Customers from hell – part 3

Nobody likes dealing with miserable people, and in parts 1 and 2 of this series we looked at how important issues of self-image and self-esteem created unhappiness and obnoxious behaviour. I also discussed that there are serious consequences that both you and the unfortunate other party have to deal with when we are unable to resolve problems and complaints effectively. In this final article I want to share some more practical ideas for dealing with these.

In any “customer from hell” situation, we need to assume that you have made all efforts to deal reasonably with the unhappiness. An easy way to remember what to do is summarised in the acronym LESTER.

• Listen carefully to what the unhappy customer is complaining about
• Empathise with them
• Say sorry and apologise
• Thank them for bringing it to your attention, and for having the courage to complain rather than just bad-mouthing your business, defecting to a rival, or worse. And then, when they are calm
• Explore options and explain what you can do, and finally
• Rectify the problem with a win:win solution, (following up to make sure it was truly resolved.)

But we are not dealing with normal, unhappy customers and their complaints and problems in this article. We are discussing the emotional, irrational, illogical and unreasonable customers from hell that don’t respond to all of your efforts to help them. You must be able to protect yourself from such individuals, because of the awful effect that they have on you. That one person that you have to deal with makes you forget the other 99% of nice people that you deal with on a day-to-day basis. The terrible memories of this encounter will stay vividly in your mind for a very long time. It makes work very unpleasant, and is demoralising and demotivating for everyone involved. Most importantly, it starts eating away at your own confidence, esteem and self-worth.

There are a few choices that you have in dealing with these customers…

• Laugh it off: Not always easy, but remember it’s mostly their problem, not yours. Of course, they will do their best to get you caught up in their problem – and their dramas.

• Just accept their behaviour, and allow the abuse to continue. It may be that this customer from hell is too important to your business, or has too much power for you to deal with. I don’t like this option, however, because if you allow the abuse to continue, it will continue, and maybe get even worse. More importantly what about the effect that this has on you? If you have no choice, protect yourself from these individuals by talking to somebody, or by taking out your frustrations somehow. Remember that ships don’t sink because of the water around them… They sink because of the water that gets in them. Are you going to allow this to happen in your life, and allow things to weigh you down? Do anything to let it go. Alternatively, just laugh it off.

• Confront with equal aggression: also not a good choice most of the time, because they will not like it, and the resulting consequences may be even worse. Also, don’t forget that passive aggression where you come up with creative ways of taking revenge on them or putting them down, is just as bad as real aggression.

• Confront assertively, by interrupting them in a firm voice to say something like this: “Mr. Smith, I want to help you, but I can’t do that while you are aggressive/abusive/shouting at me. Will you allow me to do so?” This is particularly important when customers become abusive and threaten you, bully you, insult you or even get physically violent. You need to be able to “draw a line in the sand” so to speak, and to let them know that their behaviour is not acceptable.

• Put the ball in their court. You may want to try this out: tell them that you have now come to the point where you have exhausted all of your options. You have tried everything in your power to help them, and they have not responded. “What do you want me to do?” There are three possible answers to this question. First, they may tell you what they want, and it’s impossible for you to do that, so you are going to have to say “No.” Second, they may tell you what they want, and you are able to respond to that, in which case do it and move on. But there is also a third possibility: they don’t respond, because they can’t think of anything else that you can do. At this stage, they may come to the realization that you have done your best, but don’t expect them to readily admit that. But at least they may become more reasonable.

• Cut the anchor: let them go. This is a tricky one, and we suggest that you check it out with your manager first. But if the abuse is becoming too much for you to deal with, you could say something like: “Mr. Jones, I am uncomfortable with all of the swearing and insults that you are shouting at me. With the greatest respect to you, I am now going to walk away, (or put the telephone down. Goodbye” And then walk away or put the telephone down softly. (In fact, pass them onto your competitors!) Don’t wrestle with pigs. It will get you all muddy and the pigs will love it.
• Just keep trying to sort it out, whatever it takes. If you do manage to turn them around, and you keep trying everything you can to turn them around, you may find a customer for life. What often helps is if you in fact tell them that you will not give up on them, ever.

Some final thoughts

• It’s obvious that you need a really great sense of humour to be able to deal with these abusive customers, and, as one author put it, “A thick skin is a gift from God.”

• David may have fought Goliath – but he didn’t choose to wrestle him. Choose your battles carefully

• Don’t take things personally. Remember that what people say is more a reflection of them, their reality, not a reflection of you.

• Be kind to unkind people – they need it the most

I’d like to end off with a line from one of my favourite lines from the poem “If,” written by Rudyard Kipling:

If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs’, and blaming it on you…
Then yours is the earth and everything that’s on it.

By Aki Kalliatakis, managing partner of Leadership Launchpad

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