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September 22, 2003 9:05 AM CDT

Angry Customers: A Step-by-Step Guide to Turning Things Around

By

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.

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 could easily encounter this situation. In fact, you probably do every so often. Handling it effectively is easier than you think -- if you develop and practice anger response skills. Here's what they're all about.


The Beginning: The First 30 Seconds
First and foremost, listen. And listen immediately. No delays. And 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 ten (yes, this technique really does work) or breathe deeply for a few seconds.

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 symbolizes your interest in the customer -- and sets the tone for a productive resolution of the problem.


The Conversation: 2 to 10 Minutes
Allow your customer to blow off steam if 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, as well as 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. Model your communication style in response to the customer.

While you must continue to actively listen, 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.

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


Attacking the Problem: 2 to 10 Minutes
Up 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, or replacing merchandise, 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, for example, or investigating further, or writing a letter to a manufacturer.

If possible, give the customer options: two or three ways you can address the problem. To most customers, options symbolize power. Or if you have discretion in resolving problems, simply ask: "What can I do to make things right?" While 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. But 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.


Taking Leave of Your Customer: 30 - 60 Seconds
The close of your conversation is an opportunity for you to thank your customer for bringing the problem to your attention and creating learning opportunities for you. It's an opportunity, too, 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.


How'd You Do? 1 - 2 Minutes
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. And note, also, any action you must take to meet promises you made to the customer.

Confronting and addressing customer anger, remember, is a skill. Like any skill, you can improve your efforts with practice. Look upon encounters with angry customers not as occasions to be feared, but as opportunities to improve your skills and demonstrate to your customers that you're really as responsive as you claim to be!


Anger Triggers: What Sets a Customer Off
Here are some of the leading causes of customer frustration and anger. As you ponder this list, ask yourself: what steps do you 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 excessive trips back and forth to a retailer's location
  • Failure to listen
  • Failure to follow customer instructions
  • Broken promises
  • Financial losses that result from poor service
  • Inability to provide needed answers or information


About the Author

Richard G. Ensman Jr. is a free-lance writer based in Rochester, N.Y.

 

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