How To Handle Angry Customers And Provide An Outstanding Customer Experience.

Young businessman holding card with a angry face on it isolated

Having an enraged customer yelling at you can be a very daunting experience, and the better you are prepared for it, the better you will be able to turn the situation around and satisfy your customer.

Generally speaking, a customer (who is a human being, remember) can be quite forgiving of an incident if it is handled correctly. It’s not really about whether you make a mistake – because no one is perfect – it’s really about how you handle the mistake the moment it happens.

A Personal Experience:

To give you an example, last summer we vacationed at the stunning JW Marriott luxury resort in Phuket, where the service was just amazing. We stayed there for three weeks, and during the three weeks there were one or two incidents where we received poor service.

Personally, I find this acceptable, because we must have had hundreds of interactions with their staff during our trip, the vast majority of which were pleasurable. Considering that we received poor service in less than a fraction of one percent of the total interactions we had, I’m totally satisfied.

But more importantly, they always managed to handle the poor service incidents quite well. As an example, one day while sitting at the pool, half of our lunch order was delivered completely wrong – and that after a long wait. The guy taking our order was really incompetent so I got really annoyed and complained. I demanded to see the manager, who came promptly and apologised profusely.

He remedied the situation and offered us free juices while we waited. Later he also served us the correct lunch himself. He more than made up for the mistake.

Customer Service vs. Customer Experience:

In my view, customer service is about the short-term interaction a customer has with a business, like buying something at the counter, or ordering an item online. Though it’s vital to get this right of course, what’s far more important is that the whole
experience a customer has with you is pleasurable and memorable. Going back to the JW Marriott Phuket example, our senses were always positively engaged.

The place is aesthetically beautiful and virtually everywhere you look you see something nice, like the infinity pool overlooking the beach, the works of art hanging on every wall, the beautifully landscaped gardens etc. Also, the sounds were beautiful as well. Depending on where you were in the resort, you would hear either soothing music, birds chirping or the sounds of small waterfalls. It was amazing.

The place also smelled “fresh”, and there were different scented candles in some of the main areas. And don’t get me started about the food! It was absolutely amazing! Just amazing!

The point I’m making is that Marriott went to great lengths to design a unique and memorable customer experience. Designing the customer experience process is just as important, if not more important, than the design of the resort and it’s facilities. It’s the software that makes the hardware possible. Get my point?

A service culture:

Places like the JW Marriott group (which also owns the Ritz-Carlton) have a strong service culture that put the guest at the centre of the experience design process. So if you want your Team Members to provide great service – and handle complaints properly – put a lot of effort into creating a powerful, people-oriented culture.

Back to handling angry customers:

I’ll share how we do it at the DreamBody Centre (DBC), taken directly from one of our operations manuals:

1. Remain Calm. Remember that it is not personal. the angry customer is not angry at you personally but at something specific that happened.

2. Listen! This is by far the most important step – just shut up and listen. Do not interrupt! Do not start being defensive or justify what happened. Nod as he talks, make eye contact and listen to what he has to say. Get all the facts (Who, What, Where, When, How.) Let him finish without interruption. Often times you will find that the person might feel better once he’s had the chance to express himself. You might know exactly how to answer the person, or how to solve his problem, but still, do not interrupt. Doing so will only annoy him more. And he might start all over again. I’ve noticed that people will often calm down on their own once they’re given the opportunity to express themselves without interruption.

3. Empathise. This doesn’t mean that you agree with what the customer has to say even if he’s wrong. But you still acknowledge the fact that the customer is upset and distressed. Get on their side by showing empathy. You can say something like, “I understand exactly how you feel. I would feel the same if (repeat situation back to him)”. Do not jump to solving the problem immediately. Show him that you care, by acknowledging what he has to say.

4. Repeat. Repeat back to him the main points he’s raised as you understood them. This will show that you care and clears up any misunderstandings or vague points. Say “Okay, let me just make sure I understood you correctly”, then repeat the points raised as you understood them. He will then either confirm what you are saying or explain further. If he has more to add then again listen to what he has to say. And repeat that back to him afterwards.

5. Apologise and take action. Here you should fix the mistake asap and thrown in a courtesy gift. If the customer is angry about one of your policies that you cannot change, politely and respectfully explain why the policy is in place and that you cannot change it, but compensate him any other way you can, “I’m sorry I cannot do anything about X, but as compensation I can offer you Y.”

If handled correctly, a complaint can be turned into a customer service success story, which can turn an angry customer into an advocate.

Scenario training:

At the DBC we do a lot of scenario training on customer service. This prepares the Team Members better when for some reason a customer might be angry about something.

Remember to empower!

At the Ritz-Carlton their “ladies and gentlemen” (that’s what they call their employees) can spend up to $ 2,000 per guest per day to solve a guest problem without taking anyone’s approval. I love it!

Here’s an example of what happens when you don’t empower your Team. I have a loyalty card with one of the five star hotels here in Bahrain. I get a discount whenever I have a meal there in one of the restaurants. When I first purchased the loyalty card in the mid 2000’s I was given a booklet full of vouchers and discount coupons, one of which was for BD 20 (around USD 53) which could be used in any of the hotel’s restaurants. The fine print on the voucher read “not valid for Eid holidays.”

A few months later, on our national day holiday, I took my wife to the Japanese restaurant in the hotel. I decided to use the BD 20 discount voucher. When he saw the voucher, the waiter said that we could not use it because it was national day. Annoyed, I explained to him that voucher was not allowed to be used on Eid holiday, it did not say anything about national day.
Confused, he said “let me ask my manager.” After about a ten minute wait, the manager finally came. She looked at the voucher and said “Sir, this voucher cannot be used today.” Now I was really annoyed! I showed her the voucher and asked her to show me where it said that I could not use it on national day. She looked at the voucher nervously, but was too afraid to make a decision.
She said “Sir I need to call the Food and Beverage Manager.” “Fine, call him!” I said. For me it became a matter of principle. I could have just paid the bill in full and be on my way – because I really hate my time being wasted – but I wanted to see the matter through.

To make things more interesting, the F&B manager was not on duty, and they had to call him on his mobile. They eventually got through to him and he said that it was okay to use the discount voucher. Thank you for stating the obvious, I thought to myself.
I had to wait twenty minutes for the whole matter to be resolved, all because this five star hotel did not empower it’s employees. It ruined my dinner experience, and what’s worse for the hotel, I told many people about the incident.

To summarise, you cannot separate customer service from the overall customer experience process. Also, you need a powerful service-oriented culture and empower your Team Members if you want them to handle complaints correctly. And finally, remember to do scenario training!


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