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Dealing with Difficult Customers
2002, by Dave Kahle.
It is easy to work with people you
like, and it is even easier to work with people who like you. But
that's not always the case. Sooner or later, you'll have to deal with a
Difficult customers come in a wide variety. There are those whose
personality rubs you the wrong way. They may not be difficult for
someone else, but they are for you. And then there are those who are
difficult for everyone: Picky people, know-it-alls, egocentrics,
fault-finders, constant complainers, etc. Every salesperson can list a
number of the types.
But perhaps the most difficult for everyone is the angry customer. This
is someone who feels that he or she has been wronged, and is upset and
emotional about it. These customers complain, and they are angry about
something you or your company did.
There are some sound business reasons to become adept in handling an
angry customer. Research indicates that customers who complain are
likely to continue doing business with your company if they feel that
they were treated properly. It's estimated that as many as 90% of
customers who perceive themselves as having been wronged never
complain, they just take their business elsewhere. So, angry,
complaining customers care enough to talk to you, and have not yet
decided to take their business to the competition. They are customers
Not only are there benefits to your company, but you personally gain as
well. Become adept at handling angry customers, and you’ll feel much
more confident in your own abilities. If you can handle this, you can
handle anything. While any one can work with the easy people, it takes
a real professional to be successful with the difficult customers. Your
confidence will grow, your poise will increase, and your self-esteem
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On the other hand, if you mishandle it, and you'll watch the situation
dissolve into lost business and upset people. You may find yourself
upset for days.
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So, how do you handle an angry,
complaining customer? Let's begin with
a couple tools you can use in these situations.
1. RESPECT. It can be difficult to
respect a person who may be yelling, swearing or behaving like a
two-year-old. I'm not suggesting you respect the behavior, only that
you respect the person. Keep in mind that 99 times out of 100 you are
not the object of the customer's anger. You are like a small tree in
the path of a swirling tornado. But unlike the small tree, you have the
power to withstand the wind.
What is the source of your power? Unlike the customer, you are not angry, you are in control, and your only problem at
the moment is helping him with his problem. If you
step out of this positioning, and start reacting to the customer in an
emotional way, you'll lose control, you’ll lose your power, and the
situation will be likely to escalate into a lose-lose for everyone. So,
begin with a mindset that says, "No matter what, I will
respect the customer."
2. EMPATHY. Put yourself in the
customer's shoes, and try to see the situation from his/her
perspective. Don't try and cut him off, don't urge him to calm down.
Instead, listen carefully. If someone is angry or upset, it is because
that person feels injured in some way. Your job is to let the customer
vent and to listen attentively in order to understand the source of
that frustration. When you do that, you send a powerful unspoken
message that you care about him and his situation.
Often, as the customer comes to realize that you really do care and
that you are going to attempt to help him resolve the problem, the
customer will calm down on his own, and begin to interact with you in a
Here's how you can use these two tools in an easily-remembered process
for dealing with angry customers.
CRACK THE EGG
Imagine that you have a hard-boiled egg. The rich yellow yolk at the
center of the egg represents the solution to the customer's problem,
the hardened white which surrounds the yolk represents the details of
the customer's situation, and the hard shell represents his/her anger.
In order to get to the yolk, and resolve the situation, you must first
crack the shell. In other words, you have got to penetrate the
customer’s anger. Then you've got to cut through the congealed egg
white. That means that you understand the details of the customer’s
situation. Finally, you're at the heart of the situation, where you can
offer a solution to the customer's problem.
So, handling an angry customer is like cutting through a hard-boiled
egg. Here's a four-step process to help you do so.
Let's say you stop to see one of your
regular customers. He doesn't even give you time to finish your
greeting before he launches into a tirade.
At this point, about all you can do is LISTEN.
And that's what you do. You don't try and cut him off, you don't urge
him to calm down. Not just yet. Instead, you listen carefully. And as
you listen, you begin to piece together his story. He ordered a piece
of equipment three weeks ago. You quoted him X price and delivery by
last Friday for a project that's starting this week. Not only is the
equipment not there, but he received an invoice for it at a different
price than was quoted.
"What kind of shoddy operation is this?" he wants to
know. Do you understand how important his project is? Do you know how
much time and money is at stake? If he doesn't get his equipment and
something happens to this project, you're going to pay for it. He knew,
he just knew he should have ordered the equipment from your competitor.
What are you going do about it?
Now you have the basic story. Hopefully, after this gush of
frustration, there will be a pause while he comes up for air.
More often than not, once the customer has had an initial chance to
vent his rage, it's going to die down a little, and that's your
opportunity to take step in.
Even if he has started calming down on his own, there comes a moment -
and I can almost guarantee you'll sense it - to help calm him down. Try
something along the lines of: "It sounds like something has
gone wrong, and I can understand your frustration. I'm sorry you're
experiencing this problem. Let's take a look at the next step."
Try to calm yourself first, and then to acknowledge his feelings. Say,
"I can tell you're upset..." or, "It sounds like you're angry..." then
connect to the customer by apologizing, or empathizing. When you say
something like "I'm sorry that happened. If I were you, I'd be
frustrated, too." It's amazing how much of a calming effect that can
Remember, anger is a natural, self-defensive reaction to a perceived
wrong. If there is a problem with your company’s product or service,
some frustration and disappointment is justified.
This is so important, let me repeat it. First you listen carefully and
completely to the customer. Then you empathize with what the customer
is feeling, and let him or her know that you understand. This will
almost always calm the customer down. You've cracked the shell of the
egg. Now, you can proceed to deal with the problem.
2. IDENTIFY THE PROBLEM.
Sometimes while the angry customer is
venting, you'll be able to latch right on to the problem because it's
clear-cut. Something is broken. Or late. Or he thinks a promise has
But sometimes in the middle of all that
rage, it's tough to comprehend the bottom-line issue. This is a good
place for some specific questions. Ask the customer to give you some
details. "What day did he order it, when exactly was it
promised. What is his situation at the moment?" These kind of
questions force the customer to think about facts instead of his/her
feelings about those facts. So, you interject a more rational kind of
conversation. Think of this step of the process as cutting through the
white of the egg to get to the yolk at the center.
It's important, when you think you understand the details, to restate
the problem. You can say, "Let me see if I have this right.
You were promised delivery last Friday, because you need it for an
important project this coming week. But you haven't received our
product yet. Is that correct?"
He will probably acknowledge that you've sized up the situation
correctly. Or, he may say, "No, that's not right" and then proceed to explain further. In either case the outcome is
good, because you will eventually understand his situation correctly,
and have him tell you that "Yes, that's right."
And at that point you can apologize. Some people believe that an
apology is an acknowledgment of wrongdoing. But you can appreciate and
apologize for the customer's inconvenience without pointing fingers.
Just say, "Mr. Brady, I'm sorry this has happened." Or "Mr. Brady. I understand this must be very frustrating.
Let's just see what we can do fix it, OK?"
You don't want to blame the customer by
saying something like "Are you sure you understood the price
and delivery date correctly?" This will just ignite his anger
all over again because you are questioning his credibility and
And you don't want to blame your company or your suppliers Never say, "I’m
not surprised your invoice was wrong. It's been happening a lot." Or, "Yes, our backorders are way behind."
In general, you AVOID BLAME. Which is different
than acknowledging responsibility. For example, if you know, for a
fact, a mistake has been made, you can acknowledge it and apologize for
it. "Mr. Brady, clearly there's a problem here with our
performance. I can't change that, but let me see what I can do to help
you out because I understand how important your project is."
RESOLVE THE PROBLEM.
Now you’re at the heart of the egg. You
won't always be able to fix the problem perfectly. And you may need
more time than a single phone call. But it's critical to leave the
irate customer with the understanding that your goal is to resolve the problem. You may need to say, "I'm going to
need to make some phone calls." If you do, give the customer
an idea of when you’ll get back to him: "Later this afternoon." Or "First thing in the morning."
Then do it. Make the phone calls. Get the
information. Find out what you can do for this customer and do it. Then
follow up with the customer when you said you would. Even if you don't
have all the information you need, call when you said you would and at
least let him know what you've done, what you're working on and what
your next step will be. Let the customer know that he and his business
are important to you, that you understand his frustration, and that
you're working hard to get things fixed.
Use the tools of respect and empathy, and the "crack the egg" process, and you'll move your professionalism up a notch.
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Customers Resource page.