The first three parts of this series focused on how companies provide service and rectify imperfect situations. The way individual service reps deal with customer behavior is an important aspect — particularly when customers are dissatisfied.
Regrettably, some customers don’t believe they’ll get their due unless they strap on the conversational equivalent of gun belts and start waving their six-shooters around. They’re afraid they don’t matter to your company. Think of them as telling you — yelling at you, really — “I rate!” to get your very best care and attention.
But even when customers are irate, companies have another chance to make things right. Irate customers are asking for the relationship to be salvaged — if they didn’t still want something from the company they’d just go away quietly, as I did in Customer Experience Review, Part I: A Dissatisfied, Uncomplaining Customer.
Too Hot to Handle?
We all hate being in the wrong, and it can feel much worse if customers’ tone or language is demeaning or bullying; if they use demands for remedy or attention to push reps past the policy limits established by the company; or if they makes negative assumptions about process or intent that impugn the ethics or reputation of the company, the product, or the reps themselves.
Why would people behave so harshly? Most irate customers are reacting to what they perceive as a violation of trust or an act of blatant unfairness. Some more mercenary customers (a minority, thankfully!) actually work themselves up into being irate because they’ve learned that behaving in certain difficult ways gets them what they want.
Handling with Asbestos Gloves
An irate customer still has the potential to become a “best” customer: A problem, resolved well, can be a strong bid for future loyalty and engagement — if you know how to work with and through the difficulty.
Here are some suggestions to help the majority of irate customers simmer down:
- Listen and learn, without defense, or interruption, except to ask for clarification or information with prompts such as “Please tell me more about…” Interrupting customers or explaining policy before they’ve finished telling their story only makes difficult customers present their point more intensely, repeat their story from the beginning, or try to prove why “you don’t understand me and everything your company has done is the absolute worst thing possible.”
- Rephrase or restate what the customer has said to show you’ve understood — that you’ve grasped the facts of the situation and recognize its seriousness and impact: “Let me make sure I’ve got this…” If the history is long or convoluted or if the customer perceives multiple affronts or errors, it’s best to rephrase in stages and confirm understanding along the way: “I just want to be sure I understood you correctly. Such-and-such happened, right? And then thus-and-so?” It’s very important to give the customer full opportunity to correct and review.
- Express personal sorrow or regret for the customer’s difficulty and dissatisfaction. A simple, sincere, human expression like: “Oh, I’m so sorry you had to go through that!” can go a long way to validate upset customers’ sense of self-worth and demonstrate recognition of their trouble as well as convey empathy, respect, and an understanding that the situation is significant to them, even if it’s small and ordinary to you. This expression alone, if clearly authentic, may soothe an irate customer enough that they’ll accept some adjustment or compromise.
- Explain what you can do to take care of the problem or the customer. This is much more effective than justifying why the company did what it did originally, explaining the back office blues that created the problem, or providing any kind of defense.
- Summarize next steps to be sure that the customer understands and is not holding false expectations about future events.
Once You Put the Fire Out
There’s no perfect set of techniques that works every time for even the most capable reps. But sincere concern and reasonable promises to make things better — executed promptly and accurately — go a long way toward salvaging irate customers.
And consider following up with the customers you believe you’ve successfully reconciled. Customers who have been handled skillfully and whose trust has been restored can become your strongest advocates.
Onward and upward,