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Defusing Bad Customer Situations

Worst case customer scenarios are great. Really?  If you manage a customer contact operation, these tough customer situations truly hold the key to delivering excellent service all the time.

Find out how you can use difficult situations to improve your business.

You see, much of the indifferent service people experience from customer contact professionals springs from fear. Contact professionals often react from a defensive posture because they worry that they will twist helplessly in the wind when customers are angry, rude, demanding, or intimidating. And even when calls are escalated to a Manager, they are often passed to someone as frightened and confused as they are.

The Solution? Teach people the same skills used by hostage negotiator, crisis counsellors, and law enforcement officials in their worst situations.  Change the language you use in your most difficult customer transactions, and you and your team will have the tools to walk confidently into any customer situation.  It is here, in this zone of supreme confidence and competence, that great service takes root.

Here is a quick summary of the skills to help you and your team learn to handle any difficult customer situation:

How to defuse criticism? Lean in to it!
Customers aren’t angry because of your support. (That is a reason for frustration, not anger.) They are angry because they feel unheard. How do you fix this? “Lean in” to their anger and mirror their emotions using “wow” language: “Wow! That must have really held up your project! I can see why you are so frustrated. Lets see what we can do here….”


 Use the “ladder of acknowledgement”.
Most people don’t know how to really acknowledge people – instead, they use catch phrases like “I understand” (which usually brings forth the automatic response “No, you don’t”), or worse say nothing at all. Here are the four rungs on “the ladder of acknowledgement”; paraphrasing, observation, validation, and identification.


Paraphrasing involves simply playing back your interpretation of the customers’ own words—it tells a customer, “I hear you.” Observation takes a big step and plays back what the customer is thinking and feeling; “I can tell you are pretty frustrated about this.” Validation, the next level, tells them that they also have a right to feel that way; “no one likes it when their system goes down.” Finally, Identification – which is not the same as agreeing with someone – put yourself in their shoes by sharing their feelings: “if that happened to me, I would be pretty upset too.”

Deliver bad news using the “divide and conquer” technique.
Most people simply dump bad news in the lap of a customer like a cold, dead fish. Instead, break things down into stages. First, give a good introduction: walk them through the parameters of the situation, acknowledge them, or prepare them for the gravity of the situation. Second, give a proactive summary of the situation: details open up dialogue and calm people down. Finally, respond with empathy  to  every  customer concern, every time you open your mouth. 

Turn  problem-solving into solution-making.
When it comes to the fun part of the transaction – solving the customer’s problem – our vocabulary is too often limited to the phrases “yes we can” and “no we cant”. And when it is the latter phrase, we usually feel like ducking for cover!

Effective problem solving, particularly in difficult situations, involves three distinct steps: clarifying the customer’s needs, framing a solution around these needs, and then acknowledging and responding to objections. Sound simple? All of these are 180 degrees from the usual response of setting boundaries and defending them. Compare, “Sorry, there isn’t much we can do about a hard drive crash” to “Lets look at some options (backup, data recovery, etc.)” – even when these options are very limited – and see what a different reaction you get.

Be immune to intimidation.
What about those customers who simply grind at you until they get what they want? The right techniques can turn this situation around as well. For example, when people talk about how important and entitled they are, agree with them! When people try to criticise you to advance their position, use the time-honoured assertiveness technique of “fogging” to give their complaints credibility while sticking to your boundaries. (You’re right, there are many more experienced agents than me. I apologise that I still can’t authorise a refund.”)  And finally,  under react to threats. For example, when someone threatens to say bad things about your company on Facebook, offer to help while telling them that you wouldn’t dream of  telling them what to say or not say.

These are just a few examples of how specific skills can be used to defuse critical support situations. Most of which involve simply changing the words you use. Try them yourself, and see how much easier it is to resolve your worst customer situations.



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