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How to Respond to Angry Customers

Ten powerful steps to diffuse angry customers, address the issues and sustain customer loyalty.

1. Assume that the Customer has a Right to be Angry

Nobody makes mistakes on purpose, but they do happen. If you are working in a call center, behind a counter or in any capacity that directly interfaces with customers then you are going to encounter an irate customer at some time. The most common response is to evaluate the merit of the complaint while your are listening to it. Try to curb that common response and replace it with the assumption that the customer has a right to be angry, even before you know the details.

Perhaps the customer feels betrayed because the product or services did not meet expectations. The customer may be angry because he or she made incorrect assumptions that led to improper expectations. The customer may be angry because of previous experiences, previous contacts with your company or simply because the problem occurred at a very inconvenient time in the customer schedule. Regardless of the circumstances, acknowledge the customer has the privilege to be irate. Listen carefully to how the anger is expressed so you can find the root cause of the emotion.

2. Listen to Emotion without Emotion

Listen to the inflections and emphasis that the customer places on specific topics to identify the emotional catalyst. Listen to the emotion as well as the words. This will help you to identify the specific item or items that need primary attention. Resolving a technical issue may be only partially effective if it does not also address the customer emotional concerns. It may not be possible to completely resolve the emotional distress, but it is appropriate to acknowledge it.

Imagine that a customer experienced a technical malfunction when downloading digital images of a special event, wedding or family vacation. The technical issue may be related to hardware or software, but the emotional distress is related to the risk of losing precious memories. While it is necessary to correct the technical issue, it is also appropriate to acknowledge the risks that create the emotional response. Try to preserve the precious memories or at least explain why they can not be retrieved, but do not ignore the emotional catalyst.

Do not respond with emotion. Remember that the customer anger is not directed at you personally, even if the customer language is directed at you. If the customer language is attacking and borderline abusive, it is because the customer is looking for acknowledgement and response to the emotional distress as well as the technical or administrative issues. It may be necessary to repeatedly acknowledge the customer emotion to diffuse the situation and reassure the customer that you are attentive to the importance of the emotional distress as well as the technical issue.

3. Be Patient

Customer conversations come in waves. When the customer is at the peak of expressing anger, sorrow or distress, be patient and listen. It is not effective to interrupt the customer when he or she is venting combustible sentiments. It is like pouring gasoline on a raging fire. Rather, wait for the waves of emotion to recede and then use that opportunity to interject with reassuring comments.

Sometime the customer anger will erupt and return like another set of waves. When that happens, be patient and wait for the customer to run out of gas before you approach the fire again. Reiterate your compassion, acknowledge the customer right to be angry and the catalyst for the emotional distress. Takes quiet deep breaths and wait patiently for your turn to speak.

4. Speak Softly

If you encounter a loud and abusive customer, respond by speaking softly and with a very steady tone. If you try to shout over the customer or interrupt, then the customer will concentrate on the verbal battle for attention and will not pay attention to the importance of your message. If you want your message to be heard, wait for a pause in the customer tirade. Silence is your golden cue that it is time to speak your important message in a soft voice. Eventually the customer will have to lower his or her voice to hear what you are saying.

Even though it may seem that the customer does not care about what you have to say at first, remember that the customer approached you for resolution. The customer may have built up a considerable amount of emotion before reaching you, but ultimately the customer does want your advice and assistance to resolve the problem. Once the customer remembers why he or she contacted you, the customer will be receptive to your soft spoken conversation.

5. Reiterate

Make sure that you are addressing the technical, administrative and emotional aspects of the customer concerns. After you have listened carefully to the customer, reiterate the priorities that you believe that you heard from the customer perspective. This will assure that you are focused on the appropriate issues and reassure the customer that you are concentrating on the proper priorities.

Use a soft, firm and inquisitive voice. Ask the customer to confirm that you have restated the facts and priorities accurately, then write them down.

6. Own the Problem

It does not matter who created the problem or what transpired before the customer got to you. Tell the customer that you own the problem and will apply your personal effort to achieve results.

Sometimes it may be tempting to distance yourself from the problem by stating that you are not responsible for it, that another department will need to handle it, or that you are just a messenger. Put that temptation in a can and put a lid on it. Expressing that you do not have ownership of the problem or the potential resolution gives the customer a feeling of being adrift and powerless. if the customer senses that he or she is communicating with someone who is powerless, it will create yet another reason to be frustrated and angry.

Even if you do need to work with other departments, get manager approval or coordinate some other type of response, inform the customer that you will personally take the matter into your own hands and follow-up on the issues. The customer does not know your company, your policies or your procedures. The customer will never be able to navigate the requirements, restrictions or resolution with the same knowledge and experience as you. Reassure the customer that you will use your knowledge and experience to coordinate the best possible resolution, even if you need to get the assistance of other parties to achieve it.

7. Place the Customer First, Problem Second

In most cases there are two conflicting issues that occur simultaneously when dealing with irate customers. There first issue is the customer emotional distress. The second is the technical or administrative issue that caused the emotional distress. While it may seem logical to focus first on the technical or administrative issue that cause the emotional distress, it is important to acknowledge the customer anger first and the technical issue second.

Resolving the technical issue may or may not fully resolve the root cause of the customer distress. Acknowledge the customer concerns first and try to calm down the customer enough to help you concentrate on the technical or administrative problems. Sometimes the technical problem may require much more attention because it may impact other customers. Acknowledge the individual customer emotion first, resolve the specific customer technical issue second and reserve addressing any bigger issues as independent activity.

8. Triage

Once you have an opportunity to focus on technical and administrative issues, triage the root cause of the problems to determine what went wrong. Analyze the problem and provide corrective measures or detailed information in an effort to avoid duplicating the problem with other customers. It may be necessary to obtain some additional information from your customer to accurately analyze the root cause of the problem.

9. Correct the Issue

Correct the issue for the specific customer and also look for long term corrective measures. It may not be feasible to give your customer a guarantee that the correction will resolve all problems permanently, but it may be appropriate to reassure the customer that you will be available to assist in the event that another different problem should occur again. Demonstrate your confidence that this specific problem is resolved and is not expected to reoccur. Demonstrate your attention to the specific customer by reiterating original concerns and actions that you took to correct the issue.

10. Follow Up

When possible, follow-up with the customer after sufficient time has elapsed to demonstrate that the corrective action has been effective. A phone call or a personalized postcard demonstrates individual attention and acknowledgement. Demonstrating compassion and attentiveness thirty days after a problem has been resolved is a powerful message to show that you really do care about the individual customer. This follow-up after the anger has subsided and the corrective action has been demonstrated as effective may be enough to retain loyal customers and earn a few new ones.

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Words of Wisdom

"You can't teach someone to care."
- Art Sakaguchi

"The crisis of yesterday is the joke of tomorrow."
- H G Wells

"Speak when you are angry and you'll give the best speech that you will ever regret." 
- Lawrence J Peter

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You may distribute this article freely, print it, sell it, or include it as part of a package as long as it is intact, unchanged and delivered in the original format with acknowledgement to Executive Blueprints Inc.

About the Author:
John Mehrmann is a freelance writer and President of Executive Blueprints Inc., an organization devoted to improving business practices and developing human capital. www.ExecutiveBlueprints.com provides resource materials for trainers, sample Case Studies, educational articles and references to local affiliates for consulting and executive coaching. http://www.InstituteforAdvancedLeadership.com provides self-paced tutorials for personal development and tools for trainers. Presentation materials, reference guides and exercises are available for continuous development.

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