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How to Handle Angry or Upset Customers

Kristin Robertson, KR Consulting, Inc.
May, 2003

We’ve heard from many pundits that customer loyalty is priceless.  In fact, customer loyalty is a large contributor to the profitability of a company.  This is because it is less expensive to service an existing customer than to acquire a new one.  Customers who receive outstanding service from a company tend to return to do more business with you.  As customer support providers, we have the power, on a daily basis, to contribute to the profitability of our companies by how we treat our customers.

One of the most challenging customer support situations is how to handle an angry or upset customer.  These customers can be nasty, demanding, emotional or worse!  Yet, the degree of professionalism that we use when handling these customers will either drive them away from our companies or create a loyal customer.  Let’s face it – everyone makes mistakes, so as organizations, we’re bound to anger or inconvenience a customer here and there.  It’s how we recover from the mistake that separates the good from the great.

Here’s a 5-step method to deal with angry or upset customers that is, in my experience, bound to turn an ugly situation into a positive experience, for both you and your customer.  It’s called LEAF Plus One.  This technique gives you the opportunity to turn over a new “leaf” with your customer and create a satisfied, loyal customer.

With practice, you will get to the point where you look at angry customers as an opportunity: An opportunity to create a really loyal customer.  There are several formerly angry customers that I handled this way who are now my good friends.  From angry to friendly – that’s what we all want.

Let’s examine each of those steps.

L stands for Listen.

Psychologists have a word for the kind of listening that you need to do with an angry customer: active listening.  First of all, be quiet, but not too quiet!  If you’re on the phone, use what I call comforting murmurings: hmm, uh uh, I see, is that so, yes. This assures the angry person that you are paying attention.  It is the verbal equivalent of looking someone in the eyes, which is certainly what you should be doing if you are interacting in person with the angry customer.  Let the person vent.  They probably planned exactly what they were going to say, so don’t interrupt!

Do another thing:  Be writing down each of the key points that this incensed person is bringing to your attention.  This is for two reasons: so you can paraphrase his/her concerns to make sure you understand the problem, and so you can be making your plan of how to solve the problem while you are listening.  When they are done venting to you, say, “If I understand you correctly, here’s what the problem is….” Paraphrase the problem and get their OK on your understanding of it.

There are 2 things to avoid in this listening phase: do not meet the impassioned outburst with silence on the phone, and do not start arguing with the customer.  Silence is perceived as one of two things by the customer: indifference or hostility.  That’s why we practice our comforting murmurings.

Arguing is the kiss of death.  It only serves to escalate emotions. Remember that, although the customer may not always be right, they are always the customer.  Customers represent job security for you!  Even if they are wrong, they deserve your utmost respect, which means that you find areas to agree on, not DISagree.

E stands for Empathize

Scientists now know a lot about how our brains work.  For example, we know that our limbic system, the part of our brain that controls our basic emotions, is much stronger than our neo-cortex, which is the part of the brain that controls our logic.  When someone is angry, their limbic system is bullying their neo-cortex and making it impossible for logic to prevail.  If you don’t acknowledge their emotions, they tend to stay stuck in their feelings and have a hard time using their analytical abilities.  The best way to get someone out of their limbic system is to acknowledge their emotions with empathy.

Now, let’s not get empathy confused with sympathy.  Sympathy is when you say, “Poor baby, let me make it all better”, whereas empathy is imagining what it might feel like to experience what the other is going through – it’s walking a mile in their shoes.  When I was in charge of a large software support group, my colleague Susan Long used to say that she empathized with callers who were not proficient with computers by imagining how she would feel if she was calling an auto shop to get help in changing the oil in her car.  That’s empathy.

By using empathy, you acknowledge the emotion of the situation.  If not, you have missed the opportunity to connect with this person on a personal level, which is the only way to dispel anger.  Use words such as ““If that happened to me, I’d be frustrated, too” or “Gee, I can see why you are irritated by that”.

A stands for Apologize

The rule of thumb for when it is appropriate to apologize is, “If your company has made a mistake, by all means, apologize about the situation.”  Notice we said “if your company” – you need not take blame for what some dodo in accounting did, but you must take ownership of the situation.  Never, ever point a finger at another part of your company, as in “Oh, those accountants, they’ve done it again!”  Remember, the customer doesn’t know or care about your company’s organizational chart!

In his book, “Moments of Truth”, Jan Carlson, CEO of SAS Airlines, tells us that whenever you have an encounter with a customer, you represent the whole company in that interaction.  The customer builds an impression of the entire company by how you treat them at that moment.  They don’t care that you work in a different building from the person that created their problem; they just want you, as a representative of the entire organization, to take ownership and fix the problem.

Quickly take ownership of the problem by apologizing.   So many companies and service people miss out on this step – it is vitally important.  You needn’t take the blame, but apologize for the situation by saying “I’m sorry you feel frustrated”, or “I’m so sorry that happened.  Let me fix that for you.”  Sometimes that simple “I’m sorry” can make all the difference in the world.

I had a recent encounter with a vendor who made a big mistake on an order of note pads I ordered from her.  They were not ready in time for my first training seminar, and I had to make do without them.  I called her to let her know about the situation, and she immediately apologized sincerely and profusely.  My anger was diffused, and all I could say to her was “Thank you for the apology”.  She made good on the order and it arrived soon after.

F stands for Fix:

You’ve listened, you’ve paraphrased, you didn’t argue, you acknowledged their emotion and apologized for the inconvenience – now what do you do?  Here’s where the rubber hits the road.  Ask:

What can I do to make you happy?

Now that you’ve met the person’s emotional needs, you need to outline a plan of action to the customer.  “Here’s what I’d like to do to fix this problem”.  The key here is the “I”.  Take ownership of the problem, even if it was the shipping department’s problem.  The customer only knows you as one company, and doesn’t know or care about the other department’s mistakes.  Now, work your little rear-end off to correct that situation.  Under promise and over perform.

Plus One:

This step is what separates the good from the great.  The great companies will not only do all the steps that we’ve outlined here so far, but they will compensate you for your trouble by adding on something extra.  This is really what cements a customer’s loyalty.

Here is a story that illustrates the power of Plus One:

When I was 3 months pregnant, I had to take a business trip to Chicago.  If you or someone near and dear to you has ever been 3 months pregnant, you know how easy it is to get emotional.  Those hormones just take over!  I had one and only one appropriately corporate-looking skirt that I could still fit into with my growing waistline – but I had torn it on my last business trip and it needed to be re-woven.  So I brought it back to where I bought it – Nordstrom in San Francisco – and asked them if they could fix it in time for my business trip in 2 weeks.  They indicated that it would be ready by then.  On the day before I left for Chicago, I had received no word from Nordstrom, so I called to find out about my skirt.  “Oh no,” said the clerk who answered my call, “That skirt just went to the re-weavers yesterday and won’t be back until next week.”  I lost my cool.  “I’m 3 months pregnant and that’s the only nice skirt I have that still fits, and I have to go to Chicago tomorrow morning”.  I was hysterical!  The clerk responded, “Can you come into the store today?  I’ll have a similar skirt in your size waiting for you”.  When I arrived at the store, there was a beautiful skirt, wrapped up in tissue paper waiting for me.  It fit perfectly!  I went back to the sales desk and offered to bring the new skirt back when I returned from my trip, but they refused saying, “Oh no, that skirt is for you, for your inconvenience”.  Before I left the store, I just couldn’t help myself, my curiosity was too strong – I looked at the price tag on similar skirts hanging on the racks – that skirt cost $198.00.  That, dear readers, is Plus One.

And where do you think I do most of my clothes shopping, for both my family and myself?  You got it, Nordstrom.  In fact, only a few years later, I refused to move to a new city until I read that Nordstrom had just opened their first store there.

What can you do to Plus One?  You can institute a culture of customer service from the heart by empowering your employees to make it right with the customer.  On the no- or low-cost side, you can encourage them to call back customers who were inconvenienced to make sure they are OK.  You can write a hand-written note to the customer, thanking them for their understanding and their business.  You can leave them a mint and a quick note on their desk if they work in your company (remember, customers don’t always work outside of your company).   In a software company in which I ran the customer support organization, we used to have company t-shirts and a chocolate bar that any technical support representative could send to a customer for any reason – no questions asked.  We also empowered the tech support reps to send a complimentary supplemental report that enhanced the usage of our software to a customer when they needed to compensate for any inconvenience.  We figured that the cost to us of sending the report was just the cost of a computer disk and postage, even though the market value of the report was $500.

The power of Plus One is that it creates extraordinarily loyal customers.  It is so rare today.  It creates a WOW! in the customer’s mind, and builds a loyal customer base for your increasingly profitable company.

Once we know how to deal with angry or upset customers, it seems simple:  We actively listen to our customers and let them vent.  We empathize with them to acknowledge their emotions.  We apologize in order to take ownership of the problem.  The fourth step, fixing or trouble-shooting is easy for us as customer support analysts – that’s what we love to do!  And the last step, Plus One, is our opportunity to create a lasting positive impression on the customer and turn that angry customer into a delighted one.

LEAF Plus One.  Isn’t it time to turn over a new leaf with your customers?

Listen

Empathize

Apologize

Fix

Plus One

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