The Angry Customer


by Roy Atkinson
October 27, 2016

On Tuesday at 11:00 AM, right in the middle of printing a multimillion-dollar grant application, the scientist’s computer sputtered and went black. After a few moments of sheer terror, she was able to get the machine rebooted. She quickly discovered, however, that the document had become corrupted and would not open. She grabbed the phone and dialed the service desk.

Meanwhile, the CIO had called an all-hands meeting for IT in order to describe some major changes. When he was asked what to do about the service desk for the duration of the meeting, he said, “Send calls to voicemail.” The entire IT department walked up to the administration building for the meeting.

The scientist heard the outgoing voicemail message from the service desk and left a very brief message of her own, couched in very angry terms. She stormed out of the building, headed for the IT offices. When she arrived, the IT building was deserted. No staff, no CIO, no administrative assistant. Her grant application was due in four hours. Her next stop was the office of the CEO.

Sooner or later, it happens, even in the best of organizations. Something goes wrong, a task is missed, the support center is unable to assist quickly enough, or someone just winds up in the middle of a very bad day. Anyone in a customer-facing position has come to grips with being contacted by an angry customer.

Minimize Opportunities for Anger

Many things can make customers angry. But there are some ways to fire the customer up to the boiling point even before they get to ask for assistance:

  • Have a very long call queue
  • Have a system that can drop customer calls during warm transfers
  • Leave customers on hold, but have a recording tell them how important their call is—over and over—while they wait
  • Be completely unavailable, even temporarily, during posted work hours

After a customer does make a connection, there are still ample opportunities to make a very bad impression:

  • Ask multiple times for customer information such as name, phone number, department, and the type of issue they are experiencing
  • Put them on hold for minutes at a time without checking back in to update them
  • Extended silence on the part of the analyst

Don’t Feed the Anger

Sometimes, it is necessary to let a customer vent their anger for a few minutes before you are able to begin normalizing the conversation so that you can make a service recovery. In every case, raising your voice to an angry customer has the same effect as pouring gasoline on a fire. If you change your tone:

  • Lower your voice
  • Apologize in general terms (“I’m sorry that happened.”)
  • Speak confidently, clearly, and quietly
  • React with an appropriate sense of urgency (No “hair on fire” reaction)
Let a customer vent their anger for a few minutes.
Tweet: Let a customer vent their anger for a few minutes. @HDI_Analyst @ThinkHDI

Remember the sage advice of Steven R. Covey’s Habit #5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

That advice is echoed in the Knowledge-Centered Support’s structured problem solving methodology: Seek to understand before we seek to solve.

Also realize that there are two components to every support call:

  1. The technical issue that has caused an interruption or failure, or has prompted a question
  2. The emotional reaction of the customer to that issue, which can be one of many, including
    • “I messed up again and broke something” (Needs reassurance)
    • “Can’t you people get anything to work right?!” (Is angry)
    • “You’re going to laugh when you hear this one!”(Is bemused)

Once you have connected with the customer and acknowledged the emotional side of the issue—which you cannot resolve—you can proceed to solving the problem and getting the customer back on track.

Pay Attention and Remove the Pain Points

In the case of a very angry customer like the scientist in the opening story, there will be escalation to management. Blocking or impeding that escalation will only make matters worse. It is also imperative that you follow through on any commitments you make to research the issue, find a resolution, and give timely updates. If you say you’ll call back with an update in fifteen minutes, call back in twelve minutes, even if just to say, “Here’s what we’ve done so far….”

One further note: Customers who become abusive—by hurling profanity or epithets at staff, for example—should not be tolerated. Even if they are senior in the organization, they need to be reported to their supervisors and/or HR. You get the behavior you tolerate, so don’t tolerate abuse. The reverse is also true: Never allow anyone on the staff to be abusive to a customer, under any circumstances.

Customers are going to become angry from time to time. If you pay attention to their overall customer experience and remove the pain points from their path to assistance, you can minimize these occurrences and provide good, proactive support.


Roy AtkinsonRoy Atkinson is HDI's senior writer/analyst, acting as in-house subject matter expert and chief writer for SupportWorld articles and white papers. In addition to being a member of the HDI International Certification Standards Committee and the HDI Desktop Support Advisory Board, Roy is a popular speaker at HDI conferences and is well known to HDI local chapter audiences. His background is in both service desk and desktop support as well as small-business consulting. Roy is highly rated on social media, especially on the topics of IT service management and customer service. He is a cohost of the very popular #custserv (customer service) chat on Twitter, which celebrated its fifth anniversary on December 9, 2014. He holds a master’s certificate in advanced management strategy from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business, and he is a certified HDI Support Center Manager. Follow him on Twitter @HDI_Analyst and @RoyAtkinson.


Tag(s): customer service, customer experience, supportworld

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