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Vol. 36, No. 2

Senior moments: Expert customer service tips on how to assist older members

by Nancy Friedman, the Telephone Doctor

It’s no secret that the membership at many bar associations is rapidly graying. Well, aren’t we all? My point, though, is that whether they’re remaining in practice longer or going on inactive status, many lawyers are staying on as bar members well into their golden years—and many of them prefer to pick up the phone when they need service, rather than being told, “You can do that online.”

Are there any specific customer service pointers to keep in mind when assisting those senior members? Yes and no. Most of us believe customer service is customer service. (In your world, of course, your “customers” are your bar members, as well as members of the public and anyone else who might need to interact with your association.) However, I’ve witnessed some strange behavior in how seniors are treated lately, so I wanted to bring it to your attention. Following are some guidelines to help ease the pain for both the senior and you. Actually, these helpful tips apply to all.

While the following tips are in no order of importance, they all are important. And even if you are thinking to yourself, “This isn’t our office, thank goodness,” you might think again if you survey your members. I hear complaints all the time about customer service, and in particular about how seniors are treated. So, my friends, if you serve the senior group, try some of these tips:

1. Be patient. This is the No. 1 frustration of the senior set. They tend to feel as though others younger than them have little patience, and sometimes no patience at all with them. Oh, it may not be that obvious to you, but a short answer to them shows lack of patience. A snippy answer without using their name shows lack of patience, and disrespect. Or something they didn’t hear and that you may need to repeat. And that repeated question has a tone of impatience and often a tone or sigh that says, “Gee whiz, why do I need to repeat everything for you all the time?” Have a little more patience with the seniors. You don’t want to leave them or their family members with a bad impression of the bar. And remember, in whatever number of years, that will be you, in all probability!

2. Be sure they understand. While you don’t need to be a senior to be hard of hearing, undoubtedly many seniors are hard of hearing. And in many cases, especially if they don’t have a hearing aid, they are embarrassed to let you know they didn’t hear or understand you. Take the time to be sure they thoroughly understand what you’re explaining to them. Be sure you are 150 percent sure the customer (senior or not) has absorbed everything you have said. And remember, just because they said they understand your question, that doesn’t mean they did. You might ask them, nicely, to repeat what the instructions are or when the next meeting is or whatever the item is. Having a member repeat back what they thought they heard is a great way to be sure they understand. And please be sure you ask in a very soft, pleasant tone of voice so it’s not as though you’re in a courtroom grilling them.

3.  Be mindful of memory problems. We KNOW this is not confined to the senior set. (Frankly, none of these tips are confined to just the senior set.) All of us have, at one time or another, forgotten instructions, names, or other details. So while writing it down will help, making double, even triple sure they really understand what needs to be done is so important.

4. Beware of company jargon. Every profession, association, or organization has jargon they use internally. And that’s fine. Using acronyms or other company jargon with each other will speed things along. However, using this internal jargon on a senior, or really anyone who doesn’t work at the bar association, can and will slow things down and confuse the issue. So if you’re telling a senior to do something and use confusing jargon, best you break it down and take the time to use normal language they’re more likely to understand.

5.      Realize that speed is not success. OK, let’s face it, we’re all busy, busy, busy. But being busy does not give us carte blanche to be rude. Slow down. Maybe not as slow as the senior you’re working with at the time, but slow down. Remember, rushing threatens people. Acknowledge what they’re saying. Look them in the eye. The faster you go, the more confusing it will get for them. Far better you do it right the first time than to have to repeat yourself. (Which, by the way, you may need to do anyway.) Either way, remember, speed is not success. It’s not a race to get rid of them. It’s a chance to be nicer to someone.

6. Smile. This is something the senior set relishes. They may not have had a smile given to them for days or months. They may not have laughed in quite a while. They may be alone. They may be lonely. If they’re no longer practicing, you may be the only contact they have to the outside or to their former profession. You may make such a difference to them. So when you talk with them, keep a big, big smile on your face and in your voice. They’ll feel it (yes, even if you’re helping them by phone) and appreciate it.

Here’s something else to think about: What is old? What makes a senior? A 30-year-old thinks a 55-year-old is old. A 55-year-old thinks 70 is old. And 70-year-olds think … well, you get the idea. At what age is old? At what age do members start to need us to be more patient? At what age do they (and eventually, we) start to need help understanding? At what age do they start forgetting things? At what age are they likely not to understand slang or jargon used within our association? And at what age do they begin to feel threatened when we rush them?

Good Lord willing, you, too, will be a senior one day—whatever age that may be. And you, too, will want to be treated with patience, understanding, and, most of all, respect.

Nancy Friedman, the Telephone Doctor

Nancy Friedman, president and founder of Telephone Doctor Customer Service Training, was a well-received NABE speaker a few years back and has spoken at The Missouri Bar and the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis. Friedman is a featured speaker at association and corporate meetings and has appeared on Oprah, The Today Show, CNN, FOX News, Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, and many others. She is the author of seven books on sales and customer service and is the spokesperson in her
company’s popular DVD customer service training programs. For more information, visit or call
(314) 291-1012.