To Thine Own Self Be True: Five steps for dealing with angry customers

Every sales person will have at least one difficult customer during their career.

In fact, some experts argue that if you don’t have at least one angry customer by 10:00 a.m., you aren’t trying hard enough! While I’m not sure I subscribe to that particular philosophy, I do know that you can’t please all the people all the time. Nor should you strive to do so.

As a sales professional, what you do need to understand is how to handle angry customers whenever they inevitably come into your life. The following five steps will help you deal profitably with angry clients to make sure they remain loyal customers, and continue to be a source of future business and referrals.

Step 1: Never argue

Have you ever seen a harried mother in a restaurant or supermarket get into a shouting match with a young child? Even if she wins the argument, she loses, because she has allowed the child to bring her down to their level of combat.

The same holds true for business. You can’t let a customer sucker you into an emotionally heated argument. The moment you do so, you lose your two greatest assets: your role as a professional and the advantage of a calm attitude.

Instead of getting angry, the best thing to do when a customer is mad at you is to thank them. Try something like: "Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I appreciate the opportunity you’ve given me to improve (the level of service, my responsiveness, etc)."

The key is to not respond either defensively or angrily. There’s an old saying that you can’t win an argument with a customer because they have the final word on whether to take their business elsewhere. Most sales people – like most people period – get their dander up the moment anyone says anything even remotely negative. They get defensive, angry or, even worse, they look for ways to retaliate overtly or coercively. The result is usually lost business and the end of a once-profitable relationship.

Remember: it takes two to argue. Note that, in the above example, you never say you agree with the customer’s complaint. You just acknowledge it.

Nine times out of ten, the customer has worked themselves into an even greater frenzy at the idea of the battle they’re expecting to have with you. If you don’t get emotionally involved or provide the anticipated resistance, their anger will dissipate as quickly as it came.

Step 2: Put your ego aside

Do you want to be right, or do you want to be successful?

I don’t know about you, but in my opinion, being right is a lot less important than being successful. The top 10% of sales people always put desirable results (and greater profits) ahead of all other considerations – including their own ego.

In situations where you have an angry customer on your hands, this means focusing first and foremost not on defending your actions, but on defusing their anger, resolving the problem and keeping their business.

No matter how annoyed or insulted you may feel, never try to make the customer feel foolish either on purpose or by accident. Showing your customer that you are smarter or more knowledgeable might feel good in the heat of the moment, but in the long run, it will end up hurting you a lot more than it does them.

You need to measure your success in these situations not by how well you "showed him," but by how effectively you attained a profitable result and kept your customer.

Step 3: Listen

Give your customer a good old-fashioned "listening to!"

I can’t stress this enough: when handling a customer complaint, listening is far more important than talking. Whether you think they’re right or wrong, your client is entitled to their opinion. So whatever they have to say – hear them out.

Listen to what is being said, process it, reflect on it and then use it to improve. If you listen with the intent to improve, you’ll have an even better chance of actually understanding their point of view. Plus, if your client feels that you are taking their opinion seriously, they’ll be much less likely to stay angry, and much more willing to work with you to reach a satisfactory resolution.

Use the active listening techniques you’ve developed as a sales professional to ask probing questions or ask for examples. Sit up straight or lean forward, nod your head occasionally and give brief verbal encouragements such as "please go on," "I understand" or "yes."

Try taking notes to show that what they’re saying is important to you. And remember to let the client do at least 70% of the talking. Your customer wants and needs to tell his whole story without significant interruption. When you’re listening, a minute can seem like an eternity. Don’t let this distorted sense of time force you into becoming impatient.

At the end of the conversation, summarize what they’ve said to show them that you were listening and that you do understand. Then ask for one more opinion: what they think you could do to improve.

When you demonstrate real interest and concern by actively listening to what your customer has to say, you are showing that you respect them and take their problems seriously. By promising to take action to fix those problems, you simultaneously make the customer feel important and re-establish your own credibility in their eyes.

Step 4: Adapt to their personality style

We all know that different people have different personalities.

Some people are highly logical and analytical, interested in facts, statistics and technical explanations above all else. Others are more emotional and tend to be motivated by relationships. Others still tend to be urgent, bottom-line thinkers.

To get a feel for the type of person you’re dealing with, watch their body language, the clothes they wear or the way they carry themselves. Even over the phone, a person’s choice of words can yield important clues to their personality. When you think you have some idea of who they are, try to adapt your own personality style to better keep pace with theirs.

With a little practice, you’ll probably find this to be easier than you think. Once you’ve tried it a few times, you may also find that it makes your own work a little more interesting as well.

Step 5: Commit to improve

An uncertain customer is an angry customer. So never leave a customer feeling unsure of where they stand.

Consider this example. Suppose you bought a bookcase that you have to put together yourself. You lug the box out to your car, drive home, drag the box into the house, open it, gather all the necessary tools together, carefully figure out the instructions and assemble everything except the decorative front panel. You’re ready to put this final piece in place when you discover that one absolutely crucial hinge is missing.

Frustrated and perhaps dropping a few colorful words on the way to the phone, you call the store. The manager says to you: “I don’t know what we can do or where we can get the part. Give me your number and I’ll get back to you.”

How do you feel? Does that response satisfy you?

Of course not, because you’ve been left with no real commitment and no idea of how long it might be until your problem is solved. Now, how much better would you feel if the manager told you: “I don’t know what we can do or where we can get the part. But I’ll get to work on finding a way to solve this problem immediately and I’ll call you back absolutely no later than three o’clock this afternoon. Please give me your number.”

It still doesn’t get you your bookcase built, but doesn’t having the time commitment make you feel much better? This goes for your own customers, too. Being vague or non-committal will only make them angrier than they already are. Being specific and making a firm commitment will leave them feeling much more satisfied with both their current issue and their ongoing relationship with you.

Always let the customer know that you appreciate their opinions and suggestions, and that you will be taking concrete steps to improve. You can even go so far as to ask whether they’d like you to check in with them again in a couple of weeks.

In the meantime, don’t turn your back on what they’ve said or try to forget about it. Spend some time looking for any validity in their criticism, and perhaps share the feedback with someone you can trust to tell you the truth. This will also give you a good chance to look at the criticism from a neutral perspective.

One last thought

I’ve seen far too many people pull ads, cancel programs, postpone events or ruin otherwise profitable relationships just because somebody got offended. So whatever you do – don’t ever take criticism personally.

I know this can be hard, especially when it’s coming from someone you like (or someone who signs your paycheck!). The fact of the matter is, if you’re not offending at least one person, you’re probably not pushing hard enough.

The real you may make 2-3% of your clients uncomfortable. That’s okay, because you weren’t going to sell to them anyway. The thing to remember is that the other 97% of your clients really want to see your personality, your style and your communication reflected in your work. If you try to make everyone happy, the only thing you can be certain of is becoming a bland commodity that no one will be particularly excited about.

Only you can give other people permission to make you feel bad. Interpreting criticism as a subjective opinion with a concrete solution instead of a personal rebuke will help you grow, build better relationships and, ultimately, become more successful.

So take the opinions and criticism of others seriously, not personally. Use what they say to create an action plan to improve your performance. And don’t worry about being perfect.

As the Bard once said – to thine own self be true. Be your best not for your boss, your customers or even your family. Be your best for you.