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Issue Date: August 15, 2006 issue, Posted On: 8/17/2006

Contrary to belief, angry customer is your friend

By Chuck Dennis


Chuck Dennis

Fear not your angry customers.  They are not the enemy. Quite to the contrary, angry customers are possibly some of the best friends your business has.

Every business has had to deal with angry customers.  Even the best-trained, most conscientious customer-centric businesses have occasional lapses where they do not measure up to their customers' expectations. 

When that happens, if you get past the anger, the tone of voice, the occasional insult or invective, you'll realize that angry customers are speaking to you because, although they feel wronged, they also feel that you can help remedy the situation.  This is a golden opportunity to win and solidify your customer's loyalty.

A study by Technical Assistance Research Programs shows that customers who have had a problem resolved successfully and amicably tend to be more loyal than customers who have never experienced a problem with a particular business. 

When a problem arises — where things do not go the way the customer had hoped — smart businesses use this opportunity to fix the error quickly and happily. They learn from the error to ensure that it does not occur again.  And this is where the angry customer helps you.

Here's how successful companies turn angry customers into loyal customers.  

Step One:  Be a smart listener

As all customer-focused businesses know, the world revolves around the customer, not the business.  So when the angry customer calls, it really is your boss calling.  Would you interrupt your boss if he or she were angry? Not if you wanted to stay employed. 

For the same reason it is imperative to let angry customers say their piece.  Do not try to resolve the issue before they've had a chance to explain not only the nature of the problem but also the ramifications it has had on their lives.  The urge to fix a problem before acknowledging the pain is often where service calls go awry.

Many businesses place a high value on resolving calls quickly; they measure average length of call or interaction, and reward their reps for lowering the amount of time spent per incident. 

While this particular metric seems important to the internal operations of many businesses, we have never heard a customer say that the most important aspect of the call was to get off the phone as quickly as possible. 

Frankly, if a customer is concerned enough to call or visit a business, then he or she wants that business to know the exact nature of that problem, and why that problem is bothering him or her.

While it is not pleasant news, what's bothering the customer is exactly the kind of information that businesses need to hear in order to hone their operations. 

Unfortunately, if service reps are trained and rewarded for quickly ending calls, or worse yet, not trained on how to deal with customer anger, then an opportunity to collect this valuable knowledge is lost.  Also lost is any hope of a repeat sale, because that customer's next purchase is going to your competitor.

Step Two:  Be empathetic

When your organization makes an error, or offends a customer in some way, the first order of business is an apology.  If you want to successfully recover from this mishap, you need to know the best way to apologize. 

The first thing is to shut up and listen — do not try addressing the problem or the solution until the customer has said what he or she wants to say.  Apologizing too soon reeks of insincerity. Making excuses for the problem is also inappropriate. Other than asking questions to clarify the problem, your initial responses should be empathetic: "Oh that is not good!" "I can understand why that would be upsetting to you."

Step Three:  Be thankful

It is imperative that the next words out of your mouth are, "Thank you for telling me about this issue." Thanking a customer for complaining not only disarms some of the anger, but it also sets the expectation for the resolution of the issue.  This should be followed immediately by sincerely saying, "I apologize for the inconvenience you have experienced."

Step Four:  Be resolute

Only after Step Three are you ready to discuss the explanation-and resolution--of the problem.

Resolution time is not the time for lame excuses.  Never place the blame for your customer's problem on another employee/department/vendor, or, heaven forbid, on the customer.  Remember, the goal is to resolve the issue to the customer's satisfaction, not to take the heat off of you.

Step Five:  Be forthcoming

Most importantly, do not ever use the dreaded phrase "company policy."  Why?  Company policies are written with the company in mind, not the customer.  And, most people know this. By quoting "company policy" you end up alienating more good customers than you will foil conniving ones.

Even when your policies are in place for good reasons, do not use the phrase "company policy."  It is fraught with negativity.  Instead, simply explain WHY the policy is in place. If there is a good reason, share it! If not, then re-examine it — it may be causing customer unrest.

Armed with new knowledge from angry customers, smart businesses work to prevent similar problems from recurring. Getting on the same side of the issues with your angry customers drives repeat business and referrals — major contributors to profitability.

Chuck Dennis is a principal of Knowledgence Associates. His practice centers around the assessment, strategy, training, implementation, and coaching of a customer-focused business philosophy where everyone who comes into contact with a business is viewed as a customer. He can be reached at (617) 661-8250 or cedennis@knowledgence.com.

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