Foreword Online

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Talking to Your Angriest Customer

Posted by Kate Seat on 7/17/15 4:27 AM
Topics: college store customer service

It's inevitable that at some point you're going to find yourself dealing with a less-than-satisfied customer. That's just a fundamental fact of retail. It is possible, however, to transform a negative experience into a positive one.

To help you diffuse even the most heated customer service situation, check out these tips we've selected from a post on the Help Scout blog.

Talking to Your Angriest CustomerHarsh words are not always indicative of insight. Complaints are not always a sign that something is wrong.

Be that as it may, great feedback can be buried within the vitriol—give credence to every message.

Oftentimes, a negative experience can be salvaged and turned into an opportunity. Being able to assess and address customer complaints is key to making this happen.

Data suggests that nine out of ten times, a customer will continue doing business with you even after a slip-up—but only if you wholly fix the situation the first time.

Look Past the Fury for Friction

It’s a fallacy to assume that just because someone is behaving wildly, his or her argument has no merit. Complaints, even angry ones, can contain insight—it’s your job to seek out the friction.

Evernote CEO Phil Libin offers up one of my favorite truisms on listening to feedback: “Feedback is great for telling you what you did wrong. It's terrible at telling you what you should do next.”

Socratic questioning, whether to the customer or to yourself, can help get to the source of the issue. Okay, the customer’s angry—is this because we weren’t clear with our copy? Is our user experience setting the customer up for failure? Did we drop the ball with our communication?

Don’t Be Passive-Aggressive

“We’re sorry that you are having this problem” is an infuriating phrase for a customer to hear. It is nothing more than the deferment of blame.

Far too many use this sort of language by accident. The attempt to apologize comes off as dismissive, all thanks to a misuse of tone.

Just say you’re sorry. Even when the customer is being unreasonable, apologize outright and ask how you might help resolve the issue. If you come across a lost cause, keep it friendly, keep it professional, and keep it moving.

Use Supportive Questioning

There is a fine line between following up and inadvertently swaying a customer to dwell upon his bad mood.

Let’s look at these two responses:

“Is there anything else wrong?”

“How else can I help you today?”

Asking a customer a leading, negative question such as #1 is asking for a negative outcome. Conversely, inquiring how you may be able to further assist shows that you are ready and willing to address anything else the customer needs.

Verify the Resolution

Have you ever submitted something through an online form, and after you hit submit there wasn’t a single confirmation on whether or not anything had happened?

It’s incredibly frustrating. You don’t have a clue where your issue—and any hope of resolving it—stands.

The same principle applies when communicating with customers. You want to be absolutely sure that the customer is clear on the resolution that occurred and that it met his or her needs. If you’re not ending your responses with an inviting question, you may be creating unnecessary trouble.

"Let me know if there's anything else I can do for you—I'm happy to help!"

That’s a good place to start. Even a simple, "Are you all set?" will do.

Treat Them with Genuine Respect

Customers want to be treated with respect. The day you stop talking to them like regular people is the day you lose touch and relevance. After that, you start losing customers.

So don’t talk to them like a corporate stiff—this is a conversation, not “correspondence.” However, also avoid the flipside, which is pandering through pleasantry. It’s disingenuous to act like you can force your good mood down an unhappy customer’s throat. Worse yet, it’s downright creepy.

Please—spare me your insincerity.

Providing great support means finding a demeanor comfortable to the people you are serving, no matter the situation. Justin, our support lead, describes it as such:

We do not offer up platitudes. We are not obnoxiously bubbly, cheery, or “zestful.”

We don’t wage a campaign of aggressive happiness. We do not offer foot massages or roll out the red carpet for people who treat our team members poorly (it’s a two-way street).

Help Scout is fond of the Ritz-Carlton principle, to be “Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” We hold doors, offer a strong handshake, and will pass on the last piece of pie—unless it’s pumpkin.

We care about the customer experience, top to bottom, but that doesn't mean we behave like a caricature. It means being consistently helpful and unquestionably genuine.


A really useful method for consistently handling upset customers can be found in Robert Bacal’s book, If It Wasn’t for the Customers I’d Really Like this Job. Bacal’s practices are known as the CARP method, which consists of:

  • Control
  • Acknowledge
  • Refocus
  • Problem solve

In other words, take control of the situation with language that shows you are ready to handle concerns and don’t intend to play games. Acknowledge that you completely understand your customer’s concerns and won’t be brushing them off.

Next, refocus away from the customer’s emotions to the solution at hand, outlining how you’ll take care of it. Finally, solve the problem, confirming that everything has been resolved to the customer’s satisfaction.

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