Diffusing customer blow-ups

They can walk into businesses and launch into red-faced tirades that turn heads. They can yell expletives over the phone they would never dare say in public. They can break down crying, unburdening their woes to strangers. “They” are anxious or angry customers demanding attention, with grievances that are sometimes real and sometimes blown out of proportion. And with so many people struggling economically in Northwest Florida, as well as throughout the state, these types of customers are an unavoidable fact of life when it comes to doing business.

Customer service strategies for when angry clients come calling can save more than your sanity By Jon Burstein Originally published in the Feb/Mar 2011 issue of 850 Business Magazine

They can walk into businesses and launch into red-faced tirades that turn heads. They can yell expletives over the phone they would never dare say in public. They can break down crying, unburdening their woes to strangers.

“They” are anxious or angry customers demanding attention, with grievances that are sometimes real and sometimes blown out of proportion. And with so many people struggling economically in Northwest Florida, as well as throughout the state, these types of customers are an unavoidable fact of life when it comes to doing business.

“It’s amazing to me how some customers lose their tempers,” said Bart Cassidy, president of the Tallahassee-based American Safety Institute, which does corporate safety training. “I think people are under pressure — some people are out of jobs and they don’t see their situations getting better. People feel frustrated.”

That growing frustration is evident to customer service representatives at Gulf Power Company. They say they saw a jump in the number of upset clients last winter — desperate customers suffering the stings of the economic recession and afraid of having their power turned off. “A lot of people are in situations that are no fault of their own,” said Mike Puentes, the customer service supervisor at Gulf Power’s Pensacola call center.

All the marketing a business does is wasted if its employees on the front lines of customer service are ill-equipped to handle challenging clients. Experts say businesses need to have some training in place for their employees.

While the thought of dealing with an irate client makes most employees cringe, there are simple ways to defuse such a situation and perhaps turn what begins as a negative encounter into a satisfying customer experience.

“Understand this is a customer and your job is to create an over-happy customer,” said John Tschohl, a customer service strategist and president of the Minneapolis-based Service Quality Institute. “Good customer service creates word-of-mouth advertising.”

So what should you do when confronted with an upset customer? Here are some tips from the experts:

Listen. Listen. Listen. More than 1,300 customers walk into Gulf Power’s downtown Pensacola office every day. Each customer service representative working the office’s seven windows has been trained that their first job is to listen, said Lisa Esser, supervisor of the utility company’s Pensacola business office.

“When a customer comes in, give them good eye contact and show you are listening,” Esser said. That means giving the client your undivided attention — putting down the phone and not looking at a computer.

Letting upset customers air their grievances uninterrupted is key, said Kathy Fish, supervisor of Navy Federal Credit Union’s Pensacola call center, which is staffed by more than 700 customer service representatives.

Once the customer begins to wind down, that’s the time to begin asking non-defensive, open-ended questions, she said. Esser said it’s important to let an angry client know when you are going to start asking those questions.

“When you tell them that upfront, they are more likely to be patient with the questions,” Esser said. “All through the process remaining calm is essential because that will get back to the customer.”

Tschohl said it’s crucial the customer service representatives empathize with clients, addressing customers by their first names and using verbal cues such as, “I understand what you are saying.”

Acknowledge the customer’s anger. Whether the client is right or wrong, an apology early in the conversation helps, customer service experts recommend. “I think it’s always appropriate to say you are sorry that the situation happened,” Esser said.

Tschohl said just hearing the word “sorry” goes a long way. “The worst thing you could do is not apologize,” he said. “It becomes gasoline on the fire .… Are you going to create an argument with a customer and lose him?”

Don’t take it personally. This can sometimes be hard with especially abusive clients, but it’s critical for customer service representatives to separate themselves from the criticism, experts say.

“In a customer’s mind, you are the company and something wronged them,” said Barry Himmel, senior vice president at Signature Worldwide, a customer-service training firm. “A common mistake is you become defensive and push back. You need to be positive and professional …When you are taking inbound calls as a customer service representative, you are fair game.”

Fish said it’s important that customer service representatives remember they didn’t cause the problems, but they can find the solutions.

Solve the problem. A customer service representative should work to take the emotion out of the situation and get an upset client to start thinking analytically.

Fish said a customer service representative should always take notes while a client talks and go back through what was said to get to the root of the customer’s grievance.

Once the problem is fleshed out, it’s a matter of determining what solutions are available, she said.

Himmel said it’s important to come up with a specific course of action as quickly as possible.

“You want to be able to say, ‘If I’m able to do this, this and this, will it help?’ ” Himmel said.

He noted that when a client’s phone call must be redirected somewhere else in the company, it’s important for the customer service representative to stay on the line as the call is transferred. You don’t want to lead a client down a dead end.

Give the customer something extra. It’s important for businesses to give customer service representatives some latitude in helping upset clients, the experts say.

That can translate into giving the clients added benefits — a gesture that their business is appreciated.

Will there be people who manufacture problems in attempts to get free stuff or discounts? Sure, but there’s little benefit in worrying about such clients because they comprise such a small fraction of complaints, the experts say.

“You can’t have the mindset that the customer is out to get something for nothing,” Himmel said.

Follow-up with the customer. Fish said it’s important for customer service representatives to check to make sure a problem has been resolved.

She said one Navy Federal Credit Union representative recently received a phone call from a client who was upset and wanted to cancel her account. The representative talked her through her issues, learning that she was going to be traveling and was concerned about protecting her identity. The representative took down when the client would be coming back home and called her once she returned from her trip to check up on her.

That client subsequently increased the amount of money she had invested with Navy Federal, Fish said.

Don’t take out frustration with one customer on other customers. Himmel said a phone operator may handle 200 calls a day and 190 may be positive, but it will be the 10 difficult ones that stick with the employee. That’s natural. But it’s important after a tense interaction with a customer that the employee move on to the next one and remain professional and polite.

“You don’t let the previous call affect you,” said Gulf Power supervisor Puentes, whose phone center handles 1.4 million calls per year. “Treat each individual as a call on its own merit.” If an employee is stressed after a customer interaction, it’s important for him or her to take time out to calm down, even if it’s only for a few minutes, experts say.

Companies can even designate areas where employees can cool off. For example, Gulf Power’s office in Pensacola has a quiet room with comfortable chairs and a television for employees to take breaks, Esser said.

When a face-to-face encounter with a customer spirals out of control, remember safety is the priority. When a customer cannot be placated, a supervisor should become involved, said Cassidy from the American Safety Institute.

“Most of the situations that get out of control have nothing to do with the (employees) they are dealing with,” Cassidy said. “If it’s going to be a violent scenario, give them what they want. If you can’t give them what they want, give them something.”

An angry customer is, first and foremost, a customer. This is someone who has spent money on your company’s products or services and the interaction with a customer service representative will create a lasting impression of the business. Future dollars are at stake.

Tschohl said when a customer complains, a business should be grateful. It gives the business a chance to correct problems rather than let the customer quietly fume and likely vote with his or her wallet, choosing to spend money elsewhere.

“If you offer a great customer experience, people will buy more from you,” Tschohl said. “If the service is just OK, that’s not a reason for them to come back.”


In the Heat of the Moment

Rational customers get angry not so much based on the actual event but based on prior experience with us. If we treat them really well when there are no emergencies, they know that we will be there for them when emergencies do occur. A new customer hasn’t developed that level of trust — yet. Here are some tips that will help you develop that trust and calm (and retain) angry customers.

  • Turn on your ears and zip your lips. One of the key elements in calming angry customers is to accept all the blame. Be fully accountable and don’t say a word during this phase.
  • Take notes. This makes the customer feel important, and you can ask them to slow down if they are talking fast — another calming technique.
  • When they are done, remain silent and thoughtful. This pregnant pause is powerful in calming angry people.
  • Let them know you are still listening and want to confirm what they just said. Say, “Let me see if I understand correctly.” Then paraphrase back to them the notes you have taken. During the paraphrase, ask several times if you are correct in your understanding. Use closed questions so their response will be “yes,” another calming word.
  • Apologize for what’s happened. It’s important to accept full responsibility, on behalf of the company. Say, “I apologize for this. I’m here to help you.”
  • Explain what you are going to do and how soon. Tip: the sooner the better. Seventy-five percent of customers prefer staying with a business that resolves their complaint quickly.
  • Say ‘thanks’ for the customer bringing this to your attention.
  • Try having the goal of saying ‘yes’ to customers. Don’t worry — you won’t be giving away the farm. Customers just want to be treated fairly and with respect. Offer alternatives instead of saying no.
  • Consider allowing staff to send a handwritten note to the customer as a follow-up. At the very least, make a courtesy follow-up call to the customer no more than three days after the incident is resolved.

–Margie Seyfer (margieseyfer.com)

The Surprising Power of ‘Yes’

According to customer service pro Margie Seyfer, the word ‘yes’ has an amazing power of disarming angry people. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Agree with something — anything — an angry person says and they immediately ratchet down a notch. But getting them to say the affirmative word has even more of an effect, she maintains.

“Do you say ‘yes’ more than ‘no’ to angry customers?” she asks. “Consider what would happen to your level of customer loyalty if your business philosophy became, ‘Our goal is to always say yes.’”

Businesspeople shouldn’t be worried that the customer will demand a refund or other restitution. Usually, what they really want is for someone to show they are willing to offer options when something goes awry.

Seyfer experienced this first-hand at a hotel that had a “no banners allowed” policy for their walls. Instead of saying ‘no,’ the staff simply responded to her request with an alternative option — which Seyfer had not thought of herself but was completely workable. So, the next time you feel the need to say ‘no,’ take a minute to offer up a better response that will pay dividends in the future.