Anger management: keeping cool is best

Plumbing contractor Dave Yates on dealing with angry customers

Dealing with irate and/or angry customers is an art I've come to appreciate more and more with long-term experience. We are, after all, in a business where folks are stressed before they even call for service. Standing in their shoes, for a moment, you can appreciate why they're upset: they're spending, or about to spend, money unexpectedly. Leaks, clogged drains, busted water heaters, no heat and/or no air conditioning situations are highly stressful - even under the best of circumstances. Mix in the daily stresses everyone faces and we're the convenient whipping-post for customers' cork-popping tirades: “You charge how much per hour? Are you nuts?”

Anger causes a number of physical and mental changes. Increased blood pressure, tense muscles and shallow breathing or holding your breath are just a few effects of anger. It's a basic primal emotion that leads to three instinctive reactions: fight, flight or play dead (a shut-down of mental/physical functions). Anger causes sharper focus on the issue at hand. How you respond can make or break customer relationships. Grab that bull by the horns early on — festering issues can make mountains out of mole hills.

When I was first in business on my own in 1979, I was quick to drop the hammer on any customer who so much as tried to cheat me out of one dime. I worked hard, and I deserved to be paid. Although those instances were few and far between, I never once lost a case in court. However, as the years passed, and I learned the business side of my plumbing company, I began to appreciate just how much it cost my company to take a case to court. Then there was the personal emotional toll extracted by taking the fight before a magistrate. One thing was certain - hammering an irate customer in court was a sure-fire way to ensure that they will never call for service again! I set out to learn a better way for dealing with angry customers.

First step: If a customer called you, or you called a customer, and they've gone ballistic, let the rant go on without letting it get under your skin. Easier said than done when insults are being hurled your way and in those early years of business, I'll freely confess, I let my Irish out to give back what I was getting! Instead of unleashing the Irish within you, like I did years ago, Zen-like behavior (deep slow breaths and relaxation of tensed muscles) will help you maintain your cool. In a face-to-face meeting, I always force myself to sit in a relaxed position while maintaining good eye contact and deep even breathing. I also give feedback to let the customer know I'm getting the message. If you lose control of the conversation by reacting in kind or worse - arguing with the customer - the battle is lost. Then it's off to court, courting a compromise or a dead-even-draw where nothing gets settled.

If I've learned anything over the past 40 years, compromise is the best route, so that you can move on and get back to dealing with the business. Speaking of which, are your employees empowered to resolve conflicts with the ability to offer reasonable resolutions with your full support? Give them that power, and you'll build employee loyalty too.

Second step: After the customer has become exhausted (he or she will eventually tire of yelling if you remain calm), ask the customer to identify the issue(s) specifically. Let the customer know you are going to resolve the issues. You can't hope to address/resolve the problem(s) unless you know exactly what they are. Here again it's important to draw out the finer details, which does two things: It let's the customer know you're really listening and gives you time to think about an appropriate resolution.

Ninety-eight percent of the public will respond favorably, but there's always the possibility you're dealing with someone who falls into the nasty 2% that will never be satisfied. These people are easy to identify as you move down the check-list. Off to court or write them off. Either way, deal with it, and move on — they're not worth growing ulcers over.

Third step: What does the customer want? Most folks will be reasonable if you let them know you're interested in what's bugging them and that you want to resolve the problem. This is where I point out my desire to deliver excellent customer service and that it is my intention to ensure customer satisfaction. Rude service is rampant and widespread in our service-based society, and the customer came loaded for bear - resolved to experience a confrontation, expecting to be denied excellent service. As painful as dealing with angry customers can be, the look on their faces when you ask them to tell you what they want and that you'll follow through is priceless. If a request is totally out of line, you'll need to rein the customer in with a dose of reality, but it's far better to go the extra mile - even if it's expensive.

Fourth step: Do it, and do it quickly. If you want to retain a customer, the faster you resolve the issue(s) the better, and that shores up customer relationships.

Fifth step: Follow up a few days later to check on the customer's satisfaction. Thank him or her for bringing the issues to your attention and remind the customer that you value him or her.

If you get to step five, you've achieved excellent customer service.

Dave Yates owns F.W. Behler, a contracting company in York, Pa. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].

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