BrainTrust Query: When A Customer Freaks Out

Discussion
May 11, 2012

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from Retail Contrarian, the blog of the Dynamic Experiences Group.

While waiting for a flight the other day, I watched a very stressed passenger freak out on an airline representative. The passenger’s behavior was embarrassing and completely unacceptable, and of course I couldn’t help but watch to see how the agent handled it.

Overall, she did a great job, but at the same time I saw things she could have done better. Here are a few tips to remember when it does happen.

1. Remain calm. Okay, as calm as you can. It is easier said than done, but getting aggravated just doubles the drama and pretty much guarantees things will get worse. Don’t take it personally. If the situation hadn’t happened, you wouldn’t even be involved.

2. Don’t blame the customer. The goal is to calm the customer and address the issue. When we inadvertently blame a customer for what happened they become more defensive. The customer might have messed up or doesn’t want to follow the policies, but making it about them will only make matters worse.

3. Say you’re sorry. Saying you’re sorry doesn’t mean that you or anyone in your store have done anything wrong. You’re simply expressing regret that the customer is upset.

4. Keep the focus on finding a resolution. As obvious as that sounds, it doesn’t always happen. Extremely upset people have a tendency to keep going back to the issue and reiterating how much they’re upset.

5. Bring in another person if it gets too personal. This poor agent wasn’t going to do anything to escape the customer’s wrath. When she finally realized that, she had another agent step in to handle the situation. At that moment, the passenger completely stopped freaking out. It was like someone had unplugged her. There might just be times when an owner or manager needs to ask an assistant or associate to work with the customer. I know that some owners/managers may not agree with that approach, but I’ve personally used it twice to bring resolution for a very unhappy customer.

6. Last but not least, don’t accept unacceptable behavior. I thought the agent showed great restraint with the customer, but she was probably pretty close to calling the airport police. If the customer crosses a line into unacceptable behavior, then you owe it to your staff, the other customers and yourself to remove the customer. Of course, if we do the first five thing listed here, that probably won’t have to happen.

Discussion Questions: What are some obvious and less obvious ways for retailer staffs to handle extremely irate customers? Are there any suggestions you would add to those in the article? Have you seen situations handled in a particularly good or poor manner?

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21 Comments on "BrainTrust Query: When A Customer Freaks Out"


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Steve Montgomery
Guest
10 years 6 days ago

The article lists great steps to take when these type of situations occur. One of the more difficult may be bringing in another person, especially if it is a manager or a supervisor. I believe the key reason the employee might hesitate to do that (assuming one is immediately available) is not the fear that that person won’t handle the situation, but that they will and once the customer has departed, the manager will not use it as a training moment, but blame the situation on their employee. This would be indicative of a host of other issues but that’s another topic.

Alison Chaltas
Guest
Alison Chaltas
10 years 6 days ago

A team approach is critical, particular in mass market retail where most employees are part-time and turnover is high — and many are very young. Yes, we should raise the bar on in-store service, but keep our expectations achievable.

Retail associates should be trained in all of the above and recognized for handling cranky customers with diplomacy. Just as much, they should be honored for calling in store management to reinforce the message that the customer is always right, BUT civility is expected. An additional benefit is the second set of ears helps if things get messy and the store needs witnesses.

The important of anticipating situations and handling professional and swiftly continues to rise. Just play around on Facebook and you’ll see why stepping up your retail service game is so critical to reputation. One angry customer tells a hundred friends…and so on.

Mel Kleiman
Guest
10 years 6 days ago

This a great article simple and easy to follow and use.

Years ago I was taught a formula I still use today when having to deal with a customer who has a problem and having a track to run on has made my life easier.

You need to remember 3 words. Feel, Felt and Found.

1. I can understand why you feel that way.
2. If that happen to me I would have felt the same way. 3. Here is what I have found out we can do to deal with the problem.

Ian Percy
Guest
10 years 6 days ago

That kind of thing sure helps pass the time in an airport!

Most of the time it doesn’t get quite that extreme. I suggest a very simple formula for getting a person’s behavior back to something resembling normal. “Affirm and redirect.” That’s pretty easy to remember.

Recognizing that “scripts” sound stupid if you’re in the middle of an episode, it would go something like this: (Affirmation) “Your annoyance about having to make another trip back to the store to return this shirt sure is understandable.” (Redirect) “Come with me and we’ll find another or let me show you some amazing shirts that just came in that you might like even better.”

PS: This works for kids too.

David Livingston
Guest
10 years 6 days ago

People who become irate and behave badly are more likely to be mentally ill and there is no reasoning with them. They might be bipolar and chemically imbalanced. Often this has nothing to do with the customer being “unhappy” but more to do with the customer being mentally unstable. The article is right, don’t take it personally. Some people can have a more calming effect than others when it comes to mentally ill people. Before the situation arises, try to determine who is the best person to handle this.

Also keep in mind these situations are often staged. I’ve seen airlines plant people on a plane just to test the flight attendants. Good thing the guy came clean last time because I was about to punch him out.

Joan Treistman
Guest
10 years 6 days ago

I agree with Doug’s points. I would add that role playing is an excellent way to train staff. If they have the experience of being the customer as well as the employee, they will know how it feels on both sides of the fence.

Most recently I have noticed that staff is ill equipped to handle customers with complaints. This is most evident when they say “There is nothing I can do.” That statement tells me the company doesn’t care about their relationship with their customers and their business.

Tim Henderson
Guest
Tim Henderson
10 years 6 days ago

While these are all good tips, I tend to see very few really irate customers in physical stores. Definitely a lot of grumbling, snarky comments and nasty glances, but when shopping stores the service bar has seemingly been set so low that I think most store shoppers tend to expect much less.

Where I do hear more about irate customers is in the e-retail space, i.e., interactions with call reps. Fortunately, these 6 tips seem like they would work well for e-shopping also. My only addition here would be adding a Tip #7 (or building on Tips 4 and 5) to remind the store associate/call rep to quickly bring in someone more knowledgeable, if they don’t know how to resolve the issue. What unfortunately seems to happen sometimes is that the associate/rep remains adamant that there is only one option, even when other potential resolutions may be available from more experienced and knowledgeable staff.

David Zahn
Guest
10 years 6 days ago

On a related note (not to hijack this topic) — do we as the “bystander” bear any responsibility to intervene? Do we make it worse? Do we side with the “reasonable” business over the “unreasonable” customer? Or, are we traitors if we align with the business when we are in “consumer or shopper” mode? Does our silence breed consent with the complainer?

Doug points out that it was an amusement of a sort for him — and I have participated in that myself (observing others freak out) — but I have felt guilty afterward for not stepping up (or, is it none of my business and I should stay out of it?).

While I could not resolve the issue as the bystander — I have shared that loud voices and four letter words rarely lead to satisfactory outcomes and that while anger and emotion are understandable; that a calmer and more rational approach will likely lead to success more quickly.

Joel Rubinson
Guest
10 years 6 days ago

Yes, these are excellent. There was a topic like this a month or two ago where the recommendations weren’t nearly as good. The corollary is what can the passenger be empowered to do when the employee is the one that is out of control? I’ve seen that also.

Rick Grossman
Guest
Rick Grossman
10 years 6 days ago
The “counter” is a physical and emotional barrier in a customer confrontation. When a customer freaks out, in addition to remaining calm, the most important thing is to get out from behind the counter and get next to the customer. The dynamics change. You are no longer the person on the “other” side of the counter, but a person next to the customer. The counter acts as the us/them barrier. It makes you nameless. Once you get next to the customer, most will calm down. You may also say something like “let’s walk and figure this out.” Notice the use of “let’s” instead of “follow me.” You are putting yourself on the same side (now metaphorically in addition to the counter) as the customer. The walk changes the physical environment, YET, you are taking charge. You can take that walk to your office or out of other customers’ sight. Once out of sight, you can do things that you may not be willing to do in front of other customers. You may not wish to… Read more »
Ed Dennis
Guest
Ed Dennis
10 years 6 days ago
In almost every case I have observed customers only freak out when they are ambushed by a vendor. They are sold an item or a benefit and then the vendor changes the conditions or the cost with little or no explanation and furthermore offer no solution or compensation. The airlines are notorious for doing things like cancelling flights if load factors aren’t met (sure it was mechanical, but research indicated that mechanical cancellations occur in 93% of situations where load factors are low). Believe me, airlines deserve all the “freakout” they get. Unfortunately, the employees who receive the wrath aren’t the decision makers who deserve the wrath. But the employees are very well trained to handle the freak out. So the airlines expect this consumer reaction to their ambush tactics and spend tons of money to attempt to handle irate customers. Isn’t it sad? Wouldn’t it make much more sense just to be honest with customers and treat them right? This one philosophy change could reduce freak out by a large percentage. However, I have… Read more »
Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
10 years 6 days ago

I am reminded of a recent incident I had with an airline representative. I had a problem with my frequent flyer account that I did not understand. The more I explained my problem the more she and her “supervisor” kept going back to something that was never a concern to me. I remained calm because there was no reason to be upset. I finally asked to be transferred to a manager. The manager returned my call the next morning. He apologized for being late getting back to me. Then he proceeded to let me know he understood what I was asking. That was all it took — someone who understood. My issue was resolved in less than five minutes as opposed to 25 minutes of confusion and frustration the day before.

Roger Saunders
Guest
10 years 6 days ago

Wonderful guide to handling the unruly situation. People want to, and will be heard. Whether or not there is a lack of public or private decorum. When we all are in those “customer service facings,” often we can uncover some much larger personal issue that is gnawing away at the person on the other side of the counter.

A rule of thumb for the service provider — “Don’t take the attack as personal.”

Chances are, the freaked out customer later feels every bit as bad about his/her outbreak. Diffusing the face-to-face issues, while more emotional as they unravel, are usually more productive than the ones that are outlandish via the telephone. The later can be a challenge to decipher as to whether a customer has been satisfied.

Bernice Hurst
Guest
10 years 6 days ago

First – not everyone who freaks out when confronted with a problem and unhelpful sales staff are mentally ill. But they might become so if confronted with intransigence.

Second – an apology can be the worst possible approach if phrased “all I can do is apologise”.

Third – find out what the customer actually wants before volunteering a solution that may not be acceptable. It’s much easier to negotiate and resolve a situation if you know where the customer is heading as well as where he or she is coming from.

Jason Goldberg
Guest
10 years 6 days ago

In “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business,” Charles Duhigg did a pretty detailed case study about how Starbucks prepares their associates for that inevitable situation.

Starbucks’ customer experience is utterly dependent on associates, but they are forced to hire inexperienced staff that will inevitably face irate customers with misplaced aggregation. Starbucks does a lot of role-playing for those eventualities, so the associates form good habits before ever being confronted in a live situation. They call it the LATTE method: listen, acknowledge, take action, thank the customer, and explain why the problem occurred.

“Your apron is your shield.”

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
10 years 6 days ago

Fine suggestions, of course, though I would emphasize #6 more; and I don’t share Doug’s belief that “…if we do the first five things listed here, that probably won’t have to happen.” As David (rather melodramatically) noted, police-intervention-worthy episodes are in a class by themselves, not some natural outgrowth of the dissatisfaction of a “normal” — for want of a better word — customer.

Ralph Jacobson
Guest
10 years 6 days ago

Another age old challenge. I remember one incident more than 25 years ago, when a customer brought back the bones of a beef roast to me as the grocery store manager. She demanded her money back. I asked what was wrong. She said it was “inedible.” I asked if she had any of the meat left so I could ask my butcher to follow up on it with the shipper. She said, “No, we had to eat SOMETHING!” “OK. I am sorry Ma’am, let me get you your refund.” She then said, “Don’t MA’AM me!” “Sorry. MM… ooops, Miss…” She said, “I’m married, I am NOT a Miss”. UGH!!! Maybe it was me, however that one has stuck with me for years. Scarred for life. Sometime you have to just kill ’em with kindness.

Christopher P. Ramey
Guest
10 years 6 days ago

The suggestions to remain calm, withhold blaming the customer, apologizing, focusing on resolution and bringing in another person are fine; albeit a bit simplistic. Every situation is different. A good salesperson identifies the core issue, empathizes to resolve, and removes the customer from where the customer might embarrass themselves.

No one likes problems and a bit of civility goes a long way.

Roberto Orci
Guest
Roberto Orci
10 years 6 days ago

One of the most important things to do that was not mentioned here is to let the customer know that she was heard. Because the messenger does not rest till the message is received. Best way to do that is to say something like “I know you are upset because (insert her complaint almost word for word)” You are saying that you understand her issues, which makes a resolution more likely. You are starting off on the same page. Trying to “calm” a customer before point adds fuel to the fire. In other words she is thinking “how can you be so calm when I was wronged? You must not understand.” So she screams louder.

Bill Hanifin
Guest
10 years 6 days ago

There is a balancing act to be had between not accepting “unacceptable” behavior and taking an authoritative stance. I’ve seen airline employees using their authority card too often lately. Essentially if they lose their patience, a passenger can be pulled from a flight, added to a watch list, and be saddled with longer-term consequences. Remaining calm should be appended with “exercising restraint.”

Mike Osorio
Guest
Mike Osorio
10 years 6 days ago

A very well written article. The real challenge is giving front-line staff enough instruction and practice to prepare them to utilize these methods when challenges arise. The vast majority of customers are fine, but the staff’s perception (and fear) is that difficult customers are the norm.

We focus our training on teaching temperaments, how to connect with empathy statements, and practice, practice, practice. There is no silver bullet, but preparation seems to be the best method.

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