Difficult Customers

Wed, Dec 10, 2008


Perhaps that can be answered by first answering “is the customer wrong, at times?” Some customers want to pay far below the seller’s price or disagree with terms of the sale. Some customers ask the supplier to do something unethical or worse abuse their employees. In such cases, can they be “right?”

Business literature is full of stories where creative companies ignored market research in developing a new product. Perhaps the most famous example is Sony’s development of the Walkman. Customers clearly told the market researchers they did not need or want a small radio to listen to while walking around. Akio Morita decided the customers were wrong and persisted with his idea of music available everywhere. [Is the Customer Always Right?] [1]

Customers can be wrong just like anyone else. But does serving a customer require a need for distinguishing whether the customer is right or wrong? Customers are entitled to his or her point of view and that serving their needs is essentially customer service.

Dealing with Difficult Customers

It is easy to work with people you like, and it is even easier to work with people who like you. There are times when you have to face difficult customers. Who are difficult customers? Difficult customers could be constant complainers, picky people, know-it-alls, egocentrics, fault-finders, etc. The most difficult one is the angry customer. This is someone who feels that he or she has been wronged, and so complains, and is angry about something you or your company did.

APE-AS for handling difficult customers

A for active listening

P for paraphrasing
E for empathizing
A for apologizing
S for suggesting a solution

Let’s see each in detail.

A for active listening

Listen to the angry customers actively. Do NOT argue with the customer. First, be quiet, but not too quiet! If you are on the phone, try comforting the customer. This assures the angry person that you are paying attention. It is the verbal equivalent of looking someone in the eye. Let the person vent. They probably planned exactly what they were going to say, so don’t interrupt!

Also, write down each of the key points this person is bringing to your attention. This will help you paraphrase and you can refer to it later when suggesting a solution.

P for paraphrase

Refer to your notes and paraphrase to make sure you understand the problem, ‘if I understand you correctly, here’s what the problem is’¦’ Get the customer’s OK on your understanding of it.

E for Empathize

When someone is angry, it is impossible for logic to prevail. If you don’t acknowledge their emotions, they tend to stay stuck in their feelings and have a hard time using their analytical abilities. The best way to get someone out of their emotions is to acknowledge their emotions with empathy.

Empathy is different from sympathy. Sympathy is when you say, ‘poor you, let me make it all better’, whereas empathy is imagining what it might feel like to experience what the other person is going through ‘“ it’s walking a mile in their shoes. By empathizing, you acknowledge the emotion of the situation. If not, you have missed the opportunity to connect with this person on a personnel level, which is the only way to dispel anger. Use words such as ‘if that happened to me, I would be frustrated, too’ or ‘I can see why you are irritated by that.’
A for apologize

Apologize on behalf of the company for the inconvenience experienced by the customer. You need not take a blame for what someone else but you must take ownership of the situation. Never, ever point a finger at another part of your company.

Quickly take ownership of the problem by apologizing, for example ‘I am sorry you feel frustrated’ or ‘I am sorry this happened.”

S for suggest a solution

You have listened, you have paraphrased, you didn’t argue, you acknowledged their emotion, and apologized for the inconvenience ‘“ now what do you do? Outline a plan of action for the customer. ‘Here’s what I would like to do to fix this problem’¦’ The key here is the ‘I’. Take ownership of the problem, even if it was the shipping department’s problem. The customer only knows you as one company, and doesn’t know or care about the other department’s mistakes.

Plus one

This step is what separates the good from the great. The great companies will not only do all the above steps but do something extra. For example, sending a hand written thank you note to the customer for his or her understanding and cooperation in sorting out the problem.


Is the customer always right? [2]

Is the customer always right? [3]

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