Dealing with an angry customer is never pleasant. When a customer is angry, we can feel like we’ve done something wrong, or that we’ve somehow failed.
This is in relationship to the stress we feel around interacting with that customer to try and make things right. You know the saying, "the customer is always right"? It’s false. While that might work for low end retail sales or digital product sales, it doesn’t really work well for higher-level professional services.
While you may be able to smooth a situation over by giving a product away for free, or simply refunding the price paid, this is not always easy (or advisable) to do when you’ve invested your time, expertise, and assistance in a professional relationship.
So how you do you deal with an angry customer?
1) The best defense is a good offense. Have a clause or segment in your working agreement which specifies how disagreements will be handled. My consulting agreement, for instance, states something like this: "All disputes will be handled between us to a mutually agreeable solution. If we can’t reach this agreeable solution, we both agree to seek mediation." Now, again, activating this clause is really a matter of scope. I wouldn’t work that hard to come to an ‘agreeable solution’ if I haven’t invested much time or energy. In that case, I might just refund the money and help the client get connected with another professional. (I’ve never had to do this by the way, but I would feel 100% fine about this if I did. I was probably not the best match for them anyway, and this would have made my job more difficult than necessary.)
) In a case where I’d invested resources, I might work to seek an agreeable solution in terms of a pro-rated payment or something similar. Don’t be overly willing to walk away from money you’ve earned.
3) You never gain anything from avoiding an angry customer. The sooner you can speak with him or her, the better. Give the customer a chance to explain what went wrong, and listen carefully. Listen for seeds of how you might make it right. For instance, if a customer calls and says the product you shipped was incorrect (this happened to me recently, when my assistant accidentally shipped out the wrong item to a customer: instead of a CD on small business marketing techniques, the customer received a backup of my assistant’s Itunes catalog.) As soon as I was notified, I contacted the customer and did what I could to make this right. The customer just asked for a replacement CD, which we quickly sent (it was the right one this time!) and I also offered another product as a way of saying thank you.
4) Set guidelines for the conversation. Be polite, but don’t be a push-over. If the customer starts to yell or overwhelm you, exit as gracefully as possible. Ask them to tell you what they feel would be fair, and then negotiate to a mutually acceptable outcome. You can ask for this by email if a telephone conversation did not work.
5) If you or your team did make a mistake, be sure to put a system in place to reduce the chances of this happening again. In my case, I set up a separate system for CD burning so there would be less likelihood of a mistaken CD going out in the future. While you need to accept that you can’t please all your customers all of the time, it can also be emotionally draining to deal with an angry customer. If you’ve been through a very lengthy or bitter conversation, take some time out to distract yourself and indulge yourself.
It’s easier to get over an angry conversation when you’re not stewing in your own juices. So get moving: take a walk, get some exercise. Anything to get your mind off the situation.
When a customer gets angry at us, it is a chance for us to reflect on our business practices. If you’d do the exact same thing all over again, it was probably the best decision you could have made.
If you’ve learned something and would handle it differently next time, that’s also valuable. Nothing ever goes to waste. Do you have other tips for dealing with angry customers? I’d love to hear them!