How to Help a Very Tough Customer

If you are in the business of helping people and selling products you have probably been there, THE VERY VERY UPSET CUSTOMER.

If it hasn’t happened to you, no matter your reputation or what you think you do great, you simply don’t have enough customers yet.  (For instance my children have never had complaints on their lemonade stand.)  A very upset customer, a very tough situation, is going to happen.

So what do you do?

I believe there is a learned process, just like learning a sales process, to handle these steps.  Experience of course helps, but so does knowledge.  I have worked with a lot of people with years of experience that still handle these problems very poorly.

When we handle these poorly, it of course hurts your reputation (and it’s important to note, these upset customers may never LOVE you, but maybe they will at least understand or respect your business) and it is also stressful and often really wears on you.  Yes, handling it badly can really affect YOU and THE CUSTOMER and YOUR BUSINESS.

So, let’s get to it, what’s the process?

One that Drexel account manager Chris Reilly loves to use is H.E.A.T.  (NO it’s not a Lebron throwdown.  But a way to help customers.)   He keeps it taped to his monitor.

H.  Hear them out.  Really listen.  A person yells and is loud because they feel they are not being listened to.  They will start to calm down if they feel you are listening.  So pay attention.  Listen actively – take notes.  Nod your head.  Look at the person and pay attention.  Say “Uh huh” , “Oh, I see”, “Yes, I understand”, etc.

E.  Empathize – it’s not our jobs to be judgmental about whether or not this person deserves to be mad.  They are upset, and we have to help them through it.  Using statements like “That would be a difficult situation” and focusing on using a caring tone of voice will help a lot.

A. Ask Questions – our customers don’t know our buzz-words, jargon or processes.  Make sure you clarify exactly what the problem is so you can work towards fixing it.

T. Take Responsibility – our customers look at government like a huge big black hole. It’s mysterious to most and downright scary to some.  If you build a bridge to an upset customer they will calm down.  Saying something like “I understand your concerns.  My name is Wendi (use your own name).  I’ve helped people in this situation before.  Don’t worry, we’ll get through this together” will help set a customer’s mind at ease.

That’s awesome.  Just a few things I will add.

“Be quick, but don’t hurry.”– John Wooden     To truly help a customer, try to come up with a few possible solutions and then present them to the customer.  Do this as quickly as possible.  Delaying in this will only make the matter worse than it already is.  Douse the flames!   But don’t hurry for a response, let the person consult with others (many will) and some just need time to figure out you are not a big corporate rat trying to screw them.

Do “it” as a team.  Involve as many people as possible from your organization.  It’s a great learning lesson for newbies, seeing it from many views helps, and working as a team vs. solo shares the burden and stress, we can lean on each others. If there are third, four party, businesses related to this, now is the time to include them too for their unique perspective.

Be as honest, transparent, and blunt as possible.  Now is not the time to sugarcoat, save face, or down right lie.  If the customer’s expectation was too high (that’s still your fault, for making it that high!) explain that to them.  If you screwed up admit it.

Never throw anyone under the bus or pass the baton.  There usually is no reason to do this.  If it truly is not your fault, don’t pass the buck. Hand the problem personally to that person.  I didn’t say this was easy, just the best way.  Remember the customer doesn’t want who is responsible, it wants the problem fixed.  Finding who to blame is not solving anything.

It’s NOT EASY.  But if you are in sales, management, or ownership YOU DID SIGN UP FOR IT AND IT IS PART OF YOUR JOB.  It will never go away so be ready for it.  It’s like expecting it will never rain again and then when it does, you lose sleep over it.  Don’t be that guy!

Don’t threaten or sue or go to mediation.  No one wins but lawyers.  Even they admit that.

Suck it up and move on.  Seriously.

DO NOT LET EMOTIONS get into it.  This is business.  When you take it personally (I thought we were friends, I put so much time into it, I didn’t even charge that much, why aren’t they upset about “X” instead) you will get emotional, confrontational and much worse.  Refuse to get emotional.  Just the facts maam.  Just the facts.

Thank them.  OVER AND OVER.  This is not easy for them.  They didn’t want this either.  Somewhere a customer is EVEN MADDER than this customer and they never called you.  That’s worse right?  So, thank them.

Whatever you put in an email, pretend and assume it will be forwarded and put on your facebook page, or on their facebook page.  Read it and if you are proud of what it says and can stand by it, send it.  If you can’t, fix your wording.

Speaking of e-mails…Chain of critical communication goes like this:

face to face




You wouldn’t get a text if your mom dies.  You wouldn’t have to meet face to face to schedule coffee with a friend.

Handle it and assume you will run into them weekly at church and they will be sitting behind you.  That will help you think of them as a person and not “a customer.”

I don’t have people sign off that “they will never bad mouth me again.”  What, are you really going to sue them?  Is this a professional way to end? I can’t see any reason to do it, but to annoy the customer one final time.

If you think you have a lot of these people, maybe you do.  Start tracking them and learn from them.  Maybe IT IS YOU.  Maybe you are doing awesome, but that ONE PERSON is making you re-think everything.  Look back is this an isolated case or something you are doing wrong.  If you decide isolated, MOVE ON AND go take care of your current customers, they are waiting…

Hope this helps.  I am not perfect either.  But we can always get better, even at tough tasks like this.

– Joel Fleischman.  Joel is the president & Head Coach of the solution providers for Drexel Building Supply.  (   You can follow him on twitter:  @JoelmFleischman.  He has provided solutions for builders and their clients since 1996 and a whole bunch of other stuff that you probably don’t care about.

2 thoughts on “How to Help a Very Tough Customer

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