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Dealing with irate customers

Oct 1, 2001 12:00 AM


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Customer service representatives (CSRs) live in constant danger of receiving nasty telephone calls from angry customers. Almost always, these calls come at a bad time, and without warning. Nonetheless, CSRs must be able to handle each call calmly and skillfully.

For example: A call comes in from one of your company's largest customers that has been working with your company for 10 years.

The client sounds angry. She complains that someone said her job would ship two days late. She swears that if you do not deliver her job on time, it will be the last order you ever get from her company.

WHERE DO YOU START?

Here are some basic steps that can help CSRs deal successfully with an irate customer:

LISTEN, LISTEN SOME MORE AND KEEP LISTENING

Interrupting with denials or possible justifications before the customer has had his or her complete say will only make that person more angry. At appropriate moments, however, do ask questions that will help clarify the situation.

EMPATHIZE

Really feel sorry for the customer because he or she is in a terrible situation. Once customers know they are talking to an empathetic human being who understands their problems and really wants to help, the way is cleared for rational conversation. Don't apologize on behalf of the company early in the conversation. Most likely, you still won't know who is at fault. One good early response would be: “I understand exactly why you are upset. If the same thing happened to me, I would be as upset as you are.”

DON'T TAKE THINGS PERSONALLY

Remain calm. One unnerved CSR mixed with one irate customer leads only to greater chaos. Remember, customers are yelling at the CSR, but the real target is the company as a whole, and at the situation in which they have been placed.

GET THE FACTS FROM ALL SIDES

If feasible, get off the phone and go on a fact-finding mission. Before getting off the phone, make it clear that you will do everything possible to solve the problem. Talk to everyone involved and investigate all sides of the story. Find out what is really happening. Ascertain the true status of the job.

IF THE FACTS WARRANT IT, APOLOGIZE

One sincere apology placates customers more than 20 lame excuses. It is best not to put the blame on any one individual. Say we made a mistake, and we intend to make it right.

LET THE CUSTOMER KNOW WHAT YOU CAN DO

You cannot promise the impossible. Probably, a consultation with others is needed, especially with production management. Find out what they are able to do. Try to put them in a frame of mind to do their best.

LEARN WHETHER THAT WILL SATISFY THE CUSTOMER

There is no point in having production go to great effort, and even incur expenses, only to learn that what was done still did not satisfy the customer.

IF NOT, FIND OUT WHAT WILL SATISFY THE CUSTOMER

Ask questions, such as: “What would you like me to do?”, “How would you settle this if you were me?” and “What will make you completely happy?” At this point, you may have to go back to production or upper management to get a more favorable solution for the customer.

AGREE UPON A SOLUTION

Naturally, if you cannot reach an agreement, you will probably have to bow out gracefully and turn the problem over to somebody else. If there is agreement, restate it, and make sure it is clearly understood. A letter of confirmation is also a good idea.

ENSURE FOLLOW-THROUGH

If, after all of that back-and-forth, there is no follow-through, you and your entire company have blown it. You should keep a close watch over events, and either you or the sales rep should call the customer with progress reports.

THE REAL SOLUTION

The best way to deal with irate customers is to avoid giving them reason to become angry in the first place. CSRs should enter complaints into a customer complaint log. A well-kept log shows the kinds of mistakes that keep happening. Sales, customer service, production and upper management should work together to eliminate poor procedures that lead to customer dissatisfaction. Then the new methods need to be implemented, applied consistently and improved upon.