How Do You Calm Upset Customers?
by Rebecca L. Morgan, CSP, CMC

2400 words

How Do You Calm Upset Customers?

by Rebecca L. Morgan, CSP, CMC

The customer was upset. Now the customer is upset and angry. It may have been your personal presentation, body, language, voice tone, or choice of words that irritated the customer further. Once the customer is angry, for whatever reason, you need some techniques for calming him down.

What Do Upset Customers Want?
o To be taken seriously
The customer does not want a response like "You're kidding," "No way," or "You've got to be joking." He wants you to be professional and confident and to respond seriously to his concern.

o To be treated with respect
The upset person doesn't want condescension or arrogance. She wants you to treat her and her concern with respect. This may be difficult when the customer is clearly at fault but is trying to blame your organization.

o Immediate action
He doesn't want you to look into it next month, next week, or even tomorrow. He wants you to do something now. Show you are concerned by moving briskly, no matter how tired you are.

o Compensation/Restitution
He wants someone to pay for the damage done, and perhaps for his time, inconvenience, or pain.

o Someone to be reprimanded and/or punished
Assure the customer that corrective action will be taken, even if you aren't the supervisor. Discreetly report the incident to the supervisor so she can explain the problem to your co-worker and avoid similar problems in the future.

o To clear up the problem so it never happens again
Sometimes the customer just wants to know that some action has been put in motion, so that no one will have this problem again. Assure her you will report the problem to the person who can take care of it.

o To be listened to
What the upset customer wants first is to be listened to. It is difficult to listen carefully in a tense situation, especially if you have not developed effective listening habits.

Listening Habits
According to Dr. Lyman K. Steil, President of Communication Development, in St. Paul, Minnesota, most people have poor listening habits. Some of the habits Dr. Steil has discovered are:

o Criticizing the speaker and delivery
Focusing not on what the speaker is saying, but how she is saying it. Noticing a lisp, a stutter, an accent, a dialect, grammatical errors, "uns" and "uhs"-rather than the speaker's thoughts and feelings.

o Listening only for facts and not for feelings
A customer may not say he's angry, but his voice conveys it loudly and clearly. Listen carefully for emotions as well as facts.

o Not taking notes-or trying to write down everything
Not taking notes can cause problems later, when you try to remember what was said. On the other hand, trying to take down everything the customer says will make you lose all eye contact. Take a few brief notes of important details, like dates, times, amounts, and account numbers.

o Faking attention
Customers can quickly discern if you are paying attention to them or not. If she was mildly agitated before, you inattention can push her into anger. Pay close attention when you are helping her.

o Tolerating or creating distractions
Don't be distracted by other's conversations. Work at eliminating visual distractions by removing paper piles and pulling out a clean piece of paper to take notes. Listen fully to the customer and eliminate whatever distractions you can.

o Tuning out difficult or confusing information
When people are upset they don't always communicate clearly. If you habitually tune out what you don't immediately understand, practice pleasantly asking the person to slow down. It's easier to understand information one piece at a time. Take notes to help you put the pieces together.

o Letting emotional words block the message
The upset customer may call you names, curse, or say unpleasant things about you, your co-workers, and your organization. Avoid letting him "push your buttons" in this way, because when you're upset you've lost objectivity, and you need to be in control if you're going to find a solution to this situation.

o Interrupting or finishing the other person's sentences
This is an irritating habit and will only induce more anger in an already upset person.

o Biases and prejudices
We all have biases and prejudices, whether we like to admit it or not. You may not like the way someone dresses, her makeup, his hair style, or her stutter. It is hard to listen when you're distracted by these biases. Work on eliminating your prejudices so as to be a better listener.

o Not facing the upset person
Look her in the eye. Remember what your parents said when you were a kid: "Look at me when I'm talking to you." People see you are listening when you are looking at them.

o Not checking that you've understood
Repeat what you understand the customer to be saying. Start your sentences with "Let's see if I understand..." or "I think I understand..." (then paraphrase what she said). Don't say "What you're trying to say is..."-it implies the customer is an idiot and can't say what he means. Also avoid "What I hear you saying is..."-it's overused and trite.

More Words to Watch
Some words can be annoying and some words are more neutral-Fight Starters and Communications Helpers. Here are some words to avoid-because they'll enrage someone who's already upset-and alternatives that will help to calm the person down.

o Use verbal cushions-show empathy
Verbal cushions let the customer know that you can understand why she would be upset. You're not saying you know exactly how she feels, because you can't know that.

You're also acknowledging his right to feel that way. You're not pooh-poohing his feelings.

Fight Starter: Communication Helper:

You're crazy. I can appreciate what you're saying.

I know how you feel. I can understand how you'd feel way.

Boy, you're sure mad. I can see how you'd be upset.

I don't know why you're I would be upset too.
so upset. I'm sorry for your inconvenience.

o Use the 3 F's: Feel, Felt, Found
The 3 F's are a skeleton on which to hang the rest of your response. This technique acknowledges the customer's feelings and offers an explanation in a way she can listen to:
"I understand how you could feel that way.
Others have felt that way too.
And then they found, after an explanation, that this policy protected them, so it made sense."

o Get Clarification
Paraphrase what he is saying. Take the blame if there is a miscommunication. Make sure you understand the concern before you try to solve it.

Fight Starter: Communication Helper:

You're way off base. What it sounds like you're saying is...

You aren't making any Maybe I misunderstood...

That's definitely wrong. Let me see if I've got this straight...

Did you really say... Here's what I understood you to say...

o Form a team
Let her know her patronage is important. When you form a team it is the two of you together working on a solution, rather than her vs. you.
Fight Starter: Communication Helper:
We can't do that. I want to help find a solution.
You sure have a problem. Let's see what we can work out

Additional Pointers
o Take Time Out
If you find yourself becoming upset, wanting to cry, or to yell at the customer, allow yourself a little time away from the situation. This will give you a chance to calm down before you return to the fray.

When you know you're getting emotional, excuse yourself politely:
"Excuse me a moment while I check the policy on this."
"I'd like to get my supervisor's opinion on this."
"I need to verify some information in the file."
"I need to discuss how we can best solve this. I'll be just a moment."
Always excuse yourself in a way that shows your interest in serving the customer.

o Don't Cry
Upset customers can say things that are hurtful, often without realizing that you may take their comments personally. Whatever you do, don't cry in front of the customer. If your emotions take over, you cannot be as professional as you need to be.

If you find yourself beginning to cry, excuse yourself, and go to an empty office, the rest room, or a back room so you can compose yourself undisturbed. If you don't feel you can bear talking with the customer, ask one of your colleagues or your boss to take over.

o Get the Customer's Attention
If the customer is ranting and not giving you a chance to explain or ask questions, use his or her name at the beginning of the sentence. Most people listen when they hear their name.

o Handle the Obstinate Customer
If you are having trouble reaching an agreement, make comments that direct the customer toward finding a solution.
"What would you like me to do now?"
"What do you think is a fair way to settle this?"
"What would make you happy?"
Often, what she will ask for is less than you might have offered. If the customer's proposal is within your guidelines, accept it. If not, make a counterproposal.

If you can't reach an agreement, it's time to call in your boss. Unless you are a manager, it is not your place to invite a customer to take her business elsewhere.

o Use Polite Repetition
If the customer keeps insisting on something that's unreasonable or impossible, tell them what you can do (not what you can't do). Keep repeating it, without becoming hostile or loud, until you're finally heard. For example, if the customer insists on getting a widget, and you have none in stock, the conversation might go like this:
"I want my widget today."
"I'm sorry, we will have more widgets in on Tuesday."
"But I need it today."
"I'm sorry, we don't have any in stock."
"I want it today."
"I'll be glad to get one to you on Tuesday."
Eventually, you may have to ask him to leave. If he won't, then call in the security guards or the police.

o A Special Note on Dealing With Violence
There may be occasions when an enraged customer threatens you, or becomes violent. Rely on your gut feelings if it seems things are getting out of hand. Learn to look for potentially violent behavior by reading the nonverbal communication of the customer-clenched fists, tight lips, agitated tone of voice, tense body posture, flared nostrils, red face, and wide-open eyes. Look for evidence of drugs or alcohol.

If the customer becomes unruly, or threatens violence, seek assistance. You do not have to put up with threats.

Never try to reason with a drunk or a drug user. Even if there's no sign of drugs, if the person appears potentially violent, don't feel stupid about calling the police. There are plenty of stories about employees begin punched by upset customers. It's better to risk feeling stupid than to end up in the hospital.

Never accuse a customer of being drunk or on drugs. This can put you and your company in a liable situation. Find another way to assist the customer out of your establishment.

Calming Customers Over The Phone
It is easier for a customer to be abusive on the phone because you are a faceless representation of the organization. The guidelines we've discussed throughout this article generally apply when calming customers on the phone. There are a few areas you'll need to modify, however.

Because there is no face-to-face contact, communicating over the phone presents special challenges. You only have your voice tone (e.g., inflection, pitch, volume) and word choice to communicate your caring to the customer. One expert estimated that over the phone the listener understands your message 80 percent from your voice and 20 percent from your words.

You can see how critical it is that your voice tone be pleasant, concerned, patient, informed, and caring. When a customer cannot see your concerned face, she needs to hear concern in your voice. It also helps to deepen your telephone voice. Lower voices are perceived as being more mature, confident, and in control.

There are several ways to see if you have a good voice tone. One way would be to get feedback from your boss or a co-worker. It must be someone who will be honest with you, yet offer feedback caringly, or you could record yourself. Even though your voice on tape sounds different to you than you think it should, this is an excellent way to hear how others hear you.

You could still be annoying customers, even if your voice is pleasant. You may have irritating habits, such as gum chewing, eating, covering the receiver to talk to co-workers (rather than putting the phone on hold or mute), or leaving the customer on hold too long.

If you need to leave the line during a call, ask the customer if she'd rather be called back or put on hold. If she prefers to be called back, tell her you'll call her by a certain time, and ask if that's acceptable. Call back at the agreed time, even if you've nothing to report except that you're still working on it.

If he prefers to be kept on hold, explain that it may be several minutes before you'll have the information. Give him your name in case he decides to hang up and needs to call again. And ask for his number in case you get disconnected.

This kind of service shows the customer that she really matters, and that your organization is run by thoughtful, helpful people, not cold computers.

Step-By-Step Guidelines
When you're dealing with an upset customer:
Step 1: Verbally cushion the customer's concerns.
Step 2: Use the 3 F's.
Step 3: Apologize for the situation.
Step 4: State that you want to help.
Step 5: Probe for more information.
Step 6: Repeat their concern to make sure you've understood.
Step 7: Show that you value their patronage.
Step 8: Explain options or ask what they'd like to have happen.
Step 9: Summarize actions to be taken-yours and theirs.
Step 10: End pleasantly.
o Listen.
o Face the customer.
o Look him/her in the eye.
o Adopt a concerned body posture, voice tone, and facial expression.
o Avoid Fight Starters.
o Avoid a condescending or impatient tone.
o Have and show empathy.
o Eliminate distractions.
o Practice patience.

o Use a pleasant tone of voice.
o Don't take things personally.

© 1989 Morgan Seminar Group

Rebecca L. Morgan, CSP, is a dynamic speaker and seminarist. This is an excerpt from her book, Calming Upset Customers. Additionally, she's authored the books TurboTime: Maximizing Your Results Through Technology, Life's Lessons: Insights and Information for a Richer Life, and Professional Selling. For information on her speaking services, books, and tapes contact her at 1440 Newport Ave., San Jose, CA 95125, 408/998-7977, 800/247-9662, fax: 408/998-1742,, Please contact Rebecca for permission to reprint or repost this item.

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