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CUSTOMER SERVICE

The 5 Smartest Things to Say to an Angry Customer

Forget trying to "win." Instead, make the customer feel you're working together to make things right.
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For all the money you spend training your customer service staff, the essence of what you need them to do boils to five key phrases. Teach them these, and you'll find you'll win back most of your disgruntled customers.

Let's start with the most important phrase, which also happens to be the simplest:

“I’m sorry.”

Oh yeah, your legal team is waving red flags. “We can’t admit fault,” they say. “We should never imply something is wrong.” My response, “Ignore them.” Read on.

Any time a customer is forced to call your support line, your company has likely failed in some way—either the product or service is actually flawed, the documentation wasn’t clear, or the customer’s expectations weren’t well-managed by marketing or sales. 

You might be thinking, “What about those customers who mistreat products and then want their money back?” Toss that thought. I’m not saying that customers never mangle the merchandise. Of course they do. What I am saying is that no customer plans to become disgruntled. I’ve never heard of anyone purposely spending money on a product or service on the outside chance they might win an argument with a customer service rep three months down the road. Even if someone did, it would  be such a rare occurrence that you would never want to design your entire customer relations philosophy around it.

Besides, an apology isn’t a confession of culpability. It’s a statement of compassion. A sincere apology tells your customer that you regret his having to interrupt his day to make that call. An apology defuses the situation and can allow for a conversation in which you get an opportunity to diagnose what went wrong, with the possibility of preventing similar future problems. And, that brings me to the second  more important thing to say,

“We’re going to solve this together.”

When your customers decide to purchase your product or service, they commit to a financial relationship with you. When problems arise, they want to know that you’re willing to listen and aren’t going to run for the door. A positive statement that you are willing to work with them to find a solution, rather than being their adversary, begins a conversation that can be your best insurance against that customer going rogue and blasting you on the Internet.

“What would you consider a fair and reasonable solution?”

Why this isn’t the first question out of every support person’s mouth amazes me. Asking a customer what she would consider a decent deal creates a starting place for negotiation, sets the expectation level (fair and reasonable), and asks her to make the first offer for an amicable agreement. Besides, you might be pleasantly surprised by her answer. I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard from customers who initially would have been pleased with just an apology. (See above.)

Watch out for alternate phrasing such as “How can I make you happy?” or “How can I help you?” They can sound patronizing or appear to minimize the importance of a complaint. Besides, the obvious answer always is, “You need to convince me that I didn’t make a mistake by spending my money with your company.”

“Are you satisfied with our solution, and will you consider doing business with us in the future?”

This isn’t the same as “Have I taken good care of you today?” or “Have all of your questions been answered?” The goal of every support call needs to be greater than just solving the immediate problem. The real measure of success will be whether you’ve managed to preserve the investment you’ve already made in a customer. If the answer to either side of the question is “No”, you’ve still got work to do.

“Thank you.”

At first glance, it may seem like your customer should be the one expressing gratitude. But think about it. In his mind, he paid for a product or service that didn’t perform as expected, and was then required to spend professional or personal time to work out a remedy. On the other hand, you’ve likely gained important information about product performance and how customers perceive your company. In my mind, that’s certainly worth a “thank you.”

These phrases are not magic bullets that will solve all your customer service conflicts. They are simply a framework for collaborative problem solving and collectively present an attitude of “We’re in this together” rather than “We’re out to win.” That kind of cooperative approach minimizes the number of combative customer interactions and more often results in satisfactory solutions.

IMAGE: iStock
Last updated: Mar 28, 2012

RON BURLEY | Columnist

Ron Burley is a nationally recognized consumer advocate and serial entrepreneur. He is the author of Unscrewed: The Consumer's Guide to Getting What You Paid For and senior partner at Brushfire Consulting.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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