Welcome to the world of the never-satisfied customer. No matter how hard you try to attain 100% customer satisfaction, from time to time, you’re going to miss the mark. Even if you have a no-questions-asked, no-hassle return policy, you won’t always satisfy everyone. Perfection is particularly elusive on planet earth.
People express their anger to manufacturers, retailers, service-providers and government officials. No entity is immune. Angry customers hold nothing back. They feel that freedom of expression is their right, and fortunately, you may have an opportunity to deal with these angry folks. Yes, as strange as it may seem, you have a golden opportunity. It’s not easy dealing with angry customers, but if you engage them with understanding and skill, you can help them solve their problems, gain their trust, and most importantly, keep their business.
Acknowledge their anger
The first step is to acknowledge their anger. Most of the time, they’re saying, “I’ve got this problem and it’s your fault!” Nobody likes to be confronted with accusations, insults, and threats like the following. “I don’t give a ~*~ damn about your *~#^< policy!” “I don’t care what the law says.” “You people piss me off.” “Your service stinks.” “I want to speak to the manager.” “Fix this right now or else.” My favorite is “Jesus Christ, you’re stupid.” As an ordained minister, I took the comment as a kind of back-handed religious compliment. Their anger isn’t about you. So don’t take it personally. Your approach, however, is critical. Let them know that it’s OK to vent and to tell you their whole story. Accept them as human beings, not just as another problem. This strategy will go a long way to open the lines of communication.
Be calm and kind
The second step is to remain calm and kind, a true test of strength and spirit. Remember that if you can keep your cool when the world is swirling around you, you will encourage others to keep their cool. A sustained calm approach will enable you to slow down the action so that you can get a clear picture of the problem. It’s tempting to strike back, but it just reinforces and often escalates the anger. Coupled with being calm, is being kind, offering an understanding non-anxious presence. It gives the clue that you and the complainer can work this out. It shows you really want to help them solve their problem. Being rude, uncaring, or indifferent doesn’t work in the short- or long-term. As Abigail Van Buren reminds us, “People who fight fire with fire usually end up with ashes.” Reach out with understanding and friendship.
Clarify their problem
The third step is to clarify their problem. Studies show that people who complain want first and foremost to be heard. That’s half the battle. If they feel they will be heard, they are usually happy to share what is at the root of their complaint. Offering empathy with such statements as “I can understand why you’re angry,” and mirroring their comments with “What I hear you saying is…,” will build the necessary trust to uncover the real problem. I recently overheard a county treasurer say to her off-the-wall angry customer, “You’re right. Nobody likes to pay taxes. Let’s see how I can help you understand your tax statement.” Listen closely to effectively diagnose their problem and its context. Active listening is an art and demands paying attention not only to the big picture, but also to the details. Occasionally, you may have to listen between the lines.
The fourth and final step is to develop solutions. You’re a problem-solver, plain and simple. The people who complain come to you with the conviction that you can help them solve their problems. You have only one question to ask: how can we resolve your complaint together? I can’t emphasize the “together” dimension too much. You want to be their partner, not their adversary. Rather than being defensive, you want to be proactive on their behalf. If you anticipate that they will “attack,” that’s the response you’ll probably get. But if you are able to convince them that you have their best interest in mind, they will join you in the process of discovering the best solution. You can’t expect to solve every problem. There are a few people who are addicted to complaining, and will satisfy their cravings at the drop of a hat. Maybe you know somebody like that. Bad gene pool, I think. Even if they got to heaven, they’d complain.
Take these four steps to deal effectively with your angry customers: acknowledge their anger, be calm and kind, clarify their problem, and develop solutions. In the world of the never-satisfied customer, it makes very good cents.
Dr. Phil Johnson, The FireStarter, is an international speaker and author whose mission is to ignite people’s passion to Do the Impossible™. You can contact him here!