How to Deal with Irate Customers
and Solve Problems More Effectively

The sudden appearance of an irate customer can be one of the most trying times in an employee's life, but it can also be a world class moment of truth for a business that can be turned to good if handled properly.

The proponents of Total Quality Management (TQM), of course, are right: it is far better to do things properly in the first place, rather than having to repair the damage after a problem has occurred. But the prevention of problems seldom happens with 100% efficiency. As a result, into the life of every business some irate customers will fall.

The difference between an ordinary business and a business with an everybody sells mindset is not that customer relations problems never occur, but how well they are handled when they arrive. So you better get ready!

The Nature of Irate Customers

Irate customers are unhappy. They range in emotional state from mildly disappointed to completely outraged and in the way they present themselves from calm to abusive. Sometimes their behavior is outrageously bad.

Usually they have a reason for being unhappy - the product didn't work as they thought it should or someone didn't make good on a promise. Sometimes the apparent problem is really an excuse for blowing off steam because something else in the customer's life has gone wrong. Sometimes it just plain isn't your fault or the fault of the company that employs you. Whatever the reason, it's still a heavy-duty moment of truth.

How important is it?

The American Society for Quality asked the question, "Why do your customers leave you and go to your competition?" The answers may surprise you. Only 9% said they were lured away by the competition. Only 14% said they were dissatisfied with the product. The overwhelming majority - an amazing 68% - said they were turned away by an attitude of indifference on the part of the company employee.

If you want to keep the customers you've got, let them know you love them (or at least care about them) every time they call or they come in - even when they are mad.

The person who said, "The customer is always right" had it wrong. The customer is not always right, but no matter how upset they are, they are still the customer. If you handle their emotion and the problem correctly, you can make the relationship even stronger than before. Fortunately there are a few principles that can see you through in style:

Realize It's Not Personal

In the vast majority of cases, what the customer wants is a positive outcome. They may come in the door with fire in their eyes, steam coming out their ears, and a variety of the more spicy short words floating in the air, but what they want is their problem solved.

The key to dealing with the customer's tirade intelligently and creatively is to not take it personally. Why? Because it is human nature that when someone attacks us - "Listen ya square-headed son of a gun, your darned product doesn't work! We naturally want to counterattack. You yell at me, I'll yell back. It's probably why primitive tribes spend so much time yelling at each other across the battlefield. As colorful as it may be, it doesn't solve problems, and it doesn't retain customers.

If you allow it to become personal, it can cloud your judgement and get in the way of solving the problem. I know it can be extremely difficult to remain calm, cool, and creative in a barrage of insults, but let me appeal to your ego: the worse the customer behaves, the greater opportunity it is for you to prove how good you are and turn the situation into a win for the company.

Four Step Problem Resolution System

When customers are upset, they want to do two things: express their feelings and get their problem solved. There are four clear steps in getting from mad to glad.

  1. Understand the problem. You can't solve the problem if you don't know what it is, and you can't find out what it is if the customer is ranting and raving.

    Begin by listening. Listen attentively as if it were your best friend having the problem. Let the customer vent his or her feelings. It's important that you let the customer explain fully what has happened and why they are upset. This helps you to understand the problem, it helps to diffuse some of the emotions the customer has regarding the problem.

    By all means, do not attempt to "cut off" the customer early or prevent them from having their full say. Even though, from your point of view, cutting the explanation (or complaint) short may appear to be more efficient, it can actually make the situation worse because some irate customers may interpret this to mean that you are not really interested in their problem. Remember, first they want to be heard.

    In fact, they want to be heard so much that a great way to "defuse" an angry customer, particularly if you know them, is to say, "Mr. Mooney, you look upset, how can I help you? With a phrase like that, you signal clearly to the customer: "I'm not your enemy; I want to help, and I'm ready to listen."

    Let me give you an example. Let's imagine that, on your way out the door this morning, the dog made a mess on the floor; you spilled coffee on your best shirt, and then you were late for an important meeting. When you got to work, your boss chewed you out; you had trouble with your computer, and now the special present you bought for your "significant other" doesn't work properly. Be honest, would you feel your problem was trivial or would you see it as the latest Bad Thing in a thoroughly rotten day?

    As you gain an understanding of why the customer is upset, apologize for the inconvenience and summarize the problem so that both you and the customer can agree on what needs to be solved. This is a key step in the process. You need agreement on the problem so that you don't inadvertently try to solve the "wrong" problem.

  2. Create Solutions. Once you both have agreed on the problem, ask the customer how they think the problem could be solved. Sometimes you will have to say "no" to their solutions, but when you do, always try to respond with reasonable alternatives. "I'm sorry Mr. Glusko, I can't do that, but I can do this."

    Strive to solve problems quickly, because that makes customers feel you are being responsive to them, but avoid the pitfall of assuming that you know the solution when you don't. It is far better to say, "I don't know, Mr. Wheeler, but I will check on that and get right back to you" than to have to tell Mr. Wheeler that the solution to his difficulty won't be as good as you had originally promised.

    If you absolutely must guess what the solution will be, it is far better to give a conservative estimate. The customer will not be disappointed if you can deliver a solution that is better than what you first said. 

    To illustrate the point, let's play pretend once again. This time the muffler has fallen off your car. You go to the muffler shop, and the estimate to fix it is $100. When you come to pick up your care later that day, if the bill is $100, you pay and leave. It's what you expected. If the bill is only $50, you're ready to put the mechanic on your Christmas card list! But what happens if the bill is twice as much as estimated? You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure this out.

  3. Fix the Problem. Once you and the customer agree on the solution to the problem, move expeditiously. Explain what you are going to do to solve the problem, and, once again, get the customer to agree that this is an acceptable solution to the problem. 

    Keep your promises. If you said you would call and check on something, do it, and do it in the time frame you promised. When you explain how you are going to solve the problem, it's good to set up an "out" for time-sensitive promises: Mr. Wright, it usually takes about two weeks to make a repair of this sort. If I find out that it is going to take longer, I'll call you as soon as I know, and we'll discuss what to do."

  4. Follow-Up. Once the problem has been fixed, it's an extremely good idea to follow up with the customer. Ask if they are satisfied with the solution. If they are not, see if there is anything that can be done to increase their satisfaction.

    Thank the customer for bringing the problem to your attention. Apologize again for the inconvenience. Tell them that you look forward to serving them in the future. You can even thank them for their help in solving the problem.

    Remember, there's no such thing as a business that never has an unhappy customer, but it's the businesses which work the hardest at satisfying irate customers that generally do the best overall.

    A shining example is Gil's Garage in Burnt Hills, NY. This establishment does not sell gas or cars. All it does is repair automobiles, and the demand for its services is so high that it employs two shifts of mechanics. Mike Brewster, the president of Gil's has an absolute commitment to customer service.

    When one of my colleagues bought a ten-year-old van, it required, almost immediately, replacement of the steering rack and power steering pump. He took it to Gil's, and the work was completed at the cost of about $1,000. A few months later, the power steering pump failed catastrophically in a town about 50 miles from Gil's. 

    Mike Brewster personally towed the damaged van back to his shop. He saw to it that all questionable parts were replaced (including both the rack and pump) and personally tested the repair job. When the van was returned to my colleague, the bill was exactly $0.00 because there was a warranty on the repair work. The result was not only a happy customer, but also a customer who was transformed from being irate into an active evangelist for Gil's Garage. Whenever this gentleman hears of someone who is in need of a good garage, he heartily recommends Gil's! Wouldn't you like to have that kind of outcome with your next irate customer?

Head Problems off at the Pass

The best way to dealing with customer relations problems is to prevent them from happening. There are three key ways of doing that.

  1. Match the product to the customer. Make sure the customer knows what the product is designed to do and what it is not designed to do, and that it meets his or her need. If your customer claims to want a lawn mower built only for mowing residential lawns and they mention they want to clear brush, it would be a good idea to make sure they buy a machine built for both purposes or that they know their light-duty mower isn't made to clear brush.
  2. Train the customer in using the product. By all means, ask the customer to read the product manual. But if you also know that one particular feature causes call after call from frustrated customers, make a point of educating the customer: "Remember, Mr. Griswold, this model won't start unless you hold down the chrome level while you pull the starter rope." Or, "Always put the grass-catcher on before you lower the handle. If you try to do it in reverse order, it won't work and you could damage the machine."
  3. Keep your promises. Failure to keep promises is, by far and away, one of the largest causes of customer dissatisfaction, If you said you would order the parts and have them in by Wednesday, make sure it happens. If it is not going to happen for reasons out of your control, call the customer, apologize, and explain the revised schedule or how you are going to make it right.

Very often, if you analyze what lies behind frustrated customers, you'll find that it wasn't just one thing, but a series of contributing factors: the sales person didn't bother to match the product with the customer's need; the customer didn't understand fully how to use the product; there was a (relatively) minor problem with the product, and someone failed to deliver on a promise related to the product or sale. Taken together, they added up to a Big Upset for the customer.

It's your choice, really. You can treat them as you would like to be treated, or you can deal with them and solve their problems after they become irate.

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