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Handling that Really Angry Customer

Note: This resource is part of our Moving the Bar in Your Career and Your Life, a unique approach to professional development series: Building Enviable Customer Relationships. Click here to see the entire series.

Your customer’s fury is building and they are practically frothing at the mouth. Something about your product or service has made them really upset. If you mishandle this situation you could lose their business. However, if you can deal with that customer expertly, your business can get a tremendous benefit.  Surveys indicate up to 95 percent of dissatisfied customers will become loyal customers if their complaints are handled well and quickly.

But Myra Golden, an Oklahoma-based consultant who gives seminars in customer service, says many workers today can’t handle customer anger.

"What I’m hearing is that frontline service professionals are not equipped to deal with it," Golden says.  "They don’t have the patience or the skills.  It takes a certain skill set to defuse anger and create calm."

These experts say handling upset customers is relatively simple but doing it well requires a sense of timing and an ability to keep your own emotions in check.  Here are the principles they recommend:

1.  Allow the customer to blow off steam – It may not be easy to stand there and let the customer rant and rave, but it’s necessary.  If you jump in too quickly with an apology or a comment, the customer feels stifled.  That may cause him to become even angrier.  "If you say ‘I’m sorry’ to a customer while they are venting, they won’t hear you," Bailey says.  Instead, pace the conversation so both of you get to say what you need to say.

2.  Don’t sound defensive – Make sure your tone is helpful and professional, Golden says, and don’t take the complaint personally.  If you sound defensive, irritated, or apathetic, your customer will react to your tone, not to what you are saying.

3.  Find out exactly what the problem is – Don’t assume you know just because you’ve dealt with similar problems before.  Listen carefully.  What was ordered?  When was it ordered?  When was it promised?  What was the product advertised to do that it’s not doing?  Focus on facts.  You’ll find out what you need to know, and your customer will become less emotional and more rational.

4.  Restate the problem – Doing this ensures you are on the same wavelength as the customer.  Kahle suggests saying something like, "Let me see if I have this right:  You were promised delivery last Friday because you need it for an important project this coming week.  But you haven’t received our product yet.  Is that correct?"

5.  Say "I’m sorry" – Do so even if you weren’t the one who made the mistake.  Bailey says you should apologize even if the customer is wrong.  You can do this by saying something akin to, "I’m sorry you are having a problem."  Assigning blame won’t really help, he notes.  In the end, you must solve the problem.

6.  Fix the problem – Perhaps you can change an invoice, redo the order, refund the customer’s money, or replace a product that isn’t working.  Perhaps a solution will be more elusive.  In this situation, Golden says, you may want to ask the customer what solution she would suggest.  Not long ago, Golden reports that the stand-alone electric oven she’d ordered from a prominent retailer had a dent in the side.  Prompted by the customer service representative, she said she’d like $60.00 off the price.  Fine, the rep said, and agreed to send her a gift card in that amount.

7.  No quick fix? – Say what you can do.  If you can’t resolve things right away, estimate how long it will take to act on the complaint.  Tell the customer what you’ll be doing in the meantime.

8.  Give a "care token" – Bailey says a care token is a "specific action that you take as a way of letting customers know that you are sorry for the mistake that was made."  The token also shows that you care about their business.  Examples include the coupon an airline hands out for a free movie on your next flight, the free glass of wine a restaurant provides because you were late being seated, the free roll of film a one-hour photo shop gives you when processing takes longer than an hour.

9.  Follow up – There are several aspects to this.  If you say you’ll call the customer by 3 p.m. with an update on resolving the complaint, be sure to do so.  If you’ve apparently resolved the complaint, call or email the customer later anyway to make sure that he or she is satisfied.  If you’ve promised a solution, such as the $60 gift card that Myra Golden was promised because of the dent in her oven, send the gift card.  Eight months after Golden got that promise, she still hadn’t received the gift card.  Uh-oh.

10.  Don’t let it happen again – Record complaints and analyze them.  You may see patterns of complaints that suggest ways of preventing problems in the future.  Is a particular employee repeatedly screwing up orders?  Perhaps he or she needs to be retrained.  Is the same defect showing up again and again in a particular product?  Perhaps it needs to be redesigned or discontinued.  Be thankful for complaints that help you course correct in your business or that suggest new products or services that help your business grow.  In fact, thank the customer for complaining.

Rethink e-complaints

These guidelines work well for handling angry customers face-to-face or over the telephone, the experts say.  But what about handling them online?  It’s much cheaper to deal with complaints through email exchanges, Bailey says, but it’s also a cold medium that blunts emotional satisfaction.  "It’s very hard to vent in an email," Bailey notes.  He thinks companies should give customers the option of calling a real person.  And he thinks customers should be told just who to call to resolve specific complaints.  That shows respect for the customer, he says.  And all the experts agree that respect is an indispensable element when dealing with an unruly customer.  "You don’t have to respect the person’s behavior and language," Kahle says.  "But you do respect the person and their situation."