It's hard enough for most of us to keep our own tempers in check. Irate customers often make us wonder why we bother. Even if we understand their frustration it's hard not to react to someone who is yelling, sarcastic or making threats never to utilize our services again. But that's our job.
Handling irate customers isn't a skill; it's an art form. Think of the last person you had to calm down. Whether or not you succeeded you were probably exhausted afterwards. Is there a way to calm someone down and not feel depleted by the process? Not all the time, but there are some basic steps you can use to guide you through the process. You'll find that for the majority of people, these tools work and you'll feel better for it.
Step 1: Thank them. That must sound crazy, but it works like a charm. The minute someone calls you or charges up with a nasty look on their face, welcome them. If they tell you that your organization is a mess, respond with something like "You know, I'm glad you came to me with this. It's important that we know if our customer is unhappy. Please tell me what happened." People are usually shocked by this response. It completely disarms them. They expect a fight or at least a defensive stance from you. Giving it to them is the worst mistake you can make.
Step 2: Listen without interruption. When people are upset we tend to stop the process by interrupting and explaining the situation. For example if a client calls your company to complain about a late shipment, you immediately want to explain what happened and why. There's nothing wrong with that response except your timing. If the client is furious and needs to vent, let him. Often a customer is misinformed, and you will have the opportunity to set the record straight after he is done speaking
Step 3: Accept responsibility. Be careful not to confuse responsibility with an apology. It's appropriate to apologize when you or your organization have done something wrong. If a customer is unhappy with a bill they knew they would receive and they call you to complain you might want to stop short before you say you're sorry. You can accept responsibility by saying, "it's my job to deal with billing, and I want to help you as much as I can, but unfortunately, we can't change the price of our merchandise." You might even want to add, "I really wish I could help you with this. Is there anything else I can do?"
Step 4: Make a Plan for Action. Some customers want to vent; others want you to take action. Most want a little of both. After you're done thanking, listening and accepting responsibility (with or without an apology), explain specifically what you are going to do about it, and make sure the customer is in agreement with that plan. You can say, "I would like to take care of this for you by calling the shipping company myself and seeing if we can get them to deliver the product a day earlier than planned." Then check in with the customer, "Would that work for you?" It's always nice to add an extra throw-in at this point, by giving the customer something they did not request. For example you might say, "because of the inconvenience we'd like to knock off 10 percent of the fee."
Remember that your goal is not only to calm down irate customers, but to make them happy. In the end, the time and money involved in attracting new customers far outweighs that of keeping the ones we have. So consider your effort a wise investment.
Elisa Levy conducts seminars on conflict resolution and anger management. For more information, contact her at 305-296-5437 or visit http://www.elisalevy.com.