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DEALING WITH IRATE AND DIFFICULT CUSTOMERS

The unfortunate fact of the matter is that you will receive complaints from customers.  Sometimes these are warranted and sometimes not.  Having the skill and patience to deal with these types of issues is what makes (or breaks) an excellent customer service, technical support & help-desk team.

People working the Customer Service and Helpdesk fields are often at the sharp end of having to deal with angry customers.  One the one hand, some of these customers are just looking for fault or being extremely picky or even those (shudder, dread) chronic complainers who just like to hear their own voice.  I'm not going to discuss those types of people in this post, as although they exist, generally, people who complain about a product or service are ones that have NOT received what they have paid for.  Most people don't enjoy complaining and find it a difficult (and to be avoided) process, so keep this in mind when you are speaking to them.  They are NOT trying to just make your life difficult - they DO have a genuine issue that should be looked into and hopefully addressed.

Difficult customers come in several varieties including (but not limited to) the following: Angry, Impatient, Intimidating, Talkative, Demanding, Indecisive etc... and any (all) combinations you could think of.  Dealing with these extremes is not easy and shouldn’t be considered such, but the key is that they must be dealt with and must be dealt with in a Professional Manner! Just like you cannot change someone else, you cannot control someone else’s behavior.  You have control only over yourself and your own actions. You can, however, influence how customers respond to you though, and I hope that my suggestions below give you some ideas.

Realizing the Issue
Remember that the majority of customers in the world are reasonable people. They may get "difficult" from time to time if they feel they've been let down. It's how you handle them that'll determine if they continue to be a problem or if you can turn them around. Difficult customers and situations usually occur because something has gone wrong.  It's what happens then that'll decide whether they deal with us again or bad mouth us to other people.  As I've mentioned in previous (& will be mentioning again in future) posts, is that the problem you are facing is not the one individual on the phone complaining about their problem.  It is the 10 or more customers that have left without speaking to you because they are dissatisfied!  A very good phrase you see advertised frequently - which you should always keep in mind - goes something like this:

If you are happy with our service, please tell your friends.  If you are unhappy with our service - please tell us!
This should be more than just a trite phrase that gets thrown around.  Companies need to actually believe, understand and live this statement.  The only way you are going to ensure that your customers are happy is by talking to them.  While a customer may be berating you, you still have an opportunity to win them over.  I cannot count the number of times that I have been able to do this and not only keep them with my company, but transform them into my biggest advocates.  Research indicates that customers who complain are likely to continue doing business with your company if they feel that they were treated properly. It's estimated that as many as 90% of customers who perceive themselves as having been wronged never complain, they just take their business elsewhere. So, angry, complaining customers care enough to talk to you, and have not yet decided to take their business to the competition. They are customers worth saving.

Turning them Around 
OK, if I've not scared you away already, here’s what you need to do.  The steps below are laid out in a fairly logical fashion (and you will see that some of them overlap in terms of how they work) and is illustrative of most of the cases and situations you will come across.

  1. Control Yourself

  2. Listen

  3. Empathy

  4. Identify the Problem/Issue

  5. Don’t Blame Someone Else!

  6. Resolve the Issue
Let’s explore each of these in a bit greater depth below.

Control

The easiest way to do this is to remember that it’s not YOU!!  When a person complains about something, it’s important to remember that they’re not attacking you personally. It’s the problem they've encountered which is causing the irritation.  This correspondingly maps quite closely to the feedback you should be providing to your staff when they are not performing well and as mentioned in my review of the One Minute Manager .  Never argue with customers when they are angry, displeased or complaining. If you allow a customer to push your buttons and lose control of yourself, you've lost control of the situation. You can lose a good customer if you show boredom, irritation, disdain or displeasure. Remember if a customer is being abusive and difficult, it’s NOT YOU!!  If you can keep this in mind, dealing with them will be significantly easier ... it’s crucial you maintain a respect for the person even if you don’t respect their behavior towards you.  Remember and repeat ... they are NOT mad at YOU!!!  Apologies for the repetition, but this fact is extremely important and more than one Help Desk Manager has gotten flummoxed by the fact that they are taking the issue personally.

Listening

If an angry customer is explaining the situation to you ... let THEM talk.  Do NOTinterrupt them mid-flow to argue a point.  This sounds easier than it actually is as everyone wants to justify themselves or bring up some rationale for a fault ... don’t do it!  Once you've asked the person to explain their problem or issue to you, it’s then crucial that you simply listen without any kind of interruption whatsoever until they've finished. This is the only way that you will get a full picture of the issue from the customers’ point of view.  Remember they are upset and in their eye’s justifiably!  You cannot take that away from them – regardless of what you say.  Its your actions after that will determine how they feel at the end.  More often than not, once the customer has had an initial chance to vent his rage, it's going to die down a little, and that's your opportunity to step in.
Say, "I can tell you're upset..." or, "It sounds like you're angry..." then connect to the customer  by apologizing, or empathizing. When you say something like "I'm sorry that happened. If I were you, I'd be frustrated, too." It's amazing how much of a calming effect that can have.

Empathy

OK, we've already touched upon this a little bit above, but let’s explore this in a bit more depth here.  Put yourself in the customer's shoes, and try to see the situation from his/her perspective. Don't try and cut him off, don't urge him to calm down. Instead, listen carefully. If someone is angry or upset, it is because that person feels injured in some way. Your job is to let the customer vent and to listen attentively in order to understand the source of that frustration. When you do that, you send a powerful unspoken message that you care about him and his situation.  Often, as the customer comes to realize that you really do care and that you are going to attempt to help him resolve the problem, the customer will calm down on his own, and begin to interact with you in a positive way.   Once they've finished their diatribe, it’s important that you try to look at the situation from their perspective. Having not interrupted their flow and by listening intently, it’s already sent a signal to the person that you have listened and that you care about them and the situation they’re facing.

Identification

Sometimes while the angry customer is venting, you'll be able to latch right on to the problem because it's clear-cut. Something is broken. Or late. Or he thinks a promise has been broken.  Once you have identified what the problem is, it’s important that you reiterate it to the customer so that they are sure that you have heard them correctly. If you've assumed correctly, the customer will say ‘yes’ and then you can move on. If not, this is a good place for some specific questions. Ask the customer to give you some details. "What day did he order it, when exactly was it promised. What is his situation at the moment?" These kinds of questions force the customer to think about facts instead of his/her feelings about those facts. So, you interject a more rational kind of conversation.  Eventually, you will get to the heart of the matter and at that point, you should reiterate to them to ensure you've got it right and then you can move on to the next stage.  However ... remember this ... you MUST apologize for the problem caused by the customer and the impact that he has felt.  This is NOT an acknowledgment of fault or wrongdoing, simply another part of empathizing with your customer.

Blame Game

I don’t know how else to say it but to be frank.  This is NOT the customer’s fault.  NEVER blame them for coming to you with a complaint.  You should be thanking them for giving you an opportunity to excel! This might also not be your companies fault either, but it is still proper and correct for you to apologize.

Resolution

Now it’s time to try to resolve the situation. There is never going to be a successful outcome every time here and what may be a satisfactory resolution for one customer may not appease another but what is important is to go about trying to resolve the problem in the correct manner.   You won't always be able to fix the problem perfectly. And you may need more time than a single phone call. But it's critical to leave the irate customer with the understanding that your goal is to resolve the problem. You may need to say, "I'm going to need to make some phone calls." If you do, give the customer an idea of when you’ll get back to him: "Later this afternoon." Or "First thing in the morning."

Then do it. Whatever your commitment has been to the customer it is IMPERATIVE that you keep it.  If you do not, you will have them angry at YOU for not fulfilling your promise and this time they would be justified!   Even if you don't have all the information you need, call when you said you would and at least let him know what you've done, what you're working on and what your next step will be. Let the customer know that he and his business are important to you, that you understand his frustration, and that you're working hard to get things fixed.

If you are not going to be able to resolve the situation to the customers satisfaction – as them how they would like it resolved!  There is no harm in asking that simple question, and even if their response is not something you can do, perhaps it is something that could be done at a higher level of the organization. By taking all of these steps, you’ll have done your job to the best of your ability and in a manner which is likely to resolve most issues.

You have the Power!

It is important that you remain calm in the face of your customer's anger.  This will allow you to think rationally and eventually win the customer around.  The moment you start reacting to them is the the moment you've lost the plot and the control of the situation.  You will not succeed in your intent if you do this.


The more you encounter difficult customers, the easier it becomes to deal with them and the more you’ll experience satisfactory outcomes. As long as you adopt an approach similar to that above, you’ll win more than you’ll lose.

Nevertheless, always bear in mind that you’re never going to win them all.  Don't get disheartened ... if you have treated them with respect they will REMEMBER and chances are good when you competition causes them grief, they will be back!
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