Learn How to Handle Irate Customers

By John TschohlJohn Tschohl

Irate customers. No matter how good you are at what you do, what business you are in, or where it is located, you will at some point find yourself facing an irate customer. Maybe a product was flawed, a delivery was late, or a charge was inaccurate. How you deal with that customer not only will determine how he or she feels about your organization, but how you feel about yourself.

When you are able to turn an irate customer into a satisfied customer, you will gain confidence in your ability to diffuse a volatile situation and to evoke a positive outcome. You also will gain the respect of your coworkers, and you will get the attention of your supervisors. And, who knows, you might even get promoted.

When most people come in contact with an irate customer, their first instinct is to turn and run. Dealing with a customer who has a problem and is upset about it, can be more than a little daunting. With the proper perspective, however, you will see that the customer’s complain is actually an opportunity for you and your organization to put your best foot forward.

Customers who have complaints are a blessing in disguise. They are letting you know where you and your organization have flaws—and providing you with the opportunity to correct them. When you do, you will realize increased customer loyalty, revenues, and profits. It’s a win/win situation.

You should be more concerned with the customers who don’t complain than with those who do. In a recent study of retail banks in the United Kingdom, conduct by J.D. Power and Associates, results showed that 25 percent of customers who have experienced a problem in the past 12 months say they definitely or probably will switch institutions in the next year. And 55 percent of customers who have had a problem or complaint were disappointed with the resolution process.

That study also found that, while incentives are important in attracting new customers, customer service is key to retaining those customers. Almost 40 percent of customers left their banks because of a poor service experience, and an additional 43 percent cited poor service as a top reason for intending to leave their banks.

Customer service is key to success of any business. And dealing with irate customers and solving their problems is a critical element of that service. When dealing with an irate customer, take these steps: 

  • Listen carefully and with interest to what the customer is telling you.

  • Apologize without laying blame, regardless of who is at fault.

  • Put yourself in the customer’s place, and respond in a way that shows you care about his or her concerns. Use phrases such as, “I understand that must be upsetting,” or “I don’t blame you for being upset; I would feel the same way.”

  • Ask pertinent questions in a caring, concerned manner, and actively listen to the answers.

  • Suggest one or more alternatives that would address the customer’s concerns.

  • Solve the problem quickly and efficiently, or find someone who can.

  • Using these steps will quickly calm most unhappy or angry customers and allow you to address and solve their problems. Patience and tact are key.

It’s important that, even if a customer is making outrageous statements and, in essence, throwing a fit, that you remain calm. Do not take those statements personally. Apologize, take the blame, and empathize with the customer, then solve the problem.

Just as important as what you should do, there are these things you should not do:

  • Don’t directly challenge someone who has a complaint and is angry. Even if that customer is wrong,    don’t attempt to prove it. Your goal is to solve the problem, not to enter into a debate on the merits of the complaint.

  • Don’t let the conversation wander or get off the topic. Solve the crisis at hand without looking for, and   finding, additional problems.

  • Don’t participate in fault finding. Shifting blame doesn’t help anyone.

  • Don’t let your personal feelings get in the way. Stay cool and use courtesy and tact to diffuse the situation.

When you successfully handle irate customers and their complaints, you will be rewarded with a satisfied customer—and a customer who will be loyal to you and your organization. That loyalty will have a positive impact on your organization’s bottom line—and make you look like a hero.

John Tschohl, internationally recognized service strategist, is founder and president of the Service Quality Institute in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Described by USA Today, Time, and Entrepreneur as a “customer service guru,” he has written several books on customer service and has developed more than 26 customer-service training programs that have been distributed throughout the world. John’s monthly strategic newsletter is available online.