Classified Readers: Dealing with an Angry Customer

(Originally published on Sunday, July 4, 2010.  Personal details have been removed.)

Advice from the people who know best: customers and those in customer service

Customer service—good and bad—is a concern all Filipinos have, whether as a customer or as employees wishing to improve their careers. Over half of all employed Filipinos are in the services sector, according to the National Statistics Office’s April 2010 report. Sadly, the sector is rarely noted for professionalism—let’s face it, we value good service because we get it so rarely.

Thus angry customers are not a rarity in the workplace. Sometimes their anger is unjustified; have you heard that recording of an abusive customer demanding to be connected to the US branch of a certain bank? She roundly cursed and abused the hapless and blameless customer service representative, who to his credit maintained his calm throughout the curse-laden diatribes (the woman called back several times).

But other times, customers become angry for good reason. I can’t count the number of surly cashiers, rude salespersons, and downright incompetent waiters and managers I’ve encountered.

Whatever the reason, Classifieds readers answered the question, ‘How would you deal with an angry customer?’ And their answers were helpful, indeed. (In cases where readers sent in similar answers, we’ve quoted the person who sent the answer in first. Responses have been edited for grammar, spelling, and clarity.)

Be Ready for It

Corleto Manuel draws on his experience as a call center agent and shares this advice: “Since I (began) taking and solving customer concerns , I (understood that the) customer is always right even though sometimes, (they can be) wrong and inconsiderate. (Try to) remember (that) the customer is not actually irate at you personally but the situation.”

A former customer service operations manager for a large multinational company,

Imelda Cruz-Maghirang, 47, a businesswoman from Parañaque, made it a point to be prepared for customer complaints, focusing on techniques that work. “As a manager, I ensured (that I was) available to help the front liners and supervisors in case problem escalation is required to finally solve a customer complaint(s). My voice projection is equally important to give (a) good impression to the customer as I listen to her/his concerns. After listening and empathizing, I let the customer know that I am acting to give the final solution, whether it will be done by another group or by our own department. I give my contact numbers (so the customer can) reach me personally and a timeline when it will be finally resolved. Should there be changes to the timeline (we) committed, the customer (is) informed ahead of time…My staff and I (are) ready to give alternative actions towards resolution.”

Don’t Avoid the Issue

Entrepreneur Carlo Cruz, 34, of Quezon City advises that you tackle the issue head on. “I will attend to (the angry customer) and (ascertain why s/he is) angry. Then I will offer help and give (the customer) sympathy by coming up with a solution…that (fits) his/her wants, needs, and priorities.”

“We Pinoys are nonconfrontational,” says Mia Cheng of Mandaluyong, “but we should not disrespect the customer by hiding or avoiding conflict by just saying sorry. We must find out what the problem is and exert genuine efforts to address it, then afterwards we must be (sincere) in our intention to improve.”

Stay Calm

A common Pinoy reaction is to meet anger with anger, but remember, anger is also a sign of guilt and resolves nothing. Melanie Chan, 34, of Las Piñas City learned this the hard way: “I was an agent in a call center before, and most of the time, I just reciprocated the emotions of an angry customer. But things changed when I became a quality analyst. What I usually tell my agents is that handling an angry customer is like dealing with an angry Mom nagging you for coming home late. All you have to do is listen first, empathize with them, explain (or educate) why the issue happened, and assure action plan or resolution. One golden rule is, never fight back.”

Peter Carillo points out that in dealing with an angry customer, one “must be circumspect and prudent. Firstly, we must remember the general rule that we can’t fight fire with fire and win.” That’s because your job “is to win them over to the company’s side, not turn them away,” and quotes Proverbs, “A soft answer turns away wrath,” pointing out that a low, calm voice tends to diffuse tension. “Speak in a relaxed manner and the customer will be relaxed as well,” he says, adding that if, for example, you are a call center agent answering a call and “the customer starts ranting about a bad service or a financial issue…take a deep breath and listen actively…after the customer has unloaded (their concerns)…paraphrase what they just said to show that you…were seriously listening. It is also a means of validating and confirming what they said and a way of making them feel that they are important,” and sometimes that’s all they want.

Oliver Erwin Ele of Marilao, Bulacan adds this gem of advice: “I usually (hold on to) my patience and talk to them to know what they want. The rationale is, you cannot control the customer’s anger, but you can control your responses.”

Benjamin Peralta, 31, says not to sweat the small stuff. “Just treat it as an ordinary situation. For…instance, (if) my wife is very angry and yells at me profusely, I make sure that I listen to her first. During (her) yelling period, I try to figure out what went wrong. (I) think fast and come up with (the most) acceptable solution possible. Do not focus on the blaming someone else but try to address (the problem) directly.

Listen to the Customer

Jeralyn Flor, 26, of Mandaluyong shares a mantra that’s worth remembering: “(First) I will listen (to) the angry customer; then while I am listening, I will understand, and analyze (the situation) and give the “right solution” to (address the) customer’s concerns.”

“Let him/her speak up. It is a no-no to butt in while a customer talks. You should listen and understand what his/her concerns are, so by the time s/he is done, you will have something to (say) and solutions to offer,” says Joey Apostol Avila, 26, of Valenzuela.

Let the Customer Have His or Her Say

Josephine Rebutar advises Classifieds readers in customer service to let angry customers ‘vent’ their feelings. “Let (them) say whatever (they) wanted to say; don’t interrupt and don’t get affected. If (they’re) done, say:  ‘I understand your feelings; I would have done the same if I were you.’ Be calm in saying it and try to pacify the customer. Never, never fight back. Speak in a low tone and tell (them) that you are there to help…try to help in resolving their concerns in a very (understanding) and considerable manner. ‘Attack’ the problem not the person. Explain the situation and (show genuine) concern and s/he will be pacified.”

Don’t Make the Customer Wait

“Stay calm and don’t smile as if you are happy about the situation. Four things I learned in the past: 1) Listen so you can hear the actual complaint; 2) Ask him/her what s/he wants to be done about the situation but never give any promises; 3) make sure the customer service representative knows all the departments for proper endorsement; and 4) an angry customer must not wait for more than a minute,” says Dante Pascual, 30, an entrepreneur from Parañaque.

Clarify the Issue

Carillo gives an example of a customer calling about a disputed billing. “If the issue is about a US$10 surcharge on her bill, paraphrase what she said: ‘Ms. Sanders you said you called to complain about the US$10.00 surcharge because you think your initial payment of US$120 already covers (this), am I correct?’” He points out that doing so will calm down the customer as you show that “you indeed listened to what she said and are making it your issue as well, not just hers…While you are trying to clarify some salient points in her complaint, be sure to ask the right questions. Refrain from asking questions that call for ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answers because that will…end the discussion. Ask “What,” “Why,” and “How” (questions to) encourage her to explain further. This also helps you…get a good grasp (on) the problem.” Then you can address the problem as needed.

Choose Your Words Carefully

If the customer is angry and you discover it’s due to an oversight on his or her part, “pray to God quickly for wisdom to give you the right words to say and how to say them so that you won’t offend her and cause her to start (ranting) again,” says Carillo. He advises that you “avoid using words like ‘You’ or…are negative in meaning and that serve to convey to the customer the thought that she is given to overlooking what she reads or worse, that she’s dumb. (The key is) proper communication, (whether) verbal, non-verbal, or para-language. (Listeners respond to the) tone of voice 38% (of the time), 55% (to) our non-verbal gestures and a measly 7% to what we say.”

Don’t Be Pushy

“Don’t force the customer to accept a certain replacement or to do something,” advises Marah Del Castillo, 27, of Davao. “Being pushy is not the way to settle an argument; the point of entertaining customer complaints is to serve, not to win or lose, let’s remember that.”

Even if you are under pressure as you have a quota of calls to meet at work, Carillo advises that they not “be pushy in handling an irate customer over an issue” lest “the problem (be) escalated instead of resolved.” Donna Lapairan, a call center agent, adds, “There’s a reason why it’s called customer service: it’s not about you, it’s about keeping the customer, who is the company’s lifeblood and reason for being, happy enough to keep patronizing your services.”

Watch the Way You Say Things

“More people are turned off by the manner in which you convey your opinion even if what you are saying is right,” Carillo points out. You might be misinterpreted if you’re not careful, leading to comments like, “Hey, why are you yelling at me?” Or, “I don’t like the sound of your voice.” Carillo says this can give a bad impression even if “what you said was the truth. It can spell the difference between a consummated sale or a lost one, or a resolved problem and an escalated one.

Mind Your Manners

“Treat the customer like an angry lover,” advises Jean Malaine Derenes of Bulacan. “You have to (court customers) to get (them) to see your viewpoint, make (them) believe that you want only the best for them…and be sincere!”

Carillo shares several basic etiquette points which a lot of us forget: “Desist from interrupting when the customer is talking. (Do not talk) over him/her!”

Don’t Waste the Customer’s Time

“When it’s your turn to talk, don’t waste too much time saying sorry, take the time to explain and comfort the customer!” says Allan Jimenez.

Zoe, 28, of Quezon City and a call center agent, says, “The best way to handle an angry customer is to approach him/her in a very polite manner since you are professional. Let the customer explain why s/he is mad and give the assurance that you will do everything to find a solution to the problem, then apologize for any inconvenience.”

Carillo adds, “Speak directly about the issue at hand only; stop beating around the bush (like we Filipinos are likely to do)…Express appreciation for (the customer raising the issue) regardless of who ‘won’ the momentary verbal ‘tussle’ between the two of you. When you do, you will end up making your customer your friend who will want to call up your company again and again on account of your efficient call handling skills.”

Learn to Apologize

“The word ‘sorry’ does not cost you a thing,” points out Larry Ucurza. “Don’t spit it out to shut up the customer; say it because you want to improve. ‘Sorry’ can fix a lot of problems.”

Entrepreneur Lady Anne Lleva, 24, says, “I would sincerely apologize to the customer for the inconvenience s/he encountered and resolve to find the appropriate solution to his or her problem as soon as possible.”

Understand and Empathize

Account executive Peralta points out that “when a customer approaches you or calls you it means two things: either s/he’s (inquiring about) something or s/he’s upset with the service. It is unlikely that a client will call and say s/he’s delighted with your service. So when you receive a call, try to assess what s/he wants exactly. During conversation, be prepared not only to address the issue but also to (get) some hints. Read the client. A client may be complaining but (may) only want a refund or a discount. Validate (the) details of the conversation. Now if a client is really mad, try to focus on the procedure lapse. Every company has (a) trial and error system. A memorandum or boards directive is born because of complaints. Provide (an) immediate solution, and know when the client is ready to listen. The company may have limits but try to be flexible and make them feel that you care for them.”

Joyce F. Barrios of Malabon City, a call center agent agrees and says, “As a customer service representative, you need to have a lot of patience when taking calls. If they are irate, you have to empathize and apologize if necessary. Give (the) assurance that you will provide (the) appropriate information and always show (the) willingness to help.”

Find a Solution

“Put yourself in (your customer’s) shoes. Listen to them. Focus on the problem, and think of a possible solution,” says Ivan, 28, of Bulacan and a computer salesman.

Manuel outlines a plan of action: “1) Listen to customers very carefully. Don’t ever interrupt them. 2) Acknowledge their concerns and if necessary apologize. 3) Assure them that we will do our best to investigate the situation. Explain to the customers why (things) happened. If necessary, give…discounts, refunds or credits for the embarrassment or for the mistakes of the company. 4) Act accordingly…and (present) the best possible solutions to the concern. It can be through email or a call to the customers. 5) Thank the customer and assure them it will not happen again

Follow Up

Peralta adds, My initiative for customer visitor calling them personally, is very effective to regain their confidence to our product, services, and maintain credibility in handing customer complaints with sincerity. This approach makes me well remembered by irate customers who still remember me even if I am no longer connected to the company I worked with. (Compiled and edited by C. F. Bobis)

(For August 2010, let’s go to the other side of the fence. Tell us of the good customer service you’ve received and what you think everyone can learn about customer service from that episode! Also: Got a customer service issue? Why not share it here and have other readers weigh in on it! Email us at mbclassifiedwed AT gmail.com)

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Posted on July 4, 2010, in Classifieds Readers and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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