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In the Trenches

You are a manager at your company. An irate customer has called your office, demanding to speak to someone in charge. Unable to placate the customer, your front-line staff member forwards the call to YOU. Upon answering the call, you are blindsided by a torrent of expletives, accusations and threats. What do you do to turn this irate customer into a calm, rational one?

Answer: Wait 23 minutes.

OK, so it is a little more complicated than that. But not much more.

Why Customers Get Angry

Consider why a customer might be angry with your company:

  • Your company mis-entered or mis-processed the customer’s order.
  • The order has not been completed and is past due.
  • The product received is damaged.

Why a Customer Contact Gets Irate

Consider why a particular contact might be irrationally furious with your company:

Your customer contact, typically a buyer, was in a good mood five minutes ago. Then someone at their company came into their work space, ranting about the order to your company that is in error or is past due. The co-worker accuses your customer contact of incompetence. Threats are made. Your customer contact is embarrassed and insulted. Someone must pay for this shameful treatment by a co-worker. Immediately after being reprimanded, your customer contact calls your company, seeking vengeance.

How to Turn an Irate Customer into a Calmer One

When taking a call from an irate customer contact, follow these steps:

  1. At the start of the conversation, hear the customer out. Be a good listener. Stay calm. Get specifics, including PO# and what has happened up to this moment. Apologize to the customer. Profusely. Be empathetic. But do not be defensive. (How can you defend what you do not yet know about?)
  2. Whether or not you are already familiar with the cause of the crisis, commit to investigating immediately.
  3. While still on the phone with the customer contact, record the exact time.
  4. Commit to a follow-up phone call within thirty minutes. In this follow-up phone call, you will update the customer contact on what you have learned since this current phone call, and you might propose one or more resolutions. (“Thirty minutes” sounds a lot more precise and reassuring than “half an hour”.) Get from the customer a phone number that you should call to be able to get to him/her directly.
  5. Thank the customer contact for their patience, restate your intended follow-up action (a follow-up phone call in less than thirty minutes), and then hang up.
  6. Wait 23 minutes. (Or thereabouts.)
  7. While you are waiting, investigate the root cause of the customer contact’s ire. Surely someone in your company knows the details, and surely the irate customer contact talked to one of them before they got through to you.
  8. Call the customer back within thirty minutes, even if you do not have a complete resolution to offer. By this time, the customer contact will have calmed down, having been distracted by other things.

Regaining Trust

Responding within the committed time window is crucial to getting the customer contact to regain confidence in your company. Calling back within twenty-five minutes is even better. Doing so is a first step toward over-delivering on your goal of resolving whatever caused your customer to be so angry. In your first follow-up phone call, either offer a resolution or commit to an additional follow-up within a specified time frame. (“I will call you back within 90 minutes with an additional update.”) Keep having update phone calls within committed time windows until you have resolved the original issue to the customer’s satisfaction.

More Tips

Here are few other things that I have learned about defusing a customer crisis situation:

  • It is not so important that you offer an acceptable resolution within thirty minutes of your first conversation with the irate customer. What is more important is that you call back within thirty minutes. With this simple act, you earn some trust with the customer. And a personal bond. With each subsequent conversation, you build on this trust and bond.
  • How badly you messed up for a customer does not have as much of a long-term impact on the customer’s opinion of your company as how quickly and how effectively you resolved the mess-up to the customer’s satisfaction. Everyone makes mistakes. Not everyone solves them quickly or completely.
  • The final resolution to the customer crisis should be communicated and/or be executed by a front-line employee, not solely by you, a manager. The purpose of involving a front-line staff member is to demonstrate that employee’s authority and ability to resolve customer issues without your direct involvement. This step is important, unless you want this customer to call you first on every issue in the future.
  • Resolving the crisis to the customer’s satisfaction only gets you to “even”. That is not enough. Take one step further. Do something above and beyond what the customer is expecting. If you are a front-line employee, this “something extra” should be communicated by you. (“Mr. Customer, I would like to do this other thing, as a gesture of appreciation for you putting up with us.”) If you are a middle- or top-level manager, this “something extra” should be communicated by someone beneath you, and that employee should claim credit for proposing this gesture to your company’s management (you?). By handling it this way, the customer will believe that the front-line employee is empowered to help the customer, and that you do not need to be involved in every negative incident.

How does your company deal with irate, irrational customers? Let me know. I always enjoy stories from the “trenches” of a wholesale-distributor operation.

After a successful career in sales and operations management in the wholesale-distribution industry, Mark Tomalonis is now principal of WarehouseTWO, LLC. He amuses himself by writing articles such as this one, to help wholesaler-distributors execute their operations better. Mark’s articles and tips are published in WarehouseTWO’s monthly e-newsletters. Click here to subscribe.

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