The Partner Technique

You'll have better luck serving angry customers if you make them feel like you're on their side. This is called the Partner Technique.

Here are some examples of using partner behaviors:

  • Shift your body language so you're both facing the problem together
  • Listen carefully to customers so they feel heard
  • Use collaborative words like "We" and "Let's"

It's hard to be upset at someone who wants to help us. Most customers naturally calm down when they realize you are listening to their issue and trying to be helpful. 

One final note: Being on the customer's side doesn't necessarily mean you aren't on your company's side. It just means that you are making an effort to understand your customer and help them succeed.

Overcorrect When Solving Problems

There’s a great line in the book Human Sigma by John H. Fleming and Jim Asplund:

Feelings are facts.

Customers use feelings to form their perception about the service they receive. These feelings are much stronger, and much more important than what actually happened.

Service failures can create strong feelings about poor service. Research shows that fixing the problem might not be enough to make the customer feel good again.

If we want our customer to feel great, we have to overcorrect.

Here are some examples:

A winery shipped wine to the wrong address. They fixed the problem by sending a new shipment to the correct address and overcorrected by letting the first recipient keep the wine they incorrectly received.

A cable repair technician fixed a glitch in the customer’s cable system and then overcorrected by showing the customer how to boost their wifi reception.

A technical support agent helped a customer access a locked account and then overcorrected by showing the customer some new features that would save her time.

In each of these cases, the customer went from feeling bad about the problem to feeling great about the extra level of service they received. All because of the overcorrect.

Share customer feedback

If you interact with a lot of customers you probably hear plenty of stories. Good, bad, and sometimes ugly. The point is, a lot of valuable customer feedback comes to you that could be used to improve your company's products and services.

Here are some things you can do with customer feedback:

  • Keep track of common complaints and share them with your boss, the product development team, or anyone else who can make a difference.
  • Pass along compliments to your co-workers so they know they've made an impact. 
  • Encourage customers to complete customer satisfaction surveys


The Pre-emptive Acknowledgement

The Preemptive Acknowledgement is the customer service professional's secret weapon against negative emotions. It's very simple to understand, but spotting situations where you can use it effectively can take a little practice. Here's how it works:

Step 1Spot a problem before the customer points it out.

The key here is to spot the problem before the customer has a chance to complain. (Once the customer gets angry you'll no longer be able to use the Preemptive Acknowledgement.) For example, you might notice a customer who has been waiting in line or has been on hold.

Step 2: Acknowledge the situation before the customer complains.

You can do this by apologizing, demonstrating empathy, or thanking the customer for their patience. Your acknowledgement must preempt the customer's complaint or anger for this technique to work. If you acknowledge the situation first, the customer is likely to be okay (as long as you handle it). If you wait for the customer to get upset your job will be much, much harder.

Step 3: Re-focus on a solution.

Re-direct the interaction to focus on a solution rather than the problem.

Here's an example:

"I'm sorry about the wait, but thank you for being so patient! Let's get you taken care of!"

Tell the truth

It may be tempting to exaggerate or bend the facts a little to make a customer feel better when there is a problem. Unfortunately, this tactic often makes things worse in the long run when the customer discovers you gave them inaccurate information.

A better way to handle difficult situations is to tell customers the truth. And then tell them what you plan to do about it.

Here's an example:

My colleague, George, once had to tell 800 airline passengers that their flights were all cancelled due to an ice storm. It was a Sunday and flights weren't scheduled to resume until Wednesday.

George knew the only option was to tell the truth, even though people would be upset with the news. He stood in front of the crowd, announced the flight delay, and then explained his plan to get everyone reaccommodated as quickly as possible.

Passengers weren't thrilled, but at least they now had the information they needed to make informed decisions about their travel.

The Circle of Influence exercise

Some customers are extremely difficult to work with. They routinely leave you frustrated, frazzled, and flummoxed despite your best efforts to please. Keep in mind you'll have two options the next time you encounter the same person:

Option #1: Handle things exactly the same way. (Prepare to be frustrated once again.)

Option #2: Expand your Circle of Influence to try and get a better result.

How the Circle of Influence concept works:

Draw a circle on a piece of paper. Imagine that everything inside of the circle are things you can directly control, such as how you respond to a difficult customer. Now, imagine everything outside the circle are things you can't control, such as what your customer had for breakfast (Angry Man Cereal, perhaps?).

You can expand your Circle of Influence by doing two things:

  1. Stop worrying about things you can't control. (Easier said than done, I know.)
  2. Experiment with changing your own behavior to see if you get a better result.

Relative understanding

An easy way to deliver truly empathetic customer service is to imagine your customer is a close relative.

  • You'd be sure to give a close relative your best advice.
  • You'd demonstrate patience, understanding, and caring for a close relative, even if they were tough to deal with.
  • You'd use your expertise to ensure your close relative had a great experience and didn't encounter any problems.

Using this technique can make demonstrating empathy, ahem, relatively easy.

Thanks to my colleague Wendi Brick, and my Mom (a close relative), who both suggested this technique.

Take it personally

You often hear that the key to helping an angry and upset customer is to avoid taking it personally. I couldn't disagree more! The more personally you take it, the more likely you are to help.

Imagine you encounter an angry customer. If you refuse to take it personally, you might come across as an uncaring, policy-enforcing robot.

Take it personally, however, and you start handling the situation as though the customer is a good friend in need. You see through their anger and empathize with their situation. The empathy you feel for the customer compels you to go the extra mile to find solutions. Your genuine desire to make it happen prompts you to check back with the customer until the problem is resolved and he or she is happy once again.

Express empathy

Many customer service issues can be solved quickly at little or no cost by simply expressing empathy. The challenge is empathy requires two things from customer service providers. First, we must have a relatable experience that is similar to what our customer is going through. Second, we must have the presence of mind to demonstrate that we acknowledge and understand how our customer is feeling.

Here are a few ways you can express empathy:

  • Tell the customer directly that you know how it feels to be in their situation.
  • Make an empathetic statement such as, "I can understand why you'd be frustrated."
  • Pay careful attention to your tone of voice. A warm and soothing tone conveys empathy, but a short, monotone delivery can signal to the customer that you don't care.

Bonus tip: Remember, the purpose of using empathy is to make your customer feel acknowledged and valuable. Avoid shifting the focus from them to you, but telling them your story (unless they ask) or making a comment that suggests you are even worse off than they are.

Complaints are contagious - stop 'em!

We've all been tempted to complain about a difficult customer. Perhaps they were unreasonable, a bit light on brains, or just plain mean. Whatever the reason, we should remember that those of us who don't remember our history are doomed to repeat it.

Let's say you encounter a grumpy customer who just can't be satisfied. Afterwards, you complain about it to a co-worker. This conversation makes you feel better because it validates how smart you are, how dumb the customer was, and the unfairness of it all. Unfortunately, that conversation will stick with you the next time you work with a similar customer and you'll be unlikely to get a better result.

Here's another version of the same story. Let's say you encounter a grumpy customer who just can't be satisfied. Afterwards, you tell a co-worker about how frustrated you were by the situation. Together, you confirm that you did a good job but also brainstorm a few ways you can get better results in the future. The next time you work with a similar customer you get a better result because of what you learned from the last experience.