Handling The Customer from Hell: How Can You Turn the Tide In Your Favor?

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Almost anyone who has worked with the public has a horror story to tell about a difficult customer. I'm talking about a particular type here: the usually loud, upset, sometimes aggressive or intimidating ones. Having worked in Customer Service roles for two decades, I've had my fair share, especially when I worked in a Returns Department.

Over the years I've found that there are right and wrong ways to deal with them, and the route you choose can mean the difference between them leaving happy or vowing never to spend another penny with your company again. Here are some suggestions that may help you the next time you're faced with The Customer from Hell.

Do's and Don'ts to Keep in Mind When Dealing with Difficult Customers

# 1.Do listen to them carefully.

Sounds simple, does not it? In reality, it can be very hard if someone is upset or angry to pay attention to what they're saying rather than looking for an escape route. They may after all have a valid complaint, and you'll only find that out if you can determine the source of it. Make a real effort to use active listening, notifying mentally what your understanding of their complaint is. Concentrate fully on what's being said. Beware though of taking too many notes while they're talking. The customer may get the impression that you are ignoring them, or worse still, doodling on a notepad because you do not care less.

If you wish to take notes, ask them for permission as a courtesy. Make it clear why you are writing something down or keying information into a computer (usually to ensure that there is a record of the complaint on file). Some people do get a bit paranoid when they can not see exactly what you've input. Personally, I always turned my monitor to show it to the customer when I had finished logging a complaint so that they could review its accuracy. If you're thinking you'll try that next time, always check with your superior that you would not be breaking any rules by doing so well ahead of time.

# 2. Do let them finish what they're saying before responding.

There's probably nothing more irritating to a customer who blood is already boiling that being interrupted. Save any questions if at all possible until they have finished their tirade, (now would be a good time to ask about notes) and then reiterate your understanding of the complaint's nature in a summarized fashion to check that you have it right.

For the purposes of example, we'll call our fictitious customer Mr. Jones. It may be helpful to say something like, "I'm sorry that you're uncomfortable, Mr. Jones. we go any further. " Whether or not you agree with him is immaterial at this point. If the customer feels that you have in fact been taking what he says seriously, then you're halfway there to resolving the situation.

In my experience, many will actually become calmer once they realize that you're going to give it your best shot. (I'm assuming here that you do really want to do your job well and bring this to a satisfying and mutually acceptable close.) The customer's had the opportunity to let off steam and like a balloon, and they are that once he's gone up, he'll come down again.

# 3. Do give the customer your full name and contact number if your company policy allows you to do so.

This will help you establish a connection with the customer and reinforces the sentiment that you really do want to help. If you can give them a business card with your details on it, so much the better. In these days of faceless call centers, it's just too easy for an employee to say whatever they like and not be held accountable for any promises or claims that they have made because no one knows who said it in the first place.

Many times, I found myself on the receiving end of an irate customer who had been told complete rubbish by one of the aforementioned faceless employees, only to speak to me next and be given the bad news. Of course, as I was in front of them, I got the brunt of their anger. Which brings me nicely to point four:

# 4. Do not take it personally when a customer gets mad.

It's not usually you that. Jones is mad at, it's your company in some shape or form or the actions of someone within your company. (If it is your mistake, it's actually easier to deal with because you'll know exactly what went wrong. Hold your hands up, explain what went wrong honestly, apologize already, and get it sorted out ASAP.) To him, you ARE the company and therefore deserve to have the focus of his wrath. Keep your cool and an emotional distance from it all to avoid either losing your temper or crying your eyes out right there and then. The more professional and polished an outward appearance you have, the more likely the customer is to feel that you will deal with his complaint in a similar vein.

If you resort to Cardinal Sin # 1: shouting back at him, or Cardinal Sin # 2: roll your eyes at your co-worker when you think the customer's not looking, (trust me, they'll see it – congratulations, you just inflamed the situation a hundred times over), do not expect to keep your job long. Your superiors will probably hear of it and you'll quite possibly be reprimanded, fired or asked to resign without a reference, none of which are good options.

Customer Service is a key component of good industrial practices and one that no company can afford to underestimate the importance of. As an employee, neither should you. Always be well mannered and polite. Show Mr. Jones the respect that you would like him to be showing you by the time he leaves.

If you feel that you're getting to the point where you're ready to lose it, then say "Excuse me one moment, please, Mr Jones," and go get another staff member or your boss to take over. It's better to be kicking boxes or bawling your eyes out in the stationery cupboard than losing your job. To work in Customer Service, you need to develop the patience of a saint and the hide of a rhino. If you find yourself lacking in either attribute, then you may want to consider asking for either a transfer to another department or additional training from Personnel on handling these very circumstances.

# 5. Do make some kind of affirmation that shows that you're listening through.

Even if it's only a nod and an occasional 'uh huh' or 'yes' in a positive tone, it's better than staring blankly at him like a rabbit caught in the headlights. The idea is to convey an air of approachability, interest and concern. Maintain good eye contact-again, no starting- and keep your body language open, not closed. This means sitting with either your hands on your lap or standing with your arms at your side, rather than crossing them tightly across your chest. That action just screams defensiveness before you even open your mouth. Another example of positive body language that shows you're being attentive is to lean slowly towards rather than away from the customer.

When you do speak, use a calm, clear and measured tone. If you find that the customer simply will not let you speak, then wait until he does. Silence can be a powerful tool. It does not normally take long for it to register that you are no longer responding vocally to what is being said. When asked why, that's your chance to respond. Resist the temptation to say "Because you will not shut up!" for the reasons given in point # 4. A more neutral answer would be, "Because I was allowing you to finish what you were saying. Inevitably, the customer will say yes. If, by the remotest of chances, they say no, be aware that you may be dealing with someone that falls into the 'escort off the promises' category. Which brings me to an important point:

You may think that this scenario is unexpectedly to happen, but it has already been in workplaces up and down the country. If you feel that there is the chance that the customer may become violent, ensure that you are not alone with our fictional Mr. Jones. It's not a good idea to take him into an interview room for a private discussion because you're trying to avoid the stares of other customers if it might result in being physically attacked. Have some sort of barrier between you, even if it's only a desk.

Ideally, there would be another member of staff alongside you or very close by that you can send a covert prearranged signal to if you feel that there is a real danger present. The advantage of this is that they can intervene before or if the situation turns ugly and you have a witness to the event. There are times when you may not be able to do anything apart from call Security to remove the customer because of their threatening behavior. Even though it should probably be a last resort, it's still an option that's there to protect staff and other customers to be utilized when necessary.

Check with your manager or Personnel what route you'd be expected to take if that happens before it does, and you will be prepared for anything. I hope that you never have to experience that situation, but it's always wise to err on the side of caution.

So How Is It All Going So Far?

Let's have a quick recap here: you've listened in an active fashion to the nature of the complaint, without interrupting or losing track of what exactly the complaint is. You've taken notes, mentally first then documented it with the customer's permission granted beforehand. You've clarified anything that you had unclear on and have a full understanding of why he's upset. You have reassured the customer that you are ready and willing to help sort it out to the best of your ability and the customer has recognized that by your actions.

You've presented a professional front by both staying calm and courteous. You've given your full name or business card to Mr. Jones (company policy permitting) for future reference, all the while demonstrating positive, open and non threatening body language. Lastly, you've taken steps to protect yourself if things turn sour.

Good for you! You're a credit to both yourself and your employer. By now, if life is in any way fair, Mr. Jones should be in a decidedly better frame of mind than he was when he walked in.

Questions to Ask Yourself

Now, let's move on and deal with actually resolving the problem. I'm assuming here that the complaint is indeed a valid one. You need to ask yourself a few questions.

Can I resolve this alone? If so, do it as quickly and with as little fuss as possible.

If I can not, who can? Contact the person or department best suited to deal with it speedily. If you do not know who it will be, find out by asking your boss or colleagues, or perhaps contacting the switchboard operator – she usually has a good handle on who does what in a large company.

What if the person is unavailable to deal with it, or the resolution is going to take a few days or more? That being the case, you need to take responsibility for seeing Mr. Jones's complaint through. You've already given him your name. You'll be his first point of contact if nothing happens, therefore it's in your best interests too to ensure that the complaint is followed up and not gathering dust in someone else's in-tray.

Otherwise, you undo all the good work you have done up till now and Mr Jones will not see you as a professional person anymore. Do you really want that to happen because of another person's inaction? No, neither would I.

Advise the customer about the nature of the delay, agree to contact them at a specific time and date to keep them updated, and most importantly of all, DO IT. Mr. Jones is not going to be ecstatic, but at least he'll know that something is being done and you'll be keeping tabs on it.

No matter whether you can resist it right away or it falls under the remit of another, always take the following steps:

Golden Rules for Complaining Handling

Thank the customer for bringing the complaint to your attention.

Apologize sincerely for the error / delay / faulty product.

Explain what happened honestly and succinctly.

Advise him what steps are being taken to sort it out and what timeframe to expect that to happen in.

Keep the customer informed through and make sure that you have his contact number as well as giving your own.

Check and double check that all promises made to the customer, both by yourself and coworkers, are kept.

Learn the lessons from the complaint to prevent it reoccurring and share what you learned with coworkers.

Building the Bridges To A Happy Customer

When you have time in your work schedule, it's always a nice gesture to make a follow up phone call a week or so after the complaint has been resolved to everyone's satisfaction. A quick call to check if you can be of service in any other way can go a long way to repairing any damage done previously by the complaint. There's nothing more gratifying to me than hearing a 'thank you' over the phone or a letter from a once disgruntled customer like Mr. Jones and knowing that you did your job well.

For most customers who've made a complaint, it's a pleasant surprise to receive this kind of courtesy call. In my experience, the majority of difficult customers tend to forgive any problems if they are resolved in a timely and satisfactory manner and will happily do business with your company in the future.

To me, that's what real, committed Customer Service is all about-serving the customer just as diligently and conscientiously when they're unhappy as they are not. Who knows, next time it may be you that's Mr. Jones. How would you like to be treated?


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