You open your email to find an angry, nasty note from a client. Or you pick up the phone, and you hear yelling on the other end. If you have customers, then you’ve experienced an angry one at least a time or two. If you haven’t yet, it’s bound to happen sometime. I’m not trying to be negative here. No matter how much emphasis you place on providing a great customer experience, mistakes and misunderstandings happen, and sometimes, those situations lead to angry customers!
In a previous post, I talked about how to Turn Customer Service Problems Into Opportunities. But what do you do in the moment, when a customer service issue escalates and the customer is clearly angry? How do you prevent a blow up that will do your business more harm than good? Whether it’s you handling the situation or someone else in your company, it is very helpful to have a written plan or protocol for responding, so that your emotions don’t get the better of you. Below are the 5 steps I follow to diffuse a heated situation.
1. Do not argue or try to defend yourself or your company’s actions. I know, when you feel like someone is attacking you, or their accusations seem unfair or untrue, your first response is to defend yourself. You want to tell them why they have it all wrong. The urge can be almost overwhelming. But that is the wrong first response!
When someone is angry, their emotions have taken over their brain. They are so focused on what they are angry about, they are not capable of listening to and really hearing anything you have to say. On the contrary, someone in an agitated state will only become more infuriated by your attempts to justify your company’s actions or contradict their assertions. They are expecting you to argue, and they are ready for a fight. Even if the customer becomes nasty, do not rise to their bate, you will regret it and it will never end well.
I was recently at a restaurant with some friends, one of whom has a food allergy. He went to great lengths to talk to the waitress about the allergy. But at the end of the meal, the person who brought out the dessert gave my friend with the allergy the wrong plate, which contained the food he was allergic too. Luckily we caught the error, but when he spoke to the waitress about it, she became defensive. And my friend became angrier and angrier. I wish I could have pulled the waitress aside and said “stop arguing with him, you are only making it worse”, but that was not an option under the circumstances. Instead, the situation escalated and the manager was called over, and I’m pretty sure my friend will not be back to that restaurant.
If you don’t feel like you can control your urge to argue or defend yourself, you can either delay the conversation until your emotions have settled, or you can pass it off to someone else in your company who can remain emotionally detached.
2. Apologize, and do not add a “but” after it. This does not have to be an admission of guilt or wrongdoing. If you can communicate to your customer that you are sincerely sorry that they are not happy with their experience, or your product, etc., the situation will start to diffuse. Your customers just want to know that you and your company cares about them and their experience.
However, if you say “I’m sorry BUT…..” then the “but” negates the “I’m sorry,” and all the customer hears is that you are being defensive. In the situation above, the waitress kept saying “I’m sorry, but….,” making my friend angrier and angrier each time she said it.
3. Acknowledge and validate their FEELINGS. Again, you do not have to say that you did anything wrong (although, if you did make a mistake, admitting that will go a long way towards calming the customer down).
You can acknowledge their feelings by saying something like “I can hear you are ….. (pick one: angry, upset, frustrated, disappointed, etc.). If they have told you how they are feeling, mirror it back. So if they say “I’m really disappointed in my experience” you can say “I can see how disappointed you are in your experience.”
Once you have acknowledged their feelings, you can validate them. For example, “it’s understandable that you would feel this way given what you just told me.” This lets them know that you understand that they are upset, and they have a right to feel this way. They will start to feel heard. And when they feel heard, they will feel less angry.
4. Gain a clear understanding of the situation. Once you have apologized and acknowledged and validated your customer’s feelings, the customer should be calm enough to interact with you in a more productive way. Tell the customer that you want to rectify the situation, but you need to make sure you fully understand the situation before you respond. Ask permission to ask them a few questions.
Most if not all will agree to answer your questions. This is your opportunity to find out exactly what is making your customer so angry. Perhaps your company did mess up in a big way. Or perhaps the situation is all a big misunderstanding. But either way, you want to ask enough questions to fully understand what happened.
Remember to continue to acknowledge and validate your customer as they answer your questions. As long as they feel like you are really listening to their complaints, they will remain calm and reasonable.
At this point, you might feel that you need to investigate the situation further, in which case you should tell the customer this, and give them a day and time that you will get back to them by. If you do not need to investigate further or talk to anyone else involved, move on to step 5.
5. Rectify the situation to the best of your ability. At this point, your customer should be receptive to listening to what you have to say. If there is any misunderstanding to clear up, this is when you present that information.
Tell the customer that you would like to rectify the situation to the best of your ability, and ask them what they would like to see happen. Sometimes, what the customer is asking will not be possible or reasonable, in which case you will have to negotiate. Remember to continue to acknowledge and validate their feelings, explain why you can’t fulfill their request, and ask if you can make another suggestion. Asking permission ensures that they will continue to listen to you, versus becoming angry again.
Very often, however, what the customer wants is not unreasonable, and if you can meet their request, you should go ahead and do it. This is how you turn a raving angry customer into a raving happy fan!
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