How To Handle Irate Customers

Only after an angry customer believes that you understand his problem and sympathize with his plight will he be willing to believe that you really mean to help him. This is especially true if he’s been run through a customer-service drill that resulted in nothing happening. One way I’ve found to convey my sympathy is to “out-emote” the customer. I do this by making a strong statement at a slightly louder decibel level than his. I say things like, “That’s really terrible/incomprehensible/inexcusable/etc.!”

And, “You must be furious!” I’ve found that the customer usually doesn’t listen so much to what you first say as to how you say it. By topping his emotional reaction with a stronger one of your own, you signal him that you are someone he can trust. This, of course, is very different from the usual advice: Stay cool, calm, and collected. The problem with this is that when someone is poking his finger into your chest and screaming nasty things at you, it is difficult to keep a tranquil composure and a smile on your face.

I developed my technique years ago when I was in the travel business. When you take Americans overseas, you are courting disaster. Americans are not only amazingly dumb once they step onto foreign shores, they are amazingly demanding. Rather than taking a swipe at the most likely button when confronted with an elevator menu in a different “language,” they are likely to start screaming at the nearest valet, “What’s wrong with this elevator?!

Why can’t you people make your elevators look the way they are supposed to look!” When you are responsible for making such people happy in foreign destinations, you are frequently assaulted by them when things don’t work out as they expect. Rather than end up in some Parisian jail for clocking one of my seminar attendees, I found this way to get them to listen to what I was saying — and, at the same time, to indulge my own desire to yell and scream. By turning my rage into a statement of sympathy, I was able to vent it.

Later, I realized that my emotional state was due to the fact that I really did care about the person’s situation — that I was sorry about the bad service he’d experienced and embarrassed by how poorly he’d been treated. Once I realized that my feelings were genuinely sympathetic, it was easy to find words to articulate them. Another trick I learned: After you’ve expressed your concern, use the customer’s name in making a promise to help.

Say, “Mr. Jones, I fully intend to help you.” Something simple like that, expressed after he’s calmed down enough to listen to you, will go a long way toward making him cooperative. Finally, never come back with nothing. Even if his expectations are unrealistic, give him something for his troubles. Even if it’s something insubstantial, if it’s given as the best you can — after genuinely going to bat for him — he may be mollified.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]