Think of a Customer’s Complaint as a Gift

When managers become comfortable with the idea that complaints are gifts, they do not hesitate in responding to them.

'A Complaint Is a Gift' by Janelle Barlow (ISBN 1576755827) According to A Complaint Is a Gift: Recovering Customer Loyalty When Things Go Wrong, the idea of complaints as gifts must be reinforced at every staff meeting and training session. The company’s policies must be aligned to support this philosophy. A Complaint Is a Gift‘s authors, management consultants Janelle Barlow and Claus Moller, restate some fundamental techniques for handling complaints:

  1. Don’t get defensive. When managing complaints, managers can be their own worst enemies! Instead of taking complaints personally, managers should focus on the particulars of a problem. Then, complaints become less disruptive and constructive.
  2. Say “thank you” and explain why you appreciate the complaint. Say something about how hearing the complaint will allow you to better address the problem. You create a more powerful rapport with customers by saying “thank you” than apologizing.
  3. Apologize for the mistake and empathize when appropriate. Acknowledge the customers feelings You do not have to see eye to eye with the person to acknowledge how they are feeling. Saying “I can see you are upset,” or “I understand why this ordeal has been frustrating for you,” will go a long way toward diffusing any complainer’s anger.
  4. Listen for what the customer wants to happen next, because it’s often easy to accommodate requests, as long as they’re not totally unreasonable. Promise to do something about the problem immediately. Then do something to fix the situation.
  5. Ask for necessary information and correct the mistake promptly. Look at the problem from all perspectives and ask the customer to explain his or her expectations and the reality of what he/she experienced. Ask what it will take to meet their needs or to satisfy them. Rapid responses disclose you are serious about service recovery and customer service.
  6. Check customer satisfaction. Call your customers back to find out if they are satisfied with what you did for them.
  7. Initiate changes to prevent future mistakes, make the complaint known throughout the organization so this kind of problem can be prevented. Fix the system without rushing to blame staff or policies.

Idea for Impact: Managers who ask for complaints will find that customers express their concerns more openly and objectively. Inviting complaints reduces the likelihood a customer will be upset or emotional. It is a way to nip problems in the bud and solve problems before they can aggravate.

How to Respond to Others’ Emotional Situations

People Tap Into Their Support Systems to Gain Perspective on a Challenging Situation

When people get unhappy, they need a shoulder.

When they get vulnerable, they need a hand.

When they get upset, they need an ear.

People approach their loved ones when they get emotional and want to convey the pain they feel.

Above all, under the direct influence of their anguishes, people like to rant and rave. Once they come to terms with whatever caused their aggravations, they’re ready move on.

Contrary to normal assumption, human nature is such that people are not always looking for others’ advice. Even when patients go to a shrink, they tend to already know the answer to the question they are posing. They just want their shrink (or any interlocutor) to agree with their decision and support them whether the shrink shares their judgments or not.

How to Respond to Others' Emotional Situations

To Respond to Emotions, Stop Trying to Fix Problems and Just Listen

When a friend, coworker, or employee approaches you when he is upset, use empathic listening to understand his emotions.

The University of Florida’s Dr. Richard Rathe recommends a technique he calls BATHE (Background-Affects-Troubles-Handling-Empathy) that he says has been effective in handling conflicts with staff, family, and friends:

  • Background: Ask questions about the situation. Don’t ask for details at this time. Try to understand the different expectations and feelings at play. Steer clear of trivializing the situation.
  • Affects: Ask about how the situation affects your friend and how it makes him feel. Remember that people are often not entirely aware of their own emotions. Strong emotions often set off knee-jerk reactions that people come to regret later.
  • Troubles: Ask what agitates your friend most about the present situation. Try to explore the symptoms and causes of those emotions even as you withhold your judgment. Suppress your instinctive emotional reaction, stay open-minded and sensitive, and hear out the full message before you respond. Bear your friend’s foibles by reminding yourself that perhaps he has entirely valid reasons for feeling, acting, and speaking as he does.
  • Handling: Ask how your friend is handling the conflict or the crisis. Broach similar circumstances in the past. Skillfully ask questions that encourage him to focus on actions. Mention options he may have not yet considered. Even baby steps can strengthen your friend’s sense of self-worth and turn out positive emotions.
  • Empathy: Express sympathy, understanding, and support for your friend’s position and sentiments. Tell him you understand what happened to him from his perspective, even if you differ with his response. Identify specific sentiments (e.g. anger, embarrassment, or regret) to communicate to him that you understand how he feels. Tell him that his feelings are completely reasonable—which they are, given his point of view. Reinforce your friend’s plan to deal with the problem.

Idea for Impact: Empathy makes you easy to confide in. The feeling of being listened to without judgment compels your friend to respond with patience. Only then can he open up his mind to being influenced by you.

How to Deal with Upset Customers

Servicing Angry Customers

From an angry customer’s perspective, the impressions left by customer-service providers are long-lasting and can heighten the impact of a service experience, for better or worse.

A failure to recognize and quickly respond to the needs of angry customers can make them feel ignored, frustrated, and powerless. Here are nine guidelines that can result in a constructive interaction with an angry customer and restore his perception of satisfaction and loyalty.

  1. Don’t adopt an angry tone. Stay calm and professional. When an upset customer starts shouting or being foul-mouthed, you’ll gain nothing by reacting in a like manner. Actually, responding to anger with anger can easily escalate the hostilities and thwart meaningful communication. Exercise self-control and regulate your feelings. Without remaining calm, you cannot break through emotional barricades or preempt the customer’s frustrations going from bad to worse.
  2. If the customer is yelling, ask him to speak slower. A louder voice often goes with a faster speech. When the customer slows down his speech, the level of his voice will also drop. Repeat this request as many times as necessary to calm him down.
  3. Declare that you intend to understand the customer’s situation and help. Say, “Could you please speak more slowly. When I understand your situation, I can help you better.”
  4. Let your angry customer vent. When a customer is upset, what you tell him matters less than what you enable him to tell you. The first thing an upset customer wants is to vent. Commonly, just the modest act of listening patiently can defuse the customer’s anger. Only after you facilitate getting the customer’s emotions off his chest can you have a constructive discussion.
  5. Recognize that the customer’s problem does exist. Restate the customer’s analysis of what the problem is. “If I understand you appropriately, you have a problem with X and you don’t like Y. This has caused Z.”
  6. How to Handle Upset CustomersDemonstrate sincere empathy for the customer’s feelings. Say, “I can understand why this situation would upset you. I’m sorry you feel that way.” Your best response to the customer’s anger is empathy.
  7. Ask what the customer would like to do to have the problem solved. Ask, “What can we do to make this right for you?” By shifting the customer’s focus from annoyance to problem solving, you can determine ways to negotiate a satisfactory solution. If the customer’s request cannot be met, provide alternative solutions that may alleviate the situation or placate the customer.
  8. Let common sense prevail over standard operating procedure. Much of current customer service initiatives (especially with outsourced call centers) has devolved into standard operating procedures, carefully formulated decision-trees, and scripted answers that customer service agents dispense mechanically. To an upset customer, these automated responses often seem hollow and inacceptable. Deviate from the canned responses and use good judgment. Exercise the autonomy you’re granted over how you can respond to help solve customer complaints. If necessary, involve your manager.
  9. Don’t need to give a “yes” or a “no” answer on the spot. If the customer asks for more than you’re able to accommodate, defer your answer by saying, “Give me a minute to consider all the options I have for you” or “let me talk to my boss and see how I can help you.” After weighing the pros and cons, give your answer and offer a reason if necessary. This way, even if the customer doesn’t get a “yes” from you, he will still appreciate knowing that you’ve seriously considered his appeals.

Idea for Impact: Body language, phrasing, and tone can have a big impact on angry customers who are on the lookout for evidence of compassion and want to be reassured that they have chosen a good provider for their product or service.

What the Deaf Can Teach Us About Listening


Lessons of Silence

Bruno Kahne, a corporate consultant for the aeronautical industry, shares how deaf people helped his corporate clients be effective communicators. His article appears on the website of the strategy+business magazine, published by management consulting firm Booz & Company. See full article or PDF file. Below is a summary of the article.

Through their “handicap,” deaf people develop certain communication skills more thoroughly than most hearing people, which make them uncommonly effective at getting their point across. When they interact with one another, deaf people act in ways that let them communicate more rapidly and accurately than hearing people.

To improve your “hearing,” consider some of these lessons from our experiences and training sessions.

  1. Effective Communication » Paying Attention Do not take notes. You will be more present in the interaction and you can concentrate more. And the more you do it, the better you remember.
  2. Don’t interrupt. A deaf person ensures that he or she first understands the other speaker before trying to be understood. Try this the next time you’re in a business discussion, ideally one in which there’s some tension — let the other person finish what he or she has to say, then silently count to three before responding.
  3. Say what you mean, as simply as possible. Deaf people are direct. They reveal not only their thoughts, but also their feelings, both positive and negative, more clearly than hearing people do, as they express them with their whole bodies. Similarly, the deaf are often far better than hearing people at finding the most economical way to convey their message.
  4. When you don’t understand something, ask. Deaf people feel completely at ease saying “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand.” Those of us with hearing aren’t nearly as willing to admit confusion or lack of comprehension. We often sit silently in meetings while our colleagues use acronyms or technical jargon we don’t grasp because we think asking for clarification is a sign of weakness.
  5. Stay focused. The deaf cut themselves off from any distractions, they don’t multitask, and they focus their attention entirely on the conversation.

Overall, the most inspiring thing about communication with deaf people — and the behavior most worth emulating — is their incredibly strong desire to exchange information efficiently and without adornment.

Call for Action

Effective Communication » Listening All of the suggestions in the article are trite and obvious. When I discuss such desired behaviors in my seminars or during one-on-one coaching sessions, I can sense my audience negligently declaring, “I know that.” My response is usually along the lines of “Sure, you know that. And, tell me how and where do you apply these ideas in your everyday interactions?”

Most of the articles I write on this blog are about simple ideas. I hope my articles serve as a reminder of key principles and help you tune-up your communications and behaviors. As you read through my articles, instead of declaring, “I know that,” ask, “How do/can I apply these principles in my everyday interactions?” Take responsibility for the effectiveness of your communications and your ability to influence and get the results you desire.

***Via ‘I can see what they’re saying,’ Doc Searls at Harvard