Evan Goodman

How to Engage with a Disgruntled Customer

One of the common challenges that all businesses must navigate is how to deal with irate or upset customers. It is, after all, a mantra that businesses should always try and please the customer. (Whether this is necessary true is an article for another day.) The scenario where unhappy customers come ‘barging in at the door and unleashing their wrath’ because of a service or product delivery issue is very real to most business owners. So how do you manage to ‘keep your cool’ and ensure you keep the customer on side? Here are a few suggestions: 

Reset your mindset

No business wants a disgruntled customer; simply put, it is bad for business. Besides, there is a lot to learn from the experience so that you can improve your service or product. Hence, the first step when you encounter an irate customer is to switch your mindset to ‘customer first’. This will enable you to put a lid on your emotions, even if it is apparent that the making of the fault is not that of your company’s service or product. When it is your or the business’s genuine intention to put the customer first, and you follow through on this truism, it will assist you to stay calm and not get caught up in the emotion of the customer. This change in mindset is also enough of a gentle reminder to follow through on the following suggestions.

Pay attention

In any social conversation, or in this case – a likely altercation, nothing is as off-putting as a disinterested listener. It is very important to apply your listening skills and respond verbally when required to. The customer has come to voice their concerns or grievances and wants to be heard. In this scenario, listening is a positive gesture you absolutely need to perform. You could initiate the conversation with simple neutral statements like; ‘So how can I be of help?’, ‘Please tell me everything you think is relevant’, ‘Coming in to talk to us was the right thing to do’.

You are in charge of asking the customer questions, so ask the ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions, but also ask the ‘what’ and ‘when’ questions, as in ‘what happened’ and ‘when did it happen’. It would also help restate what they said. This not only demonstrates that you are paying attention but also allows the customer to correct or add something to their complaint. Most likely, the customer will also have told you what they expect from you to remedy the situation. Regardless, at this stage you need to ensure you fully understand what their concerns are.

Discuss the problem together

This will take you a step closer to solving the problem. You are in the first phase which is about trying to understand the customers concerns. It is all about you asking questions and listening.  When the matter is complicated, keep on asking probing question and do not attempt to pacify the customer by throwing out solutions after only hearing part of their answer. Break their concern into small parts and tackle them individually before you move onto the next part of the issue.

At some point during this process the customer will have (should have) come to realise that you are concerned by their issue and that you are a willing listener. It also puts you and your customer on the ‘same page’ as to all the issues and concerns they have expressed and enables you to move to the second phase – resolving the matter.

Show some empathy

The best part about resolving the issue is when you ‘win back’ your customer. There is tremendous satisfaction in knowing you both worked together to overcome what is in most cases a misunderstanding, an unintended wrong product or service selection, or someone having made the wrong assumption.

What is likely to go a long way in achieving this positive outcome, is when you show the customer that you understand their dilemma and the distress (if present) it is causing them. Empathy needs to be genuine and a real attempt to ‘put yourself in their shoes’. It can take various forms, e.g. using emotive words that demonstrate an understanding of the situation. Letting your body language reflect the words you are saying is another. More generally, your overall demeaner will speak for itself. It is possible to be professional and friendly at the same time without sounding as if you are reading from the company manual.

Show the way forward

In the context of the current scenario, there is a solution to every problem. From your discussion with the customer you now know what would satisfy them. It is time to offer your solutions and ask them what they think of them. It they dismiss your ideas, it is possible you did not truly understand the issue that has caused them to be so disgruntled, and that your solutions do not go far enough.

It is at this point you should ask them how they believe the matter can be resolved. There is an expectation that by this stage, and by having been through the question and listening process, you and your customer have come to understand each other’s issues much clearer. Your solutions, accepted or not, to try and resolve the issue will also have set the tone as to how far and by what means you are able and willing to resolve the matter.

If the customer has a solution that is not at odds with any of yours, and you have asked clarifying questions before agreeing to anything, the matter should be resolved. However, do not succumb to your customer’s demands, and abscond from your ‘customer first’ mindset, because you want to get rid of the matter. 

 Make amends

Lastly, once there has been agreement that the matter can and will be resolved, you should go through the processes that will take place to make it happen. This includes: exchanging contacts and details with your customers (as an assurance and promise to attend to their matter as soon as possible), explain how the process will take place (take care of their expectations), insure that they know if a third party needs to be involved and what this entails etc. The customer needs to understand that besides taking care of their issue, there is also a need for you to have some time, so you can get to the bottom of the problem.

Not all customers want to know if there were positive outcomes for other customers, or better procedures that were instituted, because of their complaint so it is best to ask if they want to be informed of these outcomes.

After the problem has been completely resolved (and depending on the seriousness of the issue) and after some time has elapsed, you should follow up with the customer to ascertain as to how the overall experience was managed by you and your company.

It is likely that every business at some point experiences disgruntled customers, but what matters most is how you and your businesses react to the situation. Maintaining your calm and staying positive throughout the conflict period should be a high priority. These techniques will assist you to act in an instructive, rather than obstructive manner, simultaneously allowing your company to enhance its offerings and maintaining customer retention.


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