."

Gallagher, who is also the author of How to Say Anything to Anyone, said the core of resolving most any conflicted relationship/interaction is to speak to strengths, not weaknesses.

"For example, from day one at Northcentral, I could tell they were going to help me play to my strengths," he said. "They were about me as an individual, not about them as an institution. They set and maintain the highest standard for both rigor of study and for customer service — top to bottom."