Every business deals with angry customers now and then. It’s just a part of doing business. But with an increasing number of outlets where angry customers can share their grievances, allowing negative feelings toward your business to fester is a serious risk. Negative reviews, a bad reputation, and discouraging word of mouth await businesses who can’t turn around a situation and make things right.
It’s all too easy to let things slip. “Getting customers angry isn’t difficult,” says Alan Guinn, managing director of The Guinn Consultancy Group. “All you have to do is treat them with a lack of respect, and you’ll get them so hot that they write you letters, write to the local newspaper, call in to the local radio call-in show, and rate your business terribly online at every review site they can find.”
How can you calm an angry customer and stop a bad review before it starts? We spoke with several customer service experts and business owners, and they shared their best strategies for making things right, right away. Follow these 10 steps to proactively manage customer service and stop bad customer situations before they start.
1. Solve Problems Before Customers Can Complain
It’s always better to approach customers with a solution than an apology. If something goes wrong, and you know about it, don’t wait to see if they have a problem with it. Practice good customer service by catching problems before they even realize there’s an issue, and then presenting them with a solution.
“If you become aware of any potential problem it is always best to get to the customer before they can get to you,” says Waverider Communications president and CEO Robert J. Simpson. “Inform them of the problem and your solution. Never bring a problem to a customer without a solution attached. We all make mistakes, but successful people turn problems into opportunities.”
For example, Zenith-Mart president and CEO Tochukwu Mbiamnozie shares a story of solving a customer problem proactively:
“A customer ordered a HP laptop from our website with 8GB memory and 750GB hard drive. When we were about to fulfil the order, we noticed that particular item had run out of stock, so we called the customer right away and explained the situation. We offered a solution by upgrading the customer’s purchase to an 8GB memory and 1,000 GB hard drive for the same price. The customer was so happy when he received his item.”
2. Remember That Angry Customers are an Inevability
Though every business should strive for 100% customer satisfaction, it’s a simple fact that you can’t make everyone happy every time. Angry customers aren’t a question of if, but when. That means even the most proactive and customer service based company will have to prepare for the possibility of angry customers.
The Service Roundtable CEO Matt Michel encourages businesses to consider the financial aspect of customer dissatisfaction and create a problem solving fund. “Build a reserve account of some fraction of a percent of sales to be used to resolve problems,” he says. “This makes problem resolution easier, because the money is already set aside for the purpose.”
With a reserve fund just for angry customers, it’s easy to empower customer service agents to give customers a resolution on the first contact, an essential component of truly solving problems and keeping customers happy. “It is important to empower front line personnel to resolve problems without forcing the customer to repeat the problem through a series of people,” says Michel. “If a business owner is not confident enough in his or her people to allow this, set a dollar limit for the employee and require the employee consult with a manager for anything more.”
3. Ask for Feedback First, and Monitor for What You Can’t Catch
While great customer service is important, giving customers a chance to directly address any problems with you is also essential. Doing so allows you to proactively identify problems before the customer feels the need to share negative feedback publicly. And of course, collecting feedback, whether it’s positive or negative, is especially helpful for developing and growing your business: if you know what your customer wants, you can better meet their needs.
“First, proactively follow up sales and service,” says Michel. “We work with in-home service businesses and recommend our members ask customers if the service person showed up when promised, was neat, clean, and professional, answered all questions to the customer’s satisfaction, performed the work to the customer’s satisfaction, and if the customer would recommend the company to a friend or neighbor. The last question is the most important.”
Developing a feedback program that customers can trust and use easily is a great way to solicit customer opinions and grievances. OwnerListens co-founder and CEO Adi Bittan encourages companies to create a private feedback program, but cautions that it needs to be easily accessible, safe and secure. Contact forms, emails, phone numbers do not meet this criteria, she says.
It’s also important that businesses tell customers about their private feedback program, says Bittan. “If they don’t know about it, they won’t use it,” she says. “It’s the business’ responsibility to ‘market’ the program.”
When marketing feedback programs to customers, Bittan shares that while there are a number of different approaches that can work, a good rule of thumb is to think about all the potential friction points and make sure the feedback program is marketed at those times/places. “Stress that the message goes to a manager (as opposed to just being sent into the ether of the web) and will be responded to,” emphasizes Bittan. “Also important, every customer needs to know about the program, ideally through multiple touchpoints. Even one bad review can devastate a business if the review gets a lot of exposure.”
Even if you ask, though, some customers prefer to air their grievances online, and on social media in particular. That’s why it’s essential for businesses to keep an ear to the ground online and identify unhappy customers that need attention.
“Customers are quick to express their happiness, anger or frustration in 140 characters,” explains John Huehn, CEO of In the Chat. Huehn encourages businesses to regularly monitor social media pages, and search for your brand’s name on various social media platforms since consumers may intentionally not use your brand’s social media tags in negative posts.
“If you come across a particularly impassioned set of posts, reach out to the user privately whether that be through a private message on Facebook or a direct message on Twitter,” says Huehn. “Provide them with a direct phone number or e-mail they can use to further discuss any issue they may be experiencing with your product or service.”
Of course, direct feedback isn’t just a venting tool, it’s a learning opportunity for every business. “If a customer is angry because you or your staff made a mistake, it’s a good idea to treat that customer like your teacher,” says review concierge David Engel. There’s a lot that businesses can learn from negative feedback: customer service problems, staff problems, process failures, and miscommunication. Customers who point out these issues might rub you the wrong way, but never forget that by pointing out your company’s shortcomings, they’re doing you a favor and giving you the opportunity to fix what’s wrong and avoid making the same mistakes in the future.
4. Change Your Outlook on Negative Feedback
It’s easy to feel defensive about negative feedback, even if you’ve asked for it, and especially if you deserve it. But again, hearing from any angry customer, no matter how irate, is an opportunity for greatness.
Valvoline Instant Oil Change franchisee Chris Malone‘s first step in customer service training is teaching his team to avoid becoming defensive. “Don’t take a customer’s anger personally,” says Malone. “Realize the customer is upset with a situation, not a person.”
It’s also important to shift the way you approach each complaint. Business and career management coach Laura Lee Rose encourages businesses to adopt an attitude change, flipping the situation from “this is an angry customer” to “our company has not handled this situation correctly.” This puts the emphasis back on the person/entity responsible for fixing it, she says. Hint: that’s you!
With a more customer-centric outlook, Rose encourages businesses to become a “knight in shining armor,” committed to saving the day for each unhappy customer. “If you take on the persona of a customer advocate, the problem solver in this situation, you will automatically be in the mindset to come up with a suitable solution for both the company and client,” says Rose.
5. Simply Listen to Your Customers
While your customers may ultimately ask for money back or additional products to make up for their problems, what they really want is to simply tell someone what’s wrong. A customer who feels that you don’t want to hear about their problems, or worse, that you want to silence them, will only become more angry. Simply listening to what your customers want to tell you is quite possibly the most important step in calming angry customers — and it’s also the easiest one.
“The best way I’ve found to calm an angry customer is to shut up and listen,” says Samuel Morningstar. “Many times, when a customer is going ballistic, it’s because they feel like they’re not being heard. Listen to what they have to say, empathize with them, and let them vent for a bit. That’s all an angry customer really wants most of the time: to be heard and to feel like someone gives a damn.”
Author and consultant Barry Maher encourages businesses to avoid “handling” angry customers, and instead, just listening to them: “Do not argue. Do not explain. Not yet. You can put a sympathetic look upon your face. You can nod understandingly. But shut up. Allow them to vent.”
Why is listening so important to businesses with angry customers? “Customers feel that no-one is listening to them and committed to helping them,” explains CelebriDucks president Craig Wolfe. “It’s the lack of response that most often makes things worse.”
Simpson relates that letting customers get everything off their chest can be extremely helpful in diffusing a situation, and points out that in many cases, it will greatly reduce their anger. “Sometimes people just want to be heard,” says Simpson. “While their grievances may sound minor to you, they are obviously important to the customer.”
The simple act of listening can genuinely make a difference in the way your customers feel. “Just the fact that you are really listening to their concerns and are willing to address whatever has upset them has a calming effect,” encourages eZanga.com PR specialist Megan Ingenbrandt. “Brushing them off will do the complete opposite.”
Other than engaging in direct conversations, how can you show customers that you’re truly listening to what they have to say? Bittan suggests, “Respond to all messages. Even the compliments. Customers need to feel that it’s working, that someone is listening on the other side.”
6. Accept Feedback on Your Customers’ Terms
Customer service interaction has grown by leaps and bounds in the past decade. Just a few years ago, customers were limited to 1-800 call centers or mail, but now, they’re able to get instant interaction online — but only if businesses are willing to meet them there. More and more, we’ve seen that customers are no longer satisfied with hold times and canned responses. Today’s customer is looking for an immediate, personalized response, and companies that can deliver on this desire will reap the benefits of good customer service — and help prevent angry customers from venting online.
“Most consumers are fed up with the traditional customer service process – finding the customer service number, going through the Interactive Voice Response (IVR), finally connecting with a customer service agent, then the call drops and you are forced to re-do the process,” relates Huehn. “Millennials are an always-on generation and do not have the time, or patience, to deal with the lengthy call waiting times that plague traditional customer service. Most consumers now prefer to communicate through alternative outlets including SMS, live-chat or even e-mail. Make it easy for consumers to connect with your brand through various outlets and they will be more likely to contact you with any future issues, as opposed to lashing out on the Internet.”
And while it’s important to meet customers where they want to be heard, it’s simply not enough. Your response has to be personal, not rehearsed or scripted. “We’ve all had countless interactions with call centers where every word is overly animated and is clearly being read off of a script,” says Tec Labs national sales manager Larry Burris. “The problem is that customers want to feel like they are individuals. Find ways to zero in on what the customer is saying and make him or her feel like the only voice in the universe.”
Watch out for language that may trigger anger as well. Mbiamnozie warns against talking about “policy,” as this is likely to frustrate customers. And CGI‘s Jessie Johnson encourages businesses to avoid saying the words “I understand.” Why? “That is a cardinal sin with an angry customer because in truth, you don’t understand,” says Johnson. “A customer may say they are calling their electric company to postpone a payment, but what they are not saying is that they have a sick child they are tending to.” It may be impossible to understand the entire situation — so be careful not to assume that you’ve got a handle on it.
Instead of using language that may upset clients, do your best to make your responses specific and helpful. PATLive.com‘s Walter Blake Knoblock tells businesses, “Don’t use generic “what is your problem” or “I can help you with that” speak. It sounds vague and like you’re disassociated from the problems.” Instead, he says, respond with language that shows them you’re listening and ready to help: “If someone says “I’m mad my account was closed,” say, “I’m sorry your account was closed, and we’re going to help get it back open.” It helps whoever is on the line understand that you’re listening to their problem and that they’re being treated as an individual, not just a number in the system.”
Responding to customers in a way that confirms what you’ve heard is also a great way to make sure that you effectively identify the problem at hand. After all, it’s difficult to solve a problem and calm an angry customer if you don’t truly have the full picture of what’s making them upset.
The simplest way to get to the root of the issue? “Clarify the problem by restating to the customer what he or she said,” says Michel. CM&A Consulting founder and CEO Ron “Cat” Mason also encourages businesses to repeat back a summary of the problem to the customer to show you’ve been listening and confirm that you understand what’s wrong.
7. Offer Empathy and an Explanation to Angry Customers
In addition to knowing that you’re listening and willing to hear their feedback, customers also want you to validate their problem and get on their side to find a solution. The best way to do this is to show empathy, letting them know that you can sympathize with their issue.
Mason’s approach is to explain to the customer that you understand they’re upset, but don’t make it personal. “Remember that the customer does not want to hear excuses,” he says. “If the problem was or wasn’t your fault, show that you’re trying to come up with a solution to satisfy your customer.”
“Agree with a client and assure them that there is nothing you want more than to resolve their situation exactly the way they want,” says companyfolders.com CEO Vladimir Gendelman. “Once people understand that you are on their side, they will naturally calm down in order to work through the situation. Then it will be easier to get them to agree to whatever you can offer them.”
Gendelman offers an example:
“I had an irate customer a few years ago who received a presentation folder and didn’t like the color of the foil, even though it was exactly what he chose. He tried blaming it on the image on the website. Then he said that he got that same foil elsewhere and it looked different, and so on. I patiently let him finish screaming and yelling, and then I calmly told him that I agreed with him, that it is not acceptable to receive a folder with a foil color that is different from what you expected. He calmed down and started listening. I went on to explain that different companies might produce a product with the same name but in a different color. Once he understood that, he apologized for yelling and we agreed to reprint his presentation folders at a discount with a different foil color. Believe it or not, he sent us numerous referrals after that incident and has placed several orders since then.”
Ofering an explanation like this works for CardCash.com‘s director of marketing Jeremy Levi as well. “Explain the situation,” he says. “When you show people how this can happen, they tend to relax, even if you caused them embarrassment or a monetary loss. When they are left in the dark, they feel as if you scammed them; when you explain the situation, they see that a mistake or that a problem occurred.”
8. Apologize and Commit to Making it Right
Customers want to be heard. They want to know you sympathize with their situation. They want to know that they’ll be taken care of. But what they really want is to hear “I’m sorry.” Offering an immediate apology, without any “I’m sorry, but…” modifiers tells your customer that you’re listening and that you’re just as disappointed in the situation as they are.
Malone encourages businesses to apologize as soon as you realize a customer is unhappy. “Tell the customer you’re sorry they are upset and let them know you want to make the situation right.” In his experience, you can’t win an argument with a customer who is trying to prove they are right. “In many business situations,” Malone says, “being right can be a wrong.”
Every apology should be followed up with a commitment to help. Knoblock encourages businesses to take ownership of the problem immediately. “Apologizing is good, but customers want to know that you’re going to fix what’s wrong,” he says. “By taking ownership of a problem, you put the customer at ease because they feel as if they aren’t doomed to float around the call center nebulous forever, being forwarded from agent to agent.”
It helps to involve customers in your resolution process, as it gives them a better feeling of control over the situation. Ask for their input and find out what they feel would be a reasonable solution to their problem. Michel reports that most people ask for less than businesses are usually willing to provide. Reassure them by agreeing to reasonable requests — and then offer a little more if possible, or present a helpful compromise.
“Ask the customer what would be an acceptable solution to the problem, and suggest options, if applicable, for them to choose from,” says Mason. “This way, they feel that they have a semblance of having some control.”
9. Follow Through and Follow Up
Once you’ve come to an agreement with a customer to resolve the situation, don’t leave them hanging: personally ensure that the situation is taken care of, and follow up with them to make sure you’ve been able to offer a satisfactory solution. Following up is a good way to understand how well your customer service approach is working, and it’s also a good opportunity to ask customers to share a positive review.
“Follow up in a timely manner, and make sure that the customer is satisfied with the results,” instructs Mason. “Get feedback from the customer on the how they felt the problem was handled.”
Burris also encourages businesses to offer a sincere thank you at this time. “Sincerely thank the customer for taking the time to express his or her opinion,” he says. “And let them know that their feedback will make a difference. Calming an angry customer really boils down to letting that person know that he or she, truly and sincerely, matters.”
10. Let it Go
Malone stresses that it’s essential you never let a customer leave angry. Let them walk out the door, whether it’s a real or digital one, and you’ll risk scathing reviews, negative word of mouth, and a poor reputation. Throughout the resolution process, and especially during your follow up, ask the customer for reassurance that you’ve satisfied their needs. Of course, you can’t win them all. If a customer still leaves mad, says Malone, you should take comfort knowing you did everything you could to try and make the situation right.
There will be times when no matter what you do the customer is not going to be satisfied,” relates Mason. “Just remember to always be professional from beginning to end. By being professional, the correct handling of a problem can turn into a positive experience for the customer.”