Making Friends with Difficult Customers

by Judy Phibin

Most customer service inquiries are pretty straight-forward. But every so often the customer becomes irate, rude or worse. These confrontations can rattle even the most experienced agent and cause a meltdown in the client-company relationship.

It helps to keep your eye on the goal. Even in the face of shouting or haranguing, the ultimate goal of customer service remains: 1) listen to and address the customer’s concern and, 2) deliver a positive experience.

With a difficult customer, take a step back—better yet, step out of yourself—and look at ways to respond with empathy, respect and a healthy dose of detachment. Remember that angry people are still people. Perhaps this is how they make their way in the world. Maybe they’ve had a terrible day or this issue has truly caused great distress. Here are some ways to help you solve the problem and possibly leave them smiling!

Detach Your Ego. When someone goes off on us, we automatically get defensive. But the caller isn’t really mad at you because, most likely, you didn’t cause the problem. Put your ego aside and don’t take it personally. Listen to the message, not the emotions.

The Customer Has a Reason to Be Angry. Something went wrong and the customer has a right to be upset. It may seem petty or their manner may seem way out of line. However, acknowledge that their frustration is real.

Give 100% Attention. Listen actively. Resist the urge to interrupt or jump in immediately with a solution. When you’ve had a chance to sincerely and carefully listen to the concerns, repeat or paraphrase what’s been said to be sure you’re both on the same page. If necessary, ask specific questions for clarification.
Remove Oxygen from the Fire. You can’t control the behavior of others, but you can influence the outcome. Stay calm. Anger will be further fueled if you argue or yell back.
Manage the Emotion First, then the Problem. Your first impulse may be to fix the problem. However, take time to listen. A complaining customer feels wronged, and they want you to know that they’ve been inconvenienced, disappointed, or embarrassed. Part of ‘righting the wrong’ is to be heard. ”Mr. X, I can see how frustrating this is. I would be upset too.”
Become a Partner. Open the dialogue with something like: “Would you mind telling me what is happening”, or “Please tell me why you’re upset.” This sets the stage for working as a team. If the customer isn’t happy with the solution you offer, ask how they would like to solve it: “If this isn’t working for you, what would you like to see happen?”
Uncover the Real Issue. “You guys always get our shipment wrong” or “Your products never work!” There’s not much you can do with these kinds of generalizations. Help the customer verbalize exactly what it is they want you to do for them. Otherwise, you may make offers and suggestions that simply cause additional frustration.
Speak Softly. As stressful as the interaction may be, do your best to keep your voice calm, reassuring, and in a lower register. The customer may, eventually, follow suit.
Think ‘Can Do’. Use words and phrases that create a positive image. Positive language communicates what CAN be done (rather than what can’t) while suggesting solutions, choices and alternatives. This demonstrates a willingness to solve the problem rather than putting up roadblocks.
Negative: We’re back ordered on that item and won’t be able to ship until mid-May.
Positive: That’s a very popular item you’ve selected! We’ll have ample stock on May 15 and, to thank you for your patience, we will ship it overnight to you at no additional charge.
Sometimes You Walk Away. Know the boundaries that are expected of you. While most companies maintain a policy that ‘the customer is always right’, they must also empower employees to end or hand-off any interaction that turns verbally abusive, including racial, ethnic or sexist affronts.

Welcome the Difficult Customer  

Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, was quoted as saying “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” What he meant is that, while the delivery may be unpleasant, there is often a lot we can learn from them. For example, how can we improve the product? The process? The delivery?
Also know that, even if you handle things perfectly, it’s impossible to please every unhappy customer. But don’t let that deter you from doing your best! Think of each difficult encounter as a chance to improve your skills, acknowledge what you did well and decide what you’ll do differently next time. That sounds like a pretty good recipe for life!

Posted on April 09, 2015

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