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Managing Your Emotions With Hostile Customers

Imagine that you’ve just picked up the phone to answer a customer’s call, or a client has unexpectedly arrived in person at your office. Out of the blue, you find yourself on the receiving end of some shocking rudeness. And you’re left gasping.

How do you manage yourself, calm the situation, and build bridges with this person, who remains important to your business? And how do you recover from the experience and prevent such a situation happening again?

Although customer service and sales people most commonly encounter such situations, everyone has “customers.” Anyone who you interact within your workplace who looks to you for results or some other output is a customer.

In this article, we explore five strategies for dealing with rude customers, and we look at how to handle the aftermath of these difficult confrontations.

Sorting Unhappy Customers from Rude Ones: 

If a customer is unhappy about the quality of goods or services that he or she has received from your organisation, he is perfectly entitled to express his dissatisfaction. And if he remains calm and civil,

despite his frustration or anger, you’ll most likely be willing to help him with his grievances. You’ll try hard to put things right, whether it’s replacing a faulty toaster or compensating him for a missed family holiday because of an over-booked flight.

Occasionally, though, despite your welcoming manner, expert knowledge and willingness to help, there are people who can’t control their anger and resort to verbal abuse, offensive language, and even threatening words or behaviour. When you’re confronted by these rude customers, it can be difficult to know how to respond or defuse the situation.

Strategies for Handling Rude Customers: 

Researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Canada, have studied “incivility” between customers and employees. Their findings show that employees who expect to encounter rude customers at work react far less strongly than employees who normally enjoy good customer relations, but who face unexpected rudeness.

The researchers recommend that organisations train their staff to deal effectively with irate customers, even when those customers are generally viewed as highly civil. And they add that employees should deal with rude customers at the time of the encounter, rather than try to repair a damaged relationship after the event.

The consequences of not handling such situations effectively can be serious. The UBC study cites customer incivility as a cause of stress, emotional exhaustion, absenteeism, and reduced performance. And if an employee reacts negatively to the customer, it threatens an organisation’s reputation for customer service and can impact customer retention.

Coming face to face with a raging customer can be a frightening experience. So, what do you do if you are suddenly on the receiving end of a stream of bile and abuse? Here, we explore five strategies for dealing with rude customers:

1. Stay Calm, Don’t React.

The first thing to do is to remain calm and not respond in kind. If you are faced with an unexpected verbal attack, a natural defence mechanism is to “bite back.” Something as simple as taking some deep breaths can give you a vital few seconds to gather your thoughts and avoid retaliating in a way that might see you being viewed as the aggressor.

Tip: Your personal safety is paramount. If you feel threatened by an angry person, trust your instincts and leave the room immediately if you feel unsafe, or if you’re too upset to resolve the situation on your own.

Ask your boss or a trusted colleague to work with you to resolve the situation. It might also be appropriate to report the incident if the person is completely out of control.

The UBC research suggests that rude customers “can violate an employee’s sense of dignity and respect, and trigger negative emotions that can motivate employees to react negatively” toward that customer. So avoid “fighting fire with fire.” Remain calm, controlled and tactful, otherwise, you risk inflaming the situation further. Keeping your emotions in check can defuse the encounter. If your interaction with the customer is by email or on social media, you may have worse rudeness to contend with. People often say things online that they’d never say in person, but resist the temptation to give them a “taste of their own medicine.” Take a deep breath. Go for a walk to disperse the tension. Do whatever it takes to gain distance before you hit “send.” When you do write your reply, keep your cool, state the facts, and make clear your willingness to help.

2. Don’t Take It Personally.

Chances are, your customer is angry about a bad product or service and you are just the unfortunate target for her frustration. Instead of taking her rudeness to heart, try to empathize with her. She wants to know that you understand the inconvenience and disappointment that she’s suffered, so you need to show her that you do. Developing emotional intelligence is a useful strategy for managing your emotions and sensing other people’s emotional needs. 

Occasionally, though, it really does feel personal. A customer will approach you with the sole purpose of insulting you. 

Despite the provocation, try to remember that the customer doesn’t know you personally. He was probably angry or having a bad day before he met you, and had already decided that he was going to “raise hell” with somebody. In these situations, it doesn’t matter who you are, you’re just the unlucky one in the firing line.

Tip: One way of learning how to deal with rude customers is with Role Playing. Our article can help you use this technique to prepare for a variety of challenging or difficult situations.

3. Listen and, If Appropriate, Apologise.

A rude customer might want to vent her frustration. She wants you to hear every word that she says, so listen actively, no matter how unreasonable she sounds. Demonstrate that you have taken in what she’s said by occasionally reflecting back her words. For example, use phrases like, “So, it sounds like you’re saying that,” “What I’m hearing is,” or, “Is this what you mean?”

Be aware of your body language while she speaks. Keep your arms unfolded, and maintain appropriate eye contact to demonstrate your open attitude. And when you reply, keep your voice low and even, to keep things calm.

Saying sorry might run against every instinct you have if you’ve been subjected to a barrage of abuse. But if the customer’s grievance is genuine, a prompt apology may staunch the flow of rudeness and provide the basis for a better relationship.

4. Stand Firm.

You may have apologized and be going all out to help your customer, but you don’t want him to walk all over you. If he’s factually wrong or if he’s not letting you get a word in, you may need to be more assertive to get your message across.

If you’re a team manager, your team member may ask you to step in to help resolve the situation. That means balancing your responsibility for ensuring that you satisfy your customer with the duty of care you have towards your people or your organisation.

In situations when a customer’s behaviour has become unacceptable, it’s important to tactfully let her know that she’s “crossed a line” – for example, when she’s using insulting, threatening or racist words or behaviour. It may be possible for you to negotiate a solution, but it might be one of those rare instances when it’s best to let the customer go.

Tip: Make sure that you agree with your manager or head of department what behaviours are to be deemed unacceptable in this way.

5. Solve the Problem

The best way to disarm a rude customer is to involve him in taking away the problem that’s fuelling his behaviour. Ask him what he feels would be an acceptable solution. You then have something concrete to work toward.

Most customers just want a fair resolution, but a rude customer may make unrealistic or extreme demands. If so, remind him that you want to help, and counter with suggestions that are fair and reasonable, and negotiate towards a mutually acceptable deal.

Look for quick, simple solutions. Many problems that lead to customer rudeness will have occurred before, so your company may have policies that allow you to offer refunds or replacements, for example, with little fuss. Fast resolutions satisfy the customer, minimize stress, and end difficult situations swiftly.

Dealing with the Aftermath: 

Encountering a rude customer can be a highly stressful experience, so it’s important to take a breather afterwards. If you can remember that very few of your customers behave in this way, you’ll gain some valuable perspective.

It’s also important to think through what happened, to consider whether the customer’s rudeness reflects a bigger problem or a recurring issue. You may need to report the situation to your manager – for example, if the problem is beyond your remit to resolve – or follow up with the customer, much as you might prefer not to.

If you’re a manager, remember that it’s not just about the customer’s feelings. An encounter with a rude customer will eventually end, but your team members are the people that you work with and manage every day.

So, if one of your team has been dealing with a rude customer, check in with her to make sure that she’s OK. Choose your time well – straight after the situation is a good time for some team members but not for others. Discuss what was said, to ensure you have a full picture of what occurred, and find out if there’s anything you need to look into in light of her experience.

Key Points

Rude customers differ from the merely unhappy in that they can’t control their anger. 

They are unreasonable, unfriendly, and prone to using verbal abuse, offensive language and threatening behaviour. But you’re in business to serve your customers, so it’s important to try to help them.

When dealing with rude customers, it’s crucial to control your own emotions, and to counteract their inflammatory behaviour with calm, considered responses. 

Remember, try not to take any comments personally, listen actively to your customer, and apologize if it’s appropriate to do so.

ViewPoint: Focus on Your Average Customer

Companies should target their average customers and make those people’s experiences easier if they want to improve overall customer satisfaction, writes Mark Leiter, chairman of Leiter & Co.

These customers can be better served when internal efforts to work across teams — not just vertically — are rewarded and when boards take time to ask how such customers are being prioritized, Leiter writes. 

Access the Full Story: Knowledge@Wharton

Seven Brands That Have Improved Their Customers’ Lives – and How They Did It
February 25, 2020
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From First Direct to the Cleveland Clinic, how do the world’s most admired brands make their customers feel cared for? An Article by Jeanne Bliss – President Customer Bliss.

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Jeanne Bliss

The most admired companies remove practices that might curb the extension of care, or limit employees to act in good conscience. They work to remove boundaries and pressures that prohibit customer-driven decision making. And they challenge themselves to walk away from practices that aren’t congruent with their values.

They honour the human at the end of their decisions, establish a balanced relationship with customers and partners, and put employees in a position to act at work, like they’d act at home. Like they were raised.

Companies that grow from admiration for improving lives tackle the processes that get in the way of people delivering good experiences. People are trained and invested in. Care is foundational to how they grow. Human needs prompt innovation. Teams unite. The frontline is prepared and trusted to extend grace when warranted. People hired for their values, empathy and ability to make a good decision, and are rewarded for doing just that. They nurture memory creators who take joy in their work. And enable people to thrive.

They take the time to know where it’s hard to be a customer and do the hard work to remove experiences they don’t want customers to have. These are the moments that make it hard to be a customer: waiting, complexity, uncertainty, and sometimes fear and concern. These companies work to show up more humanely where customers have to put in an inordinate amount of time and effort to get what they need. They turn these moments of struggle into ones of reliability, respect, and caring.

These admired companies prove with their actions, that they have their customer’s best interest in mind. This is at the heart of companies that grow most organically, earning ardent admirers. Operating at this level remains elusive until the paradoxical realisation kicks in. Which is that: To achieve your goals, you need to help others achieve theirs.

To take this approach to growth means opening everyone up to a new order of design and decision-making. In practical terms, this means building a ‘peace of mind’ experience for traveller customers or crafting a welcome experience to your services. Building deliberate moments of trust based on customer needs. It goes well beyond “whack-a-moling” problems away – to imagining the people and the emotions and the lives that you serve. Then starting with that – designing those life moments.

Admired companies take the road less travelled to earn honour-bound relationships with customers, partners and employees. They are celebrated because they overturn or resist one-sided business practices. These companies are choosing to reverse the trend on business practices that have defined their industries. They establish balanced relationships where both sides win, where both customer and company are better off because they are in each other’s lives. They honour customers as assets. They work to flip “Gotcha!” moments to “We’ve got your back” moments. They applaud accountability. They practice reciprocal trust. They seek for customers to prosper.

These companies grow through:

1. One action can open the door.

For example, The Cleveland Clinic’s began with a commitment, accompanied by an investment in training and communication, that everyone in the organisation was considered and given permission to act as a “caregiver.”  

Years of actions later, that built upon that commitment, they are rated the number two hospital in the United States by US News and World Report.

2. Actions for hiring and development set the tone.

Admired companies craft deliberate and well-orchestrated to hire people with values and behaviours in sync with their own.  Pal’s Sudden Service, a drive-through restaurant based in Tennessee with 26 stores enlists a 60-point psychometric survey to decide if the teenagers who will deliver food to your drive-in window or make your burger will sync with the values of the company and team they will join. They then receive over 120 hours of training and ongoing mentoring.

Their turnover is one-third the industry average, and they have lost just seven general managers in thirty-three years. Pal’s enjoys one of the highest revenue per square feet in the quick serve restaurant industry.

3. Human and mindful actions create joy.

The most admired companies take actions to enable their people to take spirited actions, to be authentic in their personality, and to just be real and human.   First Direct Bank took the action to have a human available every day 24/7.  And the humans you reach have your back, and permission to do what’s right for you. Every person customer’s reach is trusted to change processes, procedure and policies to improve their situation.  92% of First Direct Customers commit that they would recommend the bank to someone else.

4. Acts of trust are necessary.

Lemonade Insurance took the action to have claims fulfilled first, by having people film and sign an “honesty pledge.” On the Lemonade App you chat with Lemonade’s bot “AI Jim” who first asks about what happened and why the claim. Next he asks you to sign the “Honesty Pledge” on the app – vowing not only to Lemonade, but also to the other members in this with you, and the charities who benefit from fairness in reporting.

Finally, this oh-so-smart company asks you to look them in the eye, and record a video giving the reason for your claim. Less than a year after launch, they published a blog post that shared that Lemonade had captured 27% of policyholders who are newcomers to insurance in their current limited New York market area.   There is power in truth and trust.

5. Actions that give clarity of purpose multiply.

REI generated an estimated 6.7 billion media impressions as it fearlessly closed its doors to encourage everyone to #OptOutside on Black Friday. Starting with the simple question, “How do we want to show up during the holidays?” – REI’s purpose steered them easily to this action heralded the world over, and recently winning the highest honour at Cannes – the Titanium Grand Prix. Over 700 companies banded together in their movement, and hundreds of state parks offered incentives to get people moving and out on Black Friday.  Financially, REI continues to grow, where its comparable competitors are struggling.

6. Acts of fairness earn word of mouth and growth.

Virgin Hotels decided to act with fairness, by eliminating nickel and diming at their hotels.  There is no charge for wifi.  “Bandwidth is a right, not a revenue stream,” Virgin communicates to customers. You also won’t get pinged for room service fees or add on service charges.  And there are no fees for early or late check-in. What’s getting them most word of mouth and buzz is their “street pricing” mini bar items. They won’t penalise you for that hunger strike in the middle of the night by charging you ten times what you could get at the corner market. What you’d pay there, they charge you in the room.

“We shouldn’t feel like ‘we’ve got you,’” Leal says in rebuffing fees customers often feel imprisoned by at other hotels.  After only its first year of business, the Virgin Hotel in Chicago was named the number one hotel in the United States by the Conde Nast Readers’ Choice Awards.  Conde Nast also named the Virgin Hotel in Chicago to the sixth spot of the top fifty hotels in the world.

7. “High road” acts earn advocates who grow the business.

The Columbus Metropolitan Library took the action to get rid of late fees. They want kids to meet their summer reading goal, not worry about those ten cents a day fee. The first library in the United States to do this, their action focuses the organisation back to their mission. There is a bit of tracking – you’re asked to get that book back in twenty-eight days. Reasonable.  Automatic renewal has been put in place so instead of calling your book late, it is renewed back to you. The library actually now gives you ten renewal periods to get back that book – so think of that as 280 days of grace. Because of this act and many other, Columbus Metropolitan Library, is one of the most progressive and acclaimed libraries in the United States. (Watch an interview with Alison Circle, chief experience officer of the Columbus Metropolitan Library.)

In our lives, we remember the companies, the people and the times when we were honoured…as a friend, as a partner, as a customer. Two-way trust, open and honest communication and fearless sharing are cornerstones of the relationships that come to mean the most to us.

These feelings hold just as true in the relationships we have with the people we hold dear in our lives, as the people that we do business with.

How Do You Respond to Customer Comments: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly?

Consumer generated content and digital reviews are having a serious effect on businesses, with 90% of customers reading online reviews before deciding to make a purchase. While your business cannot control what customers are saying about you on the Internet, you can control the narrative.

How you choose to engage with customers online can turn a negative review into a positive exchange in the eyes of a potential new customer looking up your business and deciding to spend with you or a competitor. A study from Harvard Business Review found that online ratings increased for businesses that responded to both positive and negative comments online. This blog post will advise you how to engage with your online promoters and detractors on review sites such as Google Reviews, Trustpilot or TripAdvisor.

Responding to Positive Reviews

This is the easy kind of review to deal with, so you should respond with gratitude and enthusiasm and hopefully inspire those reading the reviews to interact with your business as a new or repeat customer. A positive endorsement of your company is essentially free marketing, and when you respond to one it brings a personal touch to the experience, showing you care about all of your customers, not just those complaining.

Say Thank You – This should be obvious, but you should thank your customer for leaving a good review. Showing gratitude is always appreciated and shows you care about your relationship with your customers.

Make It Personal – Mention the commenter’s name in your response, making it clear that you are a real person engaging with them and your response isn’t an impersonal copy and paste job.

Optimise Your SEO – Include the name of your business and any important keywords or details in your response to encourage the positive review’s appearance in search results for your business.

Include a Call-to-Action – Make suggestions for the customer’s next interaction with your business. If your business is a hotel – “Be sure to stop by our spa for a luxurious massage on your next visit!” If your business is a retail chain – “Don’t forget to join our loyalty program to avail of extra benefits like early notifications of sales!” This is an easy way to do marketing and let those viewing the reviews know about different segments of your business.

Responding to positive reviews may seem like a task less important than responding to your critics, but it can have a really positive impact on the narrative flowing through your review pages.

Responding to Negative Reviews

86% of people will hesitate to purchase from a business with negative online reviews. This statistic shows how imperative it is for you to acknowledge negative feedback with a thoughtful response. While it isn’t necessary to respond to every single customer complaint, it can show your existing and potential customers that you are invested in their experience when you do.

Remain Calm – This goes without saying, but it can be difficult not to take criticism personally. Negative reviews can run the gamut from a genuine complaint about a poor experience to an all-out thrashing of your business. Regardless, it is on you to respond politely and professionally when engaging with your customers, no matter how rude or unfair they may be!

Say Thank You – Just as you thank your promoter customers for giving positive feedback, you should thank your detractor customers for their feedback as well. Even if their comment may not warrant traditional gratitude, you are gaining some sort of insight from their complaint and it can help your business. Something as simple as, “Thank you for your feedback” can make all of the difference to the tone of your response.

Apologise – Saying sorry goes a long way. Even if you do not agree with the customer’s complaint, expressing contrition shows that you are genuinely invested in their experience. But be smart about how you say sorry, saying “I’m sorry you felt that the service was inadequate” does not come across as a genuine apology. You should rather say, “I’m sorry your experience did not meet our high standard of service,” which shows that you care and are accepting responsibility.

Be Proactive – Oftentimes an apology is enough, but in serious cases, you may need to back up your apology with some concrete action. Let the customer know how you will be addressing the problem so that it does not happen again. This may persuade the customer to return to your business, or even better, it may convince potential new customers that they needn’t worry that they will also have a poor experience with your business.

And unlike your response to positive comments, try not to include your business’ name or details, to minimise the chances of the specific review turning up in search results.

Article by Sarah-Nicole “Nikki”- a Customer Success Manager at CX Index, a Dublin-based Voice of the Customer (VOC) Vendor. 

She contributes her insights on the many benefits of prioritising customer experience to the CX Index blog. She is currently based in London but has lived in New York, Dublin and Paris. She has a B.A. from Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT and an MSc from Trinity College Dublin.