A Better Way to Talk With Unhappy Customers

by Bill Lampton, Ph.D.

Rather than reacting defensively when customersd complain (a natural response,) try this approach to defuse angry customers.

No matter how much customer care training we conduct, some customers will dislike our service. They may become so irate that they confront us face-to-face, venting their frustrations--at times rather loudly and accusingly:

"You double-charged me this month, and you can be sure I’m looking for another company that will be honest in its billing."

"Your service man said he would show up at noon, so I went home on my lunch hour. He didn’t get there until 2:00, and I had to take the rest of the day off. Seems to me you owe me for the income I lost because of that."

"Your telephone service is terrible. Yesterday somebody put me on hold and forgot about me. Well, I’m ready to forget about your company, and find somebody who will be courteous and efficient when I call."

"You know that my wife and I have eaten here every Friday night for a year. We won’t be back though. Our waitress last week talked to her customers so long that she got way behind on delivering orders. We don't like having our time wasted."

How are we likely to respond? By habit, we become defensive. We talk plenty. We contradict them, and tension rises. Far from gaining satisfaction, the disgruntled buyers become more upset.

 



However, there's a better way to deal with complaining clients. I heard about "noncommittal agreement" when I spoke at the Virginia Pest Management Association's State Technical Meeting. Here’s what Brian Delaney, the association’s president, told me in a phone conversation several weeks before the event.

Our inclination, he said, is to "make a decision before the customer gets to give the whole story." We "jump to a conclusion" too quickly.

Through experience, Brian has discovered a more productive approach. He listens, without making judgmental comments like "that's where you're wrong" or "our agreement doesn't include that service." In a quiet voice, he just agrees: "I see. . .Hmmmm. . .Tell me more."

Brian reports that the results are often amazing. Because he doesn’t challenge the customer, the customer becomes friendlier as the story unfolds. In fact, Brian says that "sometimes the customer even apologizes for taking up so much of my time, and for getting upset over something so trivial." Certainly that doesn't happen in every case, yet the "noncommittal agreement" nearly always defuses a tense situation.

Throughout the customer conversation, Brian prompts the customer with questions. This underscores Brian's willingness to hear what the customer feels and thinks.

When I gave my keynote speech on customer care, I called on Brian to share his noncommittal agreement concept with the audience. After he described his customer conversation style, I linked his statement with Stephen Covey's five levels of listening, and noted that empathic listening, Covey's highest level--as explained in chapter five of Covey's bestselling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People -- mirrored Brian's noncommittal agreement.

So the next time you face a dissatisfied customer, try Brian's method. Both you and the customer will experience an unusual calmness. Instead of escalating into a verbal brawl, your dialogue will resolve the issue faster. As Stephen Covey advised, "Seek first to understand, and then to be understood."

Speaking of Stephen Covey, use this link to access my four minute video--"What's Your Listening Level?"--that discusses Covey's five levels of listening: http://tinyurl.com/2ran6d 

Bill Lampton, Ph.D., Communication Consultant, Speech Coach, and Video Trainer, "Helping You Finish in First Place." Visit his Web site, Championship Communication. Call Dr. Lampton: 678-316-4300

 
  

 
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