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Defusing the Angry Customer

Here are some of the leading causes of customer frustration and anger. As you ponder this list, ask yourself what steps you could take to prevent these

Defusing the Angry Customer

Apr 20, 1997 12:00 PM,
Richard G. Ensman

Here are some of the leading causes of customer frustration and anger. As you ponder this list, ask yourself what steps you could take to prevent these problems in the first place.

* Long delays.

* Service or sales problems that result in serious customer problems or emergencies.

* Uncaring or “sloppy” attitude.

* Wasted time, such as an excessive wait for a service call.

* Failure to listen.

* Failure to follow customerinstructions.

* Broken promises.

* Financial losses that result from poor service.

* Inability to provide needed answers or information.

Something has gone wrong. You can see it in the customer’s face, which is turning beet red. She may be raising her voice or issuing veiled threats. She’s about to blow.

There is probably no sales battle that feels more threatening than a finger-pointing, in-your-face encounter with an angry customer. It’s difficult to react with a cool head – your knees feel a bit weak at this verbal onslaught, and you’re frantically trying to compose a response while keeping your emotions in check. You didn’t plan for this kind of blowup, so you’re scrambling for the right reaction.

Your response can take the situation one of two ways: You can exacerbate the situation, guaranteeing a customer-losing explosion, or you can handle it in a way that defuses the client’s anger. Handling it effectively is easier than you think — if you develop and practice anger response skills. Practice? Absolutely. You need to have these skills down; the customer is on a countdown to blowup, and the clock is ticking.

The first 30 seconds:, shut up and listenThere is a golden rule for dealing for an angry customer. Apply it in every case, no exceptions. If you remember nothing else from this article, remember this: Listen! Close your mouth and listen to the customer blow off steam, every bit of steam there is. Get the whole tantrum and tirade over with. Never interrupt, not for anything, no matter what you’re thinking. Let the customer go on until the customer runs out of steam. Even if the customer thinks you’re someone else (such as the electrical contractor or the building inspector).

As you listen, remember the triggers that can deepen customer anger: a seemingly uncaring attitude, argumentation or officious bureaucratic behavior.

As you size up the offended customer, gauge his emotional type: Is he a methodical inquisitor? An avenger? A bureaucrat anxious to catch someone breaking the rules? A righteous victim? Understand his emotional type, and you’ll be able to gear your conversation accordingly.

As the customer speaks, listen with your entire body. Arch forward a bit. Keep your head erect. Gaze at the customer, and nod as he emphasizes key points. At the same time, however, guard against displays of emotion on your part, however upset or angry you may be feeling.

If you should find yourself becoming defensive or angry, count to 10 (yes, this technique really does work) or breathe deeply for a few seconds. It will not be held against you that you paused and thought a bit before answering. You can buy yourself a few seconds by saying, “That’s very serious.” It sometimes happens that customers (or negotiating opponents) throw deliberate tantrums; it’s a tactic, not an emotional catharsis. If you think this may be the case, it’s even more important to remain cool; a tactical tantrum is intended to make you lose your calm and act rashly. As regards your immediate response, it really doesn’t matter what caused the outburst; don’t reply in kind in any case.

After the customer gets the conversation going, signal your willingness to continue: invite her to sit down, step over to a more private location, or enter your office. This simple action on your part symbol- izes your interest in the customer and sets the tone for a productive resolution of the problem.

2 to 10 minutes: The conversationAllow your customer to blow off however much steam she must. Early in the conversation, let her know that you take all complaints very seriously and that you’re seeking a resolution of the problem. But don’t promise anything at this point.

Picture yourself as an impartial observer. Let your customer know that your immediate goal is to understand the problem and the circumstances that caused it, and then work with the customer to address it.

Continue to listen carefully as you walk through the problem with your customer. When you must answer a question or respond to a comment, speak slowly and thoughtfully. When the customer raises his voice, nod and make a notation on your notepad; this is an expression of your attentiveness. If your customer’s anger persists, offer a subtle reaction to his outbursts — say, by moving your head back slightly whenever one occurs.

Remember the customer’s emotional profile? Now is the time to use that knowledge. If the customer is angry that some rule wasn’t followed, for instance, you might explore your procedures. If the customer feels her pride was insulted, you might praise and affirm her. You should model your communication style in response to the customer’s attitude.

Although you must continue to listen actively, you can relax your body somewhat during this phase of the conversation. Here, you may put the customer at ease for the first time. Continue to acknowledge the legitimacy of his emotions and offer anecdotes about poor service or problems you’ve encountered in the past. Move physically closer to the customer when he relaxes a bit.

If you can, ascertain why the customer is bothered by the problem. A customer who encountered a late delivery, for instance, might be angry not about the late delivery but about having to change her plans as the result of the delay.

2 to 10 minutes:, Attacking the problemUp to this point you’ve made no promises to the customer. In fact, you may not have said much, preferring instead to let the customer speak. Apologize, if that’s appropriate. Outline in general terms how you’ll go about resolving the problem. If you can offer specifics, such as correcting an error, making an adjustment on the customer’s account, replacing components or extending the warranty, do so, but be sure to underpromise rather than overpromise.

If you can’t firmly resolve the problem, indicate your next step: asking another individual to look into it, investigating further or writing a letter to a manufacturer, for example.

If possible, give the customer options – two or three ways you can address the problem. To most customers, options symbolize power. If you have discretion in resolving problems, simply ask: “What can I do to make things right?” Although you might not be able to meet the customer’s exact terms, those few words can begin a fruitful negotiation.

If you find yourself unable to resolve the problem to the customer’s satisfaction, ruminate on potentially extreme solutions: dismissing an employee, shutting the entire business down for a few hours, dropping an entire product line. These suggestions, if presented properly, sound so extreme that even diehard complainers wouldn’t advocate for them.

A word of inspiration: This stage of discussion is often frustrating and aggravating. However, you could think of it is an opportunity to sell your responsiveness. If you can make a “sale” here, you may end up with a grateful customer for years to come.

30 to 60 seconds:, Taking leave of your customerThe close of your conversation is an opportunity for you to thank your customer for bringing the problem to your attention. Stress that you appreciate her creating a learning opportunity for you rather than writing your company off. It’s also an opportunity for you to reaffirm the customer-seller bond. A firm handshake, a small gift or a warm invitation to call back anytime works wonders for the relationship.

1 to 2 minutes: How did you do?After the customer leaves, take a minute or two to reflect on what you did right and what you did wrong during the encounter. Did you identify the problem quickly? Establish rapport with your customer? Did you meet your own complaint resolution standards?

After assessing your own performance, make a note in your calendar to call or write the customer in another day or two. Also note any action you must take to meet promises you made to the customer.

Confronting and addressing customer anger is a skill. Like any skill, you can improve your efforts with practice. Don’t look upon encounters with angry customers as occasions to be feared. Look at them as opportunities to improve your skills and demonstrate to your customers that you’re really as responsive as you claim to be.

Ensman is a free-lance author based in Rochester, NY.

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