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How to Handle a Furious Customer

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Problem #1:“I hate it when customers unload on me. Whether they have a reason or not, people shouldn’t just yell, complain, and carry on. Sometimes it’s almost impossible to get a word in edgewise, and I can feel myself getting ready to blow up.”

Solution: Remember that there’s a kernel of truth behind even the most outlandish complaint. When a customer unloads, our instincts are often to strike back (“Fine, Mr. Norton, then remove your own gall bladder!”). Alas, this is not the people-smart approach. Instead, try these three key steps to calming an angry customer:

Keep calm. Although it’s easier said than done, the first rule in dealing with irate customers is not to take their anger personally. Do not become defensive. It will only make the customer angrier. You are the company in the customer’s eyes, so try to personify the company and give it a compassionate, human voice. It may also help to recognize the customer as someone who is under a lot of stress at the moment. No one functions best under those circumstances. If you recognize the customer is anxious and distressed, it will become a little easier for you not to take the anger personally.

Identify the problem. Listen. Offer empathy and acknowledgement by succinctly paraphrasing or summarizing what the customer says and by identifying how the customer must be feeling. Ask questions to elicit further information and to clarify the concerns. Find the kernel of truth behind the complaint.

Defuse the anger. Show understanding and acknowledge the customer’s point. It’s crucial to disarm anger in this way before you go on to offer a solution; otherwise, the customer may not feel heard. When the customer says: “This rental car is a total mess!” you might say: “Yes, used cigarette butts in the ashtray can be really gross. I’m sorry. That shouldn’t have gotten by.” If the customer is venting without making a specific request, after acknowledging the anger, you might reframe by asking: “What would be a solution to this situation for you?”

It’s always tempting to meet anger with anger, but it’s almost never productive to do so. If you can be curious when the customer is furious, the likelihood is that the customer will still be around long after the anger is gone.

Problem #2:“A customer sent me an email message that just bristled with anger. He accused me of all sorts of things, most of which sounded really off base. Should I write back and defend myself?”

Solution: When a customer complains, be grateful. Like the child who contemplated the pile of manure and exclaimed: “Oh, goody, a pony!” you can find the bright side to a customer’s complaint. There are at least two reasons to appreciate negative feedback:

    • By complaining, instead of just disappearing, the customer gives you an opportunity to respond and rectify the situation.
    • It’s better to have a customer complain to you than about you, which could alienate other customers and prospective customers.

We recommend you repeat these two statements to yourself at least twice before responding to an angry email. But even then, don’t respond until you have reread the message and found the inevitable kernel of truth hidden within the outrageous complaints. Instead of marshalling your counterarguments, prepare to disarm the customer by empathizing and acknowledging grievances.

And instead of responding via email, consider approaching the customer more directly through a phone call or meeting. It has been estimated that only 7 percent of communication occurs through the words we say, with the other 93 percent being conveyed through such nonverbal nuances as body language and voice tone. In this type of situation, less is not more. You are better off receiving and sending more complete messages when you hash things out with a customer.

Also, responding in a more direct and personal manner helps demonstrate your concern for the customer. So it would be a good idea to call and say: “I read your email message, and it’s clear that you’re angry about some important issues. I’d like to come over and hear more about your concerns. Are you free any time this afternoon?”

It may seem as if this is a more time-consuming approach than responding by email, but, in fact, it probably isn’t. You will be more able to show empathy and correct your customer’s misconceptions in a personal exchange. Save the higher technology for less-highly-charged situations.

Mel Silberman is professor of adult and organizational development at Temple University and president of Active Training, which provides personal development seminars. Freda Hansburg, VP of Active Training, is a psychologist, an executive coach, and a training consultant. This article is adapted from the authors’ new book, Working PeopleSmart, from Berrett-Koehler Publishers. For more information, visit www.bkconnection.com.

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