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How to turn fuming customers into lifelong fans

January 25, 2012
Posted at 09:57 AM ET, 01/19/2012

What the —-!? We placed our order six —- weeks ago and it didn’t arrive until —- today! On top of that, you sent us the wrong —- thing! How do you sleep at night!? —-!!!

One expert says small business owners are the worst at handling conversations with irate customers, whether they take place on the phone, in person or online. (Michael Probst – AP) Not many moments are as miserable for business owners as those spent on the phone with a furious customer. Head buried in one hand, the other hand holding the receiver several inches away from your ear – there’s really nothing left to do except endure the wrath and shake it off later.

Not so fast, according to one customer service expert. On the contrary, when handled wisely, those interactions can actually turn fuming critics into loyal customers.

“Even something as simple as acknowledging the problem and admitting your company is at fault, that might be enough to give your customer a heart attack right there,” said John Tschohl, a customer service consultant and educator for more than three decades and author of a handful of best-selling books on the subject. “Customers don’t hear that sort of admission very often. Whether it’s on the phone, in person or online, you can quickly turn an irate person into an advocate for your business.”

Small business owners are “the worst offenders” when it comes to mishandling customer service problems, he said, namely because they pinch pennies when it comes to training employees on how to approach disgruntled customers – and as a direct result, many small businesses either stay small or go out of business entirely.

“One of the most important parts of providing great service is teaching people how to handle difficult situations with angry customers,” he said. “Because now matter how good your business is, mistakes happen from time to time.”

So when that angry customer does call, here are Tschohl’s six steps for difusing the situation and gaining a new advocate for your company.

1. Listen carefully: Most business owners and managers don’t actually listen to the customer, as some get lost in “all the screaming and hollering” and others simply ignore the complaints altogether. “Listening doesn’t mean completely shutting up,” Tschohl said. “It means responding with ‘aha’ and ‘okay’ and ‘I understand’ now and then, so they know you are really paying attention.”

2. Apologize, don’t blame: Your goal is to solve the customer’s problems, not enter into a debate over which party is to blame for the situation at hand. “Simply acknowledge that your company made an error and that you regret the inconvenience,” he said. “Most people never apologize because they’re afraid they’re going to lose face or because they don’t believe they were the one at fault. But that’s not the point.”

3. Express empathy: Customers will respond well to signs that you understand and care about how it must feel to be in their shoes. “A line like ‘I can understand how angry you must be that the pizza didn’t come on time, I would be pretty angry too’ can go a long way to calm the customer down and give you a chance to fix the problem,” Tschohl said.

4. Ask specific questions: Before you begin trying to solve the problem, be certain you know exactly what the problem is – the last thing you want to do is spark yet another miscommunication. “Ask the customer to go over everything with you one more time, detail by detail,” he said. “Check at the end to make sure you’ve covered all of their problems so you don’t forget to address anything they’ve mentioned.”

5. Propose alternatives: If possible, give the customer several choices when proposing solutions, allowing them to pick which option would best remedy their particular grievances. “Nearly all companies have things of high value and low cost that they can give away to the customer to make up for mistakes,” Tschohl said. “But companies don’t always take that option, and they rarely give their employees the power to offer that sort of compensation.”

6. Solve the problem quickly: Once you have come to an agreement with the customer, follow through on your part of the deal quickly and accurately. “Offer them wings right now to make up for their late pizza, or offer them a round of drinks right this second while they wait for their table,” he said. “Make an empowered decision and make it quickly.”

Follow On Small Business and J.D. Harrison .

By  |  09:57 AM ET, 01/19/2012

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