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Ask About Irate Customers

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By | May 26, 2012

Dear Toolkit,

I'm trying to work up a little training talk to help my employees better deal with the occasional irate customer. Any suggestions about what to emphasize will be appreciated.

Trying Harder

Dear Trying,

Congratulations on using your time and energy so wisely. Educating employees in the care and feeding of irate customers is too oft neglected by management these days. The investment of a little time and a lot of common sense will pay big dividends in retaining these customers' business as well as their good will.

Of course it's up to management to establish a clear policy on quantitative decisions about refunds or replacements, but qualitative acknowledgement of the customer's disappointment with unmet expectations can be handled effectively by every employee in the business. While the average employee may not be empowered to make economic decisions in favor of the customer, he can and should be adept and astute enough to manage the emotional negativity surrounding the issue in dispute.

All of the highly touted MBA "conflict resolution" programs in the realm of customer satisfaction management can be boiled down to a few trusty maxims, starting with the good old Golden Rule.

Maxim #1: Listen! Try to put yourself in the irate customer's shoes. Even if the complaint seems unfounded or outrageous, the customer thinks he's got a legitimate beef and he wants somebody to pay attention. So would you, right? So pay attention! That means listen!

Don't get defensive, don't interrupt, don't make excuses, don't minimize or trivialize the customer's viewpoint. Just listen! (As I recently mentioned in a previous column, perhaps we were given two ears and only one mouth as a hint that we should listen twice as much as we talk.)

Once the irate customer has ventilated his frustration and displeasure, it would then be appropriate to try to gently gather the clarifying information needed to resolve the problem. Like Jack Webb on Dragnet, just get the facts! Avoid side issues that might provoke another tirade. Start by assuring the customer that you will personally see to it that this issue is resolved promptly. (Notice I didn't say necessarily in the customer's economic favor--but "promptly.")

Give the customer your name and phone number or email address or some way he might get hold of you. This will give the customer confidence that he now has a contact within the company who is taking him seriously and who is also willing to take responsibility for resolving the problem. Someone is paying attention!

Tools to Use

In the Business Tools area you'll find a Customer Service Action Form and a Customer Service Action Form that can help you document and follow through with the complaint.

Maxim #2: Chill Out! Now all of that sounds easy enough, except that when some hothead is shouting insults at you it can be kind of tough to keep your professional cool. Here is where you (and your employees) need to understand that, when you are talking to an irate customer, the customer is always right. You are an advocate for this customer, not his adversary. You must make him believe this as well. That's salesmanship!

There is never a reason to take a complaint personally or react to it defensively. You are the calm and composed fulfill-er of needs--not the hysterical escalator of hostilities!

Maxim #3: Apologize! While your well-meaning but slightly paranoid attorney may advise you that apologies are tantamount to admissions of guilt, don't be afraid to offer a sympathetic apology. You don't have to apologize, for example, for the failure of a part you're not yet sure failed. But you are sorry that the customer is irate, aren't you? So tell him you're sorry. It doesn't cost anything to be sympathetic.

Maxim #4: Follow Up! Despite your best efforts, all customers are not going to be completely satisfied with your solutions. But this won't prevent you from attempting to reconnect with this former customer, offering inducements to return to the fold such discounts or coupons, or just a letter saying this valued customer is missed.

Maxim #5: Preempt Potential Defections! Be aware that only a very small percentage of unhappy customers actually gripe about their dissatisfaction. The rest just take their business elsewhere in silent disgruntlement. . .and tell all their friends along the way!

And as I've said before, much and often, when dealing with any of life's plethora of perils--irate customers included--your best strategy will always be to take my sainted Grandma's advice to "smile sweetly and think pleasant thoughts!" The peril will pass eventually and you'll come out looking like a model of composure and control.

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