By Cheryl Crumb

There’s no shortage of upset people in the world.  Some days it seems like all of them have found their way to our doorstep.  This is one of the most difficult situations to manage, and it happens frequently in our business and personal lives. 


The customer yells at us and our instinctive, knee-jerk reaction is usually polarized:  fight or flight.  The former includes defending and attacking and the latter involves ignoring and hoping it will go away.



  •  Customer screams, “You’re late for the second time.  How can I trust you?!”.
  • Fight response:  “If you hadn't changed your mind 5 times we would have been on time.”
  • Flight response:  Click!


Effectiveness of these interactions?  Perhaps momentarily personally satisfying, but ultimately relationship-destroying.


If our instinctive response is insufficient, what’s better?  I suggest a four-phased process that will help us in these difficult times. 


 Managing Upset Customers



The hardest part of empathy is not pretending.  It’s about metaphysically putting yourself in your customer’s shoes and allowing yourself to feel what s/he must be experiencing.  It allows you to appreciate the difficulty of their situation.  It’s not about right/wrong, guilt admission, falling on your sword or pious clichés.  Your acknowledgement needs to genuinely validate their right to be upset.  Your words, voice and body language must be congruent.   Biggest caution:  Don’t say, “I know how you feel!”.  It’s presumptuous….and you don’t.  You’ll get caught.


Why is empathy so important?  Until your customer ( substitute spouse, friend, colleague, boss, neighbor….) believes that you “get it”, they’re incapable of listening to your well-intended promises of action.  The venting you hear may or may not be personally aimed at you, but the gasket needs to expel this force if it is to eventually become rational again.  This phase only ends when the customer’s venting has ceased.  Moods may reignite and if so, more empathy is called for.  Emotions become the cotton balls that prevent our ears from hearing!



This is the second phase of managing upsets and the goal is to understand the background and issues surrounding the complaint.  It is NOT a trigger to say the words, “I understand”!  Why not?  Because you don’t understand until you’ve listened, questioned, listened more, questioned again and finally summarized.  The rule for summarizing is “feelings first, facts last”, which continues to show our customer that we’re aware of the impact of the problem on him as well as the details and context surrounding the issue.



Offer Response

The first two steps earn you the right to offer a response, which is the third phase in our process.  Now you have enough information to offer something valuable, and the customer’s blood pressure has reduced to a level where he’s capable of listening to possibilities. 


Keys include:  offer alternatives.  Customers need to be able to make a choice in this situation which has until now robbed them of their power.  Begin by summarizing all of the actions you CAN do.  Set expectations by admitting what you CANNOT do.  Keep the sequence as stated:  positives (can do) first, followed by negatives (can’t do) later.  Starting with all the things we cannot do is a guarantee of  reigniting soaring blood pressure. 


The temptation is to deal only with offers to correct the problem.  It has urgency and it’s responsive.  Keep in mind that offering alternatives on how this problem can be prevented is optimally most valuable to everyone.  And what if the customer was partially or mostly at fault?  Rather than talk about who was wrong, words guaranteed to re-trigger the BP reaction, talk neutrally about causes and actions to prevent those causes from recurring. 




In any crisis conversation, customers need the last word.  Until they agree to accept the promised solutions, you're continuing the Upset Merry Go Round.  So, get that acceptance or find out what’s still missing for them. 


A final word

Managing this process is a skill and it will be as awkward and jerky as when you learned to ride a bike a thousand years ago.  The bad news is….it takes lots of practice: the good news is…..we're surrounded by upset people to practice on!




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