10 techniques for handling difficult customers.

Confused call center operator

When I was in college, I used to work for the Alumni Relations Office, and let me tell you, there is no one more distressed than a 70-year-old alum who can’t figure out how to sign up for their class reunion. During my time in this office, I learned a lot of valuable skills. I learned how to remain silent while anachronistic profanities were hurled my way by difficult customers; I learned a variety of different ways to say, “Click the submit button at the bottom of the page.” I learned that while I may not have organized their reunion, created the webpage for their registration, or purchased their plane tickets, their problems were almost always, invariably, my fault.

In almost all of these customer service situations, I felt like the customers I was dealing with were just flat out wrong. Nonetheless, the old axiom “The Customer is Always Right” inevitably popped into my head, changing the course of handling the call. So how do you make the customer right, even when they’re wrong? And is that really the best practice for your business? There are opposing views on the subject, and both camps have valid reasoning. At the end of the day, though, maybe the answers live somewhere smack in the middle. There are certain techniques that every business should consider a priority, and in doing so, both customers and employees alike will reap the benefits.

Do #1: Do let your customers know that you appreciate their business.

Knowing how to thank a customer for their business is often lost in customer service. This means utilizing follow-up calls or surveys to ensure that the issue has been resolved to their satisfaction. And never underestimate the value of a hand-written thank you note. That small personal touch will separate your business from your competitors.

Do #2. Do make your policies and procedures clear.

Are your employees up to speed on the ins and outs of your customer care protocol? Is it written down, or just “understood” around the office? Any great customer service department has a documented practice for managing customers’ concerns, and its employees are well aware of “the rules.” So, convey this information to your first-contact staff. Schedule regular meetings to discuss what works and what doesn’t, and adjust your techniques accordingly.

Do #3. Do focus on proper business phone etiquette.

When you contact a business, what kind of service do you expect? Do you want to speak with attentive, reliable customer service agents? Of course you do – and so do your customers. Training is a key factor in ensuring the very best experience for every caller, and goes a long way towards first-call resolution stats. Focus on prompt, competent, friendly service. It works, and it paves the way for referred business and a stronger bottom line.

Do #4. Do personalize every call.

Using a customer’s name during a service call sets the tone, showing patrons that they aren’t just another sale, but a real person whose business can make or break yours. Addressing callers by name or asking them how they’d like to be addressed presents the image that you have a vested interest in the outcome of their situation, that your employees are empathetic, and can see the problem from the customer’s vantage point. Talk to callers more like friends and less like dollar signs.

Do #5. Do reward good behavior.

Your employees, not your customers, are your biggest asset. Happy staff leads to increased productivity and a more upbeat approach to customer service. If you don’t already have KPIs in place, create some. When your workers hit those benchmarks, reward them. It can be something as simple as a few extra hours of personal leave, a catered lunch, or even a salary increase down the line. Letting employees know that they are meeting or exceeding your expectations gives them the confidence and motivation to work harder and improve your company’s credibility and reputation for the very best customer care in your industry.

Do #6. Do reframe the issue.

While customers may be quick to list you as their principal problem, it is the service agent’s responsibility to reframe their dilemma. When people are frustrated, their first inclination is to find a scapegoat. Therefore, it should be your first order of business to turn the situation from a “You vs. Them” scenario to an “Us vs. Challenge” scenario. Be positive and action oriented, and your customers will be, too.

Don’t #1: Don’t play the blame game.

When you’re wrong, say you’re wrong. Never argue with a customer. It’s a surefire way to send them packing. Take responsibility for the problem, and then take responsibility for following up with a timely resolution. When something goes wrong with a product, transaction, service, or whatever it is that you are peddling, it’s every employee’s responsibility to work towards a positive outcome.

Don’t #2. Don’t reward bad behavior.

Yes, you want to retain as many customers as possible; otherwise, you’d have no profits to speak of. However, there will be callers who will go out of their way to malign your staff when something doesn’t go their way. When their expectations are totally unrealistic, they demand discounts or free merchandise, or completely disregard the fact that your staff has feelings, then do not give in to their wishes. Doing so shows employees that you share the same disregard for their right to be treated with respect, and it encourages resentment in the workplace – a harbinger of “the beginning of the end.” Employees who don’t feel valued have no desire to work, or at least not work well. Why should they care about customers if you don’t care about their needs? Sometimes, it is necessary for management to take sides. When you see your staff being treated unfairly, make sure their side is the one you take.

Don’t #3. Don’t be afraid of negative online reviews.

Research shows that 96% of unhappy customers won’t complain, but 91% will simply walk away from your business and never come back. How can you improve your products and services if you don’t know what people think? When customers take the time to tell you how they are feeling, let them explain their concerns fully before attempting to jump to a resolution. The more you know, the greater the chance a particular issue will not recur with the complainant, or any future customers.

Don’t #4. Don’t forget to use customer service keywords and phrases in every exchange.

“How can I help you?” “I’m sorry you’re having a difficult experience. What can I do to alleviate your concerns?” “I’ll follow up to ensure this issue is resolved as quickly as possible.” “I don’t know the answer to that question, but let me find out and get back to you.” Several key phrases have the ability to immediately deescalate a sticky situation. Make these a part of new employee training, and regularly remind your staff that a little understanding goes a long way.

The bottom line is, whether the customer is right or wrong isn’t the question. The real question is, how will your company’s management team address customers’ concerns, and would you rather give offensive customers everything they want at the expense of your staff, or give staff the respect they deserve at the expense of a few accounts? Not every situation will have an ideal outcome, and there are exceptions to every rule. So, put your best foot forward with the intent to satisfy all parties, and for everything else, you’ll cross that bridge when you come to it.

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