How to keep cool and gain an apology from an irrational customer

Many moons ago and in what feels like a galaxy far far away, part of my job was to advise customers if they were unsuccessful for a loan. It was heaps of fun. NOT! It wasn't unusual for those customers to be disappointed, some were even annoyed and then there were those that would lose their cool and share their feelings using language that would make Gordon Ramsey proud. 

One customer I fondly remember (let's call him Mr Angry Pants) ranted at me for for what felt like forever - but it was probably only 2 minutes. No matter how hard I tried to calm him down, his mission was to make sure I felt personally responsible for his situation. Eventually, as most (not all) angry customers do, he got to the end of his tirade and then demanded to know what I was going to do to fix the mess I had created.

What I wanted to say was; “I haven’t created the mess - you did! You obviously didn’t listen when I explained the criteria for approval, because if you did, this wouldn’t be a surprise”. I also wanted to point out that he was incredibly rude and that if he wants my help, he should hang up and ring back when hell freezes over. But I didn't.

Unhappy, upset, rude or angry customers behave irrationally because they are not in control of their emotions - their emotions are in control of them. In times of upset or stress, our communication is directly related to our emotional intelligence (EQ). 

To move a customer from a negative emotional state to a rational and calm state where they are respectful of you and ready to listen to you, requires you to Actively Listen.

Active Listening is a skill that very few people have had formal training in - if they had, there would be less need for complaints departments, less Facebook rants about bad service and less stressed customers and employees.

3 Steps to Active Listening

1. Remain calm - do not engage anger with anger

Unhappy or angry customers ache to be to be heard and some use a raised voice thinking this will help. If your natural response is to want to yell back or interrupt, take a deep breath and use your emotional intelligence to control that urge. Show the customer how you want them to communicate; speak clearly, stand confidently and use a respectful tone. 

2. Focus

Ignore all distractions (including your own self-talk). Focus your eyes and your ears on that person as you seek to understand their concerns and their state of mind; switch on empathy and switch off  judgement. 

3. Summarize

Paraphrase to the customer what they have said and include reference to the customer’s feelings ie: “I can see/hear you are .............about this and that is understandable. You are worried that this will affect your……………. and you are feeling............" Use a genuine and respectful tone of voice and insert words relevant to the customers emotions and situation. Do this before you offer solutions or suggestions as they will not be ready to listen to you until they are sure you have listened to them.

Unhappy customers don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. Active Listening is confirmation of care.

Back to Mr Angry Pants - The Active Listening steps confirmed to him I was professional and valued him as a customer but the best bit was that whilst he was listening to me repeat his concerns (Step 3), his rational brain kicked into gear and his emotional brain started to relax. 

Once Mr Angry Pants rational brain was back from leave, he relaxed his body language, apologised for his outburst and thanked me for being patient and calm. He was now ready to listen to my suggestions.

If you would like further help with how to communicate with unhappy customers and also how to recover after difficult customer interactions, have a look at my book “The A-Z of Service Excellence” You can download the first chapter for free. 

By Cate Schreck - Director of Lightbulb Training Solutions