If you have not encountered them yet, you will. They are unhappy customers who call and bombard you with accusations, wrong statements about how things are, and an attitude that they know more than they actually do. Not only that, they interrupt you and do not seem to be hearing you.
If you’ve already had a bad day or are just overloaded, it might feel good to solve the problem by snapping at that customer and hanging up. After all, you have plenty of good customers and don’t need this one harassing you.
So you do that, and later that day are surprised to find a blistering review of your company has been posted on several review sites. One even has an out-of-context audio clip that makes you seem like a lunatic. Avoiding such an outcome is one reason to handle things quite differently than snapping at the customer.
It all begins with your frame of reference. Instead of viewing this difficult customer as an annoyance, view the situation as an opportunity. If this person exhibits this kind of behavior with you, he does it with your competitors as well. If you can work with this individual, you may find the relationship may be rewarding and not just financially.
Many times, the cause for such behavior is the customer does not feel like he’s listened to. So the first rule of engagement is listen. If the customer calls and rants about how terrible your company is, let him emote for a bit. When his speed and volume drop, the storm is losing energy. This is the earliest point at which you can interrupt. The customer is probably expecting you to do so, and if he’s now repeating himself, you’ve probably got the green light to do so.
But don’t interrupt with counter-arguments. Interrupt to apologize for his unhappiness. Make that a genuine apology, not an evasive non-apology.
• Don’t apologize for the inconvenience, if the issue is not a matter of mere inconvenience.
• Don’t say “we” are sorry; say “I” am sorry.
• Don’t minimize the problem.
Say something like: “I’m really sorry you’re going through this. I want to help you. Let me see if I understand your problem. It is….” If you stay calm going forward, the customer probably will, too.
Here's a way to deal with an angry customer when you feel you’re at your breaking point:
• If the customer is still ranting, interrupt and say you’d be angry too.
• Then immediately move to the core issue, summarize it in a sentence or two and ask the customer if that’s right.
• Explain that you need to do some research and will get back to the customer within an hour. “That way, I don’t waste your time with stupid answers, Bill. I’m sure you didn’t call to get one of those.”
Do this even if you know the correct answer. Solving the underlying issue isn’t the point at this time, and the angry customer is not in a mental state to receive your message anyhow.
This “research” gambit buys you time to cool off and think about the problem. The customer also will cool off. Make sure you call back within that hour.
Now you’re both calmer, and this same non-receptive person, whom you have treated with empathy and respect, will be much easier to please. Because you’ve had time to think calmly, you also are more likely to please the customer with your solution—especially if you used some of that hour to discuss the technical issue with colleagues.
• Never attack back at an angry, or even abusive, customer.
• Listen to the customer without thinking of a response and without taking personal offense.
• Express genuine regret for making the customer unhappy.
• If things are hotter than you can handle, buy some time so both you and the customer can calm down.
• Get back to that customer when you promised, even if you don’t have a solution and even if you didn’t totally understand what he was yelling at you about.
What if you’re in a meeting and things are getting heated? You can use a similar ploy to lower the temperature. The bathroom ploy goes like this, “Bill, I’m listening to you and I’d be unhappy too. Let me take a few minutes to get rid of that coffee I had earlier. When I come back, I want to hear more about this problem and see what we can do to fix it for you.”
Legal experts will advise to never admit to wrongdoing. That’s probably good advice for the initial moments (until you can know what actually happened), but it does not mean you can’t say you’re sorry for making the customer angry. Trying to sidestep responsibility with a non-apology will only make matters worse.
Correct: “I’m sorry we made you unhappy.”
Incorrect: “I’m sorry if we made you unhappy.”
There’s no “if” here; the customer is unhappy, and he does not think it is his fault. He thinks his unhappiness is your fault. Don’t say things that argue with this view; it’s not really the point. This doesn’t mean you immediately admit the exact problem you’re being accused of.
Incorrect: “I’m sorry Frank changed the settings on your breaker.”
Correct: “I’m sorry someone changed the settings on your breaker, but this doesn’t sound like Frank. I’m not excusing this if he did it, but don’t you agree we need to look at the calibration photos to see how he found it and how he left it?” Notice here that you’re not weaseling out and you’re not admitting anything.
What about an email? There’s no law requiring you to email a response immediately, so if the customer sends an angry email, don’t reply with a defense or argument. Instead, think about what the customer said and prepare some talking points. Then phone the customer. Lead off with something like, “Jim, this is Mike. I’m sorry we made you unhappy. Thanks for sending your email. Do you have time now to discuss this?”
Let’s close with some magic words every customer loves to hear:
• Thank you.
• I appreciate your efforts.
• I’m glad you called.
Oh, wait, those magic words came from a guide for married couples. Or was that a guide for parents? No, wait, it was a guide for employees on how to deal with their boss, er, no, for the boss to deal with employees. Or was that….
What would happen if you make a practice of using those magic words often, regardless of whether it’s a business or personal situation? Think about it.