How to provide excellent customer service in the face of adversity

Picture of a crying baby

Like babies, angry and unsatisfied customers are loud, incomprehensible, and won’t stop whining until their needs are met. It’s your responsibility to find out what they are and deliver.

Everyone has felt subservient to their customers at one point or another in their career. Be it retail, food service, hospitality, or any number of other industries, you often feel like a slave to your customer’s every whim.

The worst and most unreasonable customers know this and it’s evident through their blatant disrespect and feelings of entitlement projected towards front line Customer Service Representatives. It’s not uncommon for an irate customer to direct their frustrations with your product or service, warranted or otherwise, at the nearest and most powerless victim of their verbal onslaught; you.

Of course, your first instinct is to defend your honour and rebuke any attacks your character might have suffered during their, usually incoherent, fit of rage by adamantly reminding them of their status in life as the piece of detritus which other pieces of detritus feed to their in-laws. While the look on their face could be described as “priceless”, offended customers don’t pay the bills.

As a reasonable alternative, and one that might save the customer (and your job), I give you four steps to providing excellent customer service in the face of adversity:

Picture of a frustrated CRS

We’ve all felt like this guy when confronted with difficult customers. Try to sympathize with them and you’ll find that the whole experience is much less unpleasant.

1. Stay Calm:We all know just how easy it is for something to pop off and escalate a situation from bad to worse. Hardly enlightening but important to remember never the less. It is virtually impossible for you to provide excellent customer service when you’re even moderately upset. The trick is to not take it personally despite their attempts to make it so. They’re not mad at you, (how could they be, they don’t even know you) they’re mad at your product/service/company and are merely venting their frustrations in your direction.

Protip: Wait until their tirade is finished and take a long pause; say, three to four seconds. This will simultaneously allow them to exhaust themselves from berating you or cause them to argue in circles until they’re not sure what they were mad about anymore as well as give them the impression that you’re listening and ensuring that they’re finished.

Never: Interrupt a raging customer mid sentence regardless of what they’re saying. Maybe they asked a question you know the answer to. Maybe they made a mistake about the supposed functionality of your product. Maybe they spoke ill of your mother. It doesn’t matter, interrupting them will only fuel the flames of discontent and draw out the problem longer. Bite your tongue, literally if you have to.

2. Reiterate the Problem:At some point the customer will have voiced some semblance of a complaint that has brought them to this point, your job is to listen intently for the overall theme of the complaint. Once you think you’ve decoded their message, articulate it back to them slowly and in your most understanding voice possible. Likely, by this time said angry customer has run out of steam and will be willing to hear you talk. If it turns out that you misinterpreted his message, ask for feedback or wait while he tries again. Ensuring that you’re solving the right problem is essential if you’re going to salvage the individual as customer.

Protip: Saying things like “just so i understand properly…” and “if i understood you correctly…” will give the impression that you’re concerned with their issue and that you listened carefully or that you’re at least trying. This will also turn what what previously a one-way rant into a genuine conversation between two people.

Never: Assume the premise of their complaint to be wrong. To them it is a real problem that is affecting them in a real way. Instead imply that you’re looking at it from their point of view by saying things like “… you’re under the impression that…” or “… you were lead to believe that…”. This will give the customer the impression that you sympathize with them and understand their plight.

3.Offer Solutions:Having filtered through the anger and mixed messages and finally determining the core issue plaguing the customer, it’s time to offer a solution. Of course, most problems often have more than one solution. Once you understand the needs of the customer you can offer a selection of possible remedies and decide together which would be most desirable and appropriate. By including them in this process you’re not only ensuring that their issue is resolved but you’re also making them accountable so that they can’t be upset in the future about the outcome of their complaint.

Protip:Thoroughly talking them through all the possible solutions will increase the likelihood that they make the right decision. The last thing you want if for them to come back and complain about the alleged “solution” to their problem.

Never: Offer solutions which you aren’t willing to follow through on as a means to placate the customer. Your best defence is to have a prepared set of possible solutions for all your anticipated problems with a backup set for the worst case scenarios. Barring that, be fully aware of your authority to provide special accommodations and well versed in your company’s standard operating procedures.

4.Delegate:This last one seems like a cop out to be sure but there is value in knowing your own limits and finding the appropriate person to solve the problem. No one is perfect, but someone else, maybe someone who specializes in the particular issue your customer is having or an authority figure, might be able to perfectly address the complaint. This is not to be confused with admitting defeat, the purpose is to help the customer, this is a win by any definition. Be sure to tell them why you are sending them to someone else so that they don’t feel like you’re brushing them off.

Protip: It is immensely useful if you are with the person to whom you have delegated this task to speed up the   process and act as an interpreter until such a time as you are not needed. The customer will feel like they are being catered to and that a genuine effort is being made to solve their issue.

Never: Delegate a task to someone else simply because you don’t want to do it. The customer will be able to tell and you will be perceived as lazy at best, and inconsiderate at worst. The whole point of customer service is to show you care, even if you don’t; attitude like this completely defeats the purpose.

There is no doubt that the old saying, “the customer is always right” has been proven wrong a thousand times over. But obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally. The business from an irate and miserable customer is just as valuable to your business as a cheery and happy-go-lucky one. So cater to their as you would any other customer and you’ll find that your customer loyalty will parallel your customer service. Next time a visibly irate customer approaches you, count to three (in your head), put on your best “I will not be offended” face and say “How can I help you today?”


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