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How to Deal with Unhappy Customers, and the Six Forbidden Phrases

By Bo Smith

How to Deal with Unhappy Customers, and the Six Forbidden Phrases

A chemical company’s sales manager reached out to me because his firm’s customer service team is getting ”ground down” with supply chain problems, logistics issues, inflationary price increases and labor shortages. Can you relate?

One of the business functions hardest hit by the pandemic was customer service. Interactions with customers have been frustrating, and much of that stress remains today, the sales manager said.

Their customer service department already works in a fast-paced environment. Now they’re caught in the middle even more between clients on the one hand, and sales, management and the plant on the other. They’re under stress both externally and internally. Established clients are frustrated because they are used to quick turnarounds, but products now are commonly on back order. Many clients now working from home have exacerbated the situation. With more time on their hands to place orders on-line, some expect even faster delivery. To top it off, with some chemicals in short supply, prices have skyrocketed. So customers have been known to get mad, taking it out on customer service.

“Patience is growing thin, and customers’ tempers are short,” the sales manager said. Customer service is the firm’s front line, “and they bear the brunt.”

Like this sales manager, many others are dealing with these kinds of issues, so having the ability to deal with unhappy customers becomes even more important. Not all unhappy customers react the same way. In our research, we’ve found that people tend to react in one of three different ways when they are unhappy about service they received. A customer service provider needs to be versatile in their dealings with these different ways.

The Irate Customer

The first way is with anger. They hurl insults, try to intimidate and are argumentative. It is really hard to be nice to someone who is calling you inept and stupid. When meeting with them in person, they will exhibit aggressive body language, lean forward, use exaggerated gestures and raise their voices. They will threaten, pound their fists, and blame everything on the poor service provider. To get them past this condition, it takes someone who is willing to just listen until they calm down and not make excuses or place blame. They want to be validated that their anger is justified.

The Insistent Customer

The next reaction is one of insistence. They are assertive, asking direct questions and demanding something be done right now. They will exhibit impatience, tapping their feet, drumming fingers on the counter. They will even suggest how you can fix their problem and will interrupt you when you try to get more information or try to explain how what they are suggesting just isn’t feasible. They want immediate action. This can be frustrating for both parties if the resolution is going to take some time to fix.

The Indecisive Customer

Then there is the person who is indecisive. They have a hard time expressing what they want. They will answer questions with “I don’t know...” and mumble what they want. They will exhibit fear at the confrontation, avoiding direct eye contact and fidgeting nervously. They will need time to feel comfortable enough to express their needs. This requires good questioning skills and lots of patience on the part of the service provider.

It’s hard for the beleaguered customer service department not to take it personally and express their frustration by inadvertently appearing abrupt or rude. That could cause the sales team to lose trust in the customer service department, fearing clients may go elsewhere. And not only will they go elsewhere, they will tell two people, who will tell two people and so on. Imagine the angst sales managers have when they have to deal with their salespeople’s anger about losing the customer they fought so hard to get.

That’s why dealing with unhappy customers properly is so important. The goal is to bring the customer to a level of satisfaction and not just indifference. The good news is, in spite of today’s challenges, there are things you can do to help your customer service providers. One way is to teach them the skills and tools that will help them manage displeased customers in a way that offers greater satisfaction to their customers. Sometimes all a customer is looking for is empathy. Once they feel that, they can calm down and move on to resolving any problems. Other times, they want action and nothing else will suffice. Sometimes they want reassurances that it is OK to be dissatisfied and that you will help them get to a satisfactory resolution.

Service providers can use self-management skills that will prepare them to handle the stresses of dealing with upset customers. It is hard not to take it personally when you’re being attacked. Having to deal with that kind of behavior on a daily basis takes a toll. Being able to take a moment to get centered helps to make the interaction more productive. Companies that empower their service providers with policies and authority to take care of problems more easily also make it less stressful. Customers leave the interaction with a greater level of satisfaction. In some cases, how a problem is dealt with has greater value in solidifying a relationship than not having a problem (not that you want to have problems!).

For better interactions with customers, Signature Service from Wilson Learning suggests you avoid these Six Forbidden Phrases:

1. “I don’t know”
Preferred Response: “That’s a good question, let me check and find out.”

  • Be willing to go the extra mile.

2. “I can’t do that.”
Preferred Response: “I can help you in this way.”

  • Offer callers a positive solution.
  • Don’t tell customers what you can’t do, tell them what you can do.

3. “You’ll have to...”
Preferred Response: “You’ll need to...”

  • Don’t be confrontational.
  • Take orders from customers, don’t give them.

4. “Just a second.”
Preferred Response: “This may take a couple of minutes, are you able to hold?”

  • Be truthful to the caller.
  • Give the caller a visual picture of how long you will be away from the phone or where you need to go to get the information.

5. “No” at the beginning of a sentence.

Preferred Response: “We don’t usually have that capability. Have you tried...?”

  • Think before you answer.
  • Offer a positive alternative.

6. “That’s not my job.”
Preferred Response: “What you’re asking is usually done by...”

  • Identify who, or what department has responsibility for the task being requested or needed.
  • Offer to contact the individual/department yourself to explain the need instead of transferring the caller.

My client at the chemical company surely will benefit from giving their service providers the skills, tools and authority they need to provide a resolution that moves their clients to satisfaction and helps to secure them as a customer.

Published: March 1, 2022

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Bo Smith

Performance Consultant

Before joining Strategic Enhancement Group, Bo had a successful 40-year career as a salesperson, sales manager and publisher, including six years with the National Newspaper Association. He currently handles sales and management for SEG’s Public Seminars. The son of a Marine and graduate of the University of Virginia with a B.A. in Government, he has been passionate about helping businesses thrive throughout his career. He is active in his church and a long-time volunteer in the community.

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