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'Tis the Season for Holiday Returns
Seven tips for dealing with difficult customers.
Posted Feb 1, 2006
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We hear much about the frustration of shopping during the holidays, from seasonal traffic snarls to packed parking lots and hot, crowded stores. What's often overlooked is the painful experience of serving hostile holiday customers--especially once gifts are given and shoppers, now lacking that special festive feeling, flock to the stores to make returns. As most of us are enjoying some time off, customer service providers have been called upon to work extended hours and present a consistently friendly face (or voice) to hoards of tired, frustrated, or even angry shoppers. While a parking lot altercation might have frosted one customer, another may have grown icy after waiting in line with a feisty toddler. Whatever the reason, these folks can make even the most patient customer service professional want to reach for a glass of stiff holiday cheer. Listen first Fortunately, customer service providers can call on a number of skills to restore the festive mood and make the transaction pleasant and productive for both themselves and their customers. Before attempting to solve the problem, the provider should first identify the motivation behind the customer's emotional presentation. While hearing the customer out, it's important to not be defensive and to manage one's personal reactions. Then, armed with an idea of where the customer is coming from, the successful service provider will then work to ease the tension. Restoring the festive mood When customers are frustrated or angry, it's critical to begin the interaction by addressing the customer's human needs and then to revisit those needs as often as necessary throughout the interaction. By moving back and forth between human and business needs, service providers send the message that they are listening and care about how the other person feels. Consider the following strategies to defuse negative emotions, address the customer's human needs and resolve "uncharitable" situations: 1. Empathize. Show acceptance, not necessarily agreement, for what the customer says and has experienced. 2. Apologize. Express sincere personal regret for a bad experience. If appropriate, apologize on behalf of the organization without blaming internal service partners. 3. Appreciate. Show appreciation for customer feedback or actions that help you understand and resolve the situation. 4. Assure. Let the customer know you are ready and willing to help, and will personally follow through. 5. Confirm. Check your understanding of what the customer said or of what happened. 6. Selectively agree. Although you don't want to automatically concur with every complaint or issue, you can often calm an extremely angry customer by finding something that you can agree upon. This helps to assure the customer that you have heard and understand her complaint. In most cases, agreeing with the facts of the situation serves this purpose. 7. Set limits. Make statements that show that certain words or behaviors are beyond the limits of productive business conversations. Voice tone is crucial when setting limits. You will be most effective when you remain in control, use a reassuring tone, and convey sincerity.
The first five techniques can significantly help ease the tension, but customers who are extremely angry or are making verbal attacks can be more difficult to manage. In those cases, the last two techniques are especially appropriate. Service providers, especially in phone-intensive environments, might be coached to give the customer a polite but firm warning and, if the behavior persists, to terminate the interaction or refer the caller to a supervisor. It helps to remember that both the customer and the service provider have business needs associated with the transaction, so both are motivated to bring things to a mutually beneficial conclusion. About the Author Todd Beck is senior product manager, service portfolio, for AchieveGlobal, an international provider of skills training and consulting services in customer service, sales performance, and leadership. He earned a BA in advertising copywriting and an MBA in marketing from Brigham Young University. Please visit www.achieveglobal.com
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