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How do you view an irate customer?
by Susan Hastings

How do you view an irate customer? As an asset or a liability?

Most of us have been one at some time or another; many people have to deal with them in their everyday work. Certainly one of our greatest challenges in business is to create positive results from negative beginnings when such opportunities arise.

What is effective and what is not when being confronted by an irate customer?

In my work with businesses dealing with the subject of customer service, it has become apparent that some ways are more skillful than others in handling such situations.

First of all, let's look at the categories of irate customers. Generally speaking, they will fall into one of three:

  1. The customer who has a specific complaint and has something legitimate to complain about.
  2. The customer who starts out being pleasant but because of a situation that arises, becomes dissatisfied.
  3. The customer who is generally irate about life.

Always, good customer service means handling all types of customers, but it's helpful to quickly assess into which category an angry customer falls; it's productive to look at the situation objectively and not to take it personally, for if we do, we too will become emotional.

What is not effective?

  1. Getting defensive; that only serves to spiral intense feelings of hostility on both sides.
  2. Challenging the customer. Even though we may be "right," we may sacrifice a good relationship with our customers for our "rightness." A question to ask: would you rather be right or would you rather be effective?
  3. Letting specific complaints wander into general past transgressions. Again, this only heightens negative feelings.
  4. Blaming others. Although this is often tempting, particularly when it really is another's fault, it doesn't help solve the problem.

So what works in dealing with irate customers?

Here are some general guidelines which have proven to be effective

  1. Be courteous and patient. Act, don't re-act, and act out of understanding and empathy if possible. In other words, walk a mile in their shoes and try and see how the picture looks and sounds and feels from their point of view.
  2. Listen. We cannot underestimate the importance of listening. This needs to involve two processes:
    • listening for the feelings underlying the complaint and asking specific questions to get enough detailed information to solve the problem such as how? what? where? when? A problem well defined is better than one half solved.
    • It's important to remember that one's perception of a situation is, at the moment, more important and real to them than what the "truth" may be As the saying goes, "There is your truth, there is my truth and there is the truth."
    • We need to listen to their truth and to reflect back to them what it is we think they're feeling about the specific facts of the situation. Because remember that one’s perception of reality is more real than reality because what is reality? Our perception of it. It sounds like jargon but try it out. Examples might be, "That must have been very frustrating for you to..." or "disappointing" or "sad" or whatever we sense the other person is feeling. It seems to be human nature that until people have vented all of their anger, they will not listen to others or be ready to come to a point of resolving the problem.
    • When we listen with empathy, we lessen the defensiveness of the other person. It's hard to stay angry at someone who is concerned and is trying to understand. When we genuinely care, we are letting our customers know we are on their side trying to solve their problem with them rather than against them. At a seminar I recently gave at a bank, the president, commented that it was his experience that when we successfully deal with an irate customer and turn a potentially explosive situation into one of harmony, a "coming to yes" approach as he puts it, we have an even more dedicated and committed customer than we would have had without the occurrence. A thought to remember: out of every adversity is the seed for an equal or greater benefit.
  3. Don't take it personally. Recognize that it is the situation or behavior that is causing the upset; it wouldn't matter who was involved, it would have angered the customer no matter what — or who. At the same time, we need to take responsibility for any mistakes that are ours and, regardless of whose fault it is, to apologize for any inconvenience it has caused the customer, again recognizing their feelings.
  4. Approach the situation with a win/win approach rather than win/lose and let our customers
    know that we care about their needs, that we're intent on righting the situation. Be creative and avoid either/or thinking; brainstorm possible solutions together and choose and implement the best

This is not nearly as difficult as it may sounds!

If we get into a mind set of everyone's needs being met (not necessarily everyone’s wants for wants are solutions to needs!) it is sometimes quite surprising to discover the flexibility we have and the creative solutions we can find. When possible, it's prudent to ask our customers to suggest the solution that will best meet their needs; by asking them to take the initiative, they cannot later come back and complain that they did not have a good settlement. Generally speaking, if we play fair with others, they will play fair with us and will not take advantage of such an opportunity. Think in terms of long term benefits for all concerned, not just the short term, lowest cost solution.

An employee at a business summed up the whole process beautifully after a practice role playing session with an irate customer. She said she had found it very effective to "Listen. Acknowledge. Resolve."

An additional thought: it is helpful, when at all possible, to take preventive action; if we can foresee a brush fire before it becomes a forest fire, we can take action before it becomes out of control. Recent studies indicate that for every irate customer who will come and confront us directly, 11-15 will simply take their business elsewhere and say nothing. I'm a firm believer that we can't deal with what we don't know about, so actually, we can often look with gratefulness at the complaining customer as giving us the opportunity to give better customer service in the future.

For more information on Customer Service seminars, call Susan at 603-277-2955.

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