At last month’s Customer Service Breakfast (which I was lucky enough to attend in 3 different cities) we discussed “dealing with angry customers”. It was a great discussion, and inspired me to share a few tips from the group and from my own experience.

man listening with can and stringListen. Really listen.

Wait until the user has vented everything before you speak. Sometimes that might mean listening to them describe their frustrations more than once (thanks to Muse for this tip). This is key because “venting” is exactly what they’re doing: they’re trying to get their frustration out and ensure that you really hear them. Once they’ve done this, they’ll be much more willing to listen to you.

Phones are great diffusing tools

If a user emails you and you doesn’t respond for minutes (or hours) it can seem like they’re being ignored. You, in fact, may be busy helping other folks or even investigating their issue. But if the user reaches a boiling point, real-time communication can help to reassure them that you’re actually taking their issue seriously. In addition, it’s easy to dehumanize people you interact with on the web; all they are is a faceless email address. Hopping on the phone reminds users that they’re dealing with a real person, and they should perhaps be nicer.

Understand their core problem

Especially when emotional, customers may not clearly communicate what their core problem is. They may complain about a feature’s behavior when really they’re using the wrong feature, or complain about their support experience when really they’re frustrated with the product. After they’ve vented, make sure to ask some clarifying questions so you know what you really need to address.

To apologize or not to apologize?

There was much debate about apologizing to customers. Some teams felt you should never apologize, as it encourages users to blame you and expect that you’ll address their concern immediately. Some felt you should apologize if it was your team’s fault, but absolutely shouldn’t apologize if it wasn’t under your control (user error, a 3rd-party system going down, hurricane). Validation, some suggested, is more effective than apologizing. “That sounds very frustrating” is a great way to validate their feelings without necessarily apologizing or promising to prioritize their request.

But know when to fire your customers

After all this, sometimes a customer is just not a good fit. Perhaps they’re not tech-savvy enough to use your product without immense support cost. Perhaps they demand features which you aren’t going to build. Or maybe they’re just a jerk (Jennita from SEOmoz and others mentioned that they have a zero-tolerance policy for verbal/textual abuse of a support employee). If you really think it’s not going to be productive to continue to try to help someone, kindly but firmly tell them that your product isn’t a fit for them, and point them towards a competing product that might fit them better.

The most important tip, at the end of the day, is to empathize. Frustrated customers are frustrating. But we’ve all been there…I like to share this example of me being that annoying, frustrated customer:

It turns out the issue was mine; I had two accounts with them. Oops.

We all get frustrated. Your customer isn’t your enemy – understand them, take a deep breath, and try to help.

What do you do AFTER dealing with an angry customer? Find out here.

Cat photo courtesy of Tambako the Jaguar

Listening photo courtesy of Melvin Gaal.