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The Customer is Always Right? What to do When a Customer Abuses Your Employee

By: Susan Solovic


Business is more customer-centric than ever before and that’s a good thing. However, there are times when customers can become abusive.

First we need to understand that there’s a difference between being irate and being abusive. We need to expect irate customers, but how do you judge when an irate customer crosses over into being abusive?
When upset customers personally insult your employee, use foul language or make threats, they have crossed the line. Let’s get a little ahead of ourselves for a moment and say that when this threshold is crossed, you or a higher level manager needs to step in and bail your employee out of the situation.  But before it gets to that point, it’s important to train your employees to handle irate and difficult customers so very few encounters every escalate to that level. Here are some guidelines that cover situations over the phone and in person.
Be quick to listen
The thing that can really “set off” customers is if they don’t think your employee is “hearing what they’re saying.” Train your employees to stop talking and listen to the customer. This is different than just giving the irate customer time to vent.
After listening to the customer, have your employees repeat or summarize what they heard. This gives the customer a chance to clarify any misunderstanding and also reassures the customer that your employee has, in fact, been listening.  Don’t rush this step. If this is a phone conversation, don’t allow your employee to go down a script like a robot. That’s throwing gasoline on the fire.
Be slow to speak and speak slowly
Your employee needs to stay calm. If the customer begins to feel “rushed” or “pushed” into some predetermined outcome, it’s bad for everyone. If the customer needs time to go through the problem again, that’s fine.
The more time and space your employee creates from the initial burst of anger, the better it is for your employee. Bright flames burn out quickly. If the heat of the moment turns into verbal abuse, have your employee tell the customer that he or she needs to refer the situation to the owner, manager or supervisor.
If someone in authority is not available, the employee should calmly and politely tell the customer that the abuse is inappropriate and to call back when calm. If the situation is in person, the employee should politely tell the customer to come back later when settled down. If the customer does not leave, call security or the police.
Sympathize and apologize
Your employee should express sympathy and understanding, and apologize in a way that’s appropriate for the situation. For example, your company may need to apologize for an error, or it might just need to “apologize” for the customer’s frustration: “I’m sorry you’ve had such a difficult time. I understand how you feel about this. Let me see what I can do.”
Explain what’s possible
Your employee should clearly lay out the relief that can be applied to the situation and ask which solution would the customer prefer. If none of the options available to your employee satisfy the customer, it’s time to bring in a supervisor. The customer will probably request it.
When management steps in
When the abusive or unsatisfied customer gets pushed up to the management level, often there is an immediate easing of tensions. The same guidelines for listening, speaking and apologizing apply.
Patience and calmness rule all of these encounters and time is on your side. An irate customer who can be turned into a satisfied customer is one of the biggest assets a small business can have. Always give it your best effort to diffuse any volatile situation.
This article was originally published by Susan Solovic
Published: February 11, 2014

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Susan Solovic

Susan Wilson Solovic is an award-winning serial entrepreneur, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Amazon.com and USA Today bestselling author, and attorney. She was the CEO and co-founder of SBTV.com—small business television—a company she grew from its infancy to a million dollar plus entity. She appears regularly as a featured expert on Fox Business, Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, CNBC and can be seen currently as a small business expert on the AT&T Networking Exchange website. Susan is a member of the Board of Trustees of Columbia College and the Advisory Boards for the John Cook School of Entrepreneurship at Saint Louis University as well as the Fishman School of Entrepreneurship at Columbia College. 

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