Angry customers

How to deal with (and hopefully solve) their problems
Stacy Innerst Angry customers
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I am yelling at you because it is so rare that I can ever speak to anyone in charge!” the customer bellowed before ultimately chuckling.

So, I’m the whipping boy for every bad customer service experience that corporate America has ever delivered? That’s a heavy burden, and I’m not ideally suited to shoulder it. I don’t like to disappoint, and I don’t have terribly thick skin, so dealing with a less-​than-​satisfied customer is a personal challenge as well as a professional one that comes with the territory of being a retail business owner.

It’s enough of a challenge that my business partner and I created a protocol to help us provide better service and cope with the stress. First, we’ve learned to put aside the validity of the claim. It is as American as apple pie that “the customer is always right.” I’ve been shocked by the number of times I’ve been lied to by customers, and there are often multiple versions of the same reality, so it’s best to just get to the question at hand: Is the customer calling to vent, or is there some action they would like to see? If the customer is calling to vent, we let them, and we try to say things that are empathetic. Empathizing with a larger plight often helps: “I’m so sorry you received cherry Danish instead of cheese Danish this morning. I know how stressful it must be to host a large family gathering without having to listen to Uncle Tom gripe about the Danish selection.” The customer may go on for five minutes about her crazy relatives, but you’ve restored the customer’s faith in your good intentions and provided a valuable therapeutic service which they likely value more than the Danish!

On the other hand, some customers are looking for action to be taken. The trick is to discern if there is action that can be taken right away or if it is too late to solve the immediate problem. Here’s a situation that can be rectified: “I got home and my order was missing a cookie tray I need for a party in two hours.” In that case, we can deliver a cookie tray in the next two hours.

Here’s one that can’t: “I brought a birthday cake to a party, and the batter was supposed to be chocolate and it was yellow. We ate it, and it was good, but it wasn’t what I ordered and chocolate was the birthday boy’s favorite.” In this scenario, we move on to a gesture that acknowledges the negative outcome not just to the immediate customer but to those our customer was trying to impress. “We’re so sorry to hear we made that mistake. May we send you and the birthday boy a gift card so each of you can enjoy some chocolate cake on us?”

The toughest ones are the ones that can’t be fixed (the travel torte that got shipped and didn’t arrive in time for a birthday). We have to help the customer realize that no amount of pressure is going to change the reality that they can’t have what they originally wanted. That typically involves letting the customer cycle through venting on their way to action, which can be a lengthy process.

Our protocol may sound familiar. My business partner and I chuckled after we’d documented it because when we are our “best selves,” this is similar to the approach we take with our spouses and children when they are frustrated: Figure out if they want to vent or they want action, and help them cope with disappointment if it comes to that. We even use it on each other, and as partners in a small business, it sure comes in handy.

Lara Bruhn

Lara Bruhn is the owner of Prantl’s Bakery in Pittsburgh and contributes to Pittsburgh Quarterly Magazine with Op-​Ed articles of varying subject matters.

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