De-Escalation Strategies for Dealing with Upset Customers

How to keep the pot from boiling over

Editor’s note: Depending on your news source, there seems to be a daily rundown of some of the issues retailers (and customers) face. People from all walks of life are asserting their rights to act out in ways that are sometimes scary, but mostly uncharacteristic of what some would consider normal behavior.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, “How you respond to stress during the COVID-19 pandemic can depend on your background, your social support from family or friends, your financial situation, your health and emotional background, the community you live in, and many other factors. The changes that can happen because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ways we try to contain the spread of the virus can affect anyone.”

Jim Facente is president of Creative Sales Solutions, which provides customer experience training, and a trainer for the Western Equipment Dealers Association’s Dealer Institute. As a former dealer, Facente knows it doesn’t take a pandemic to ignite the passions of customers. He dealt with excitable customers for years and what he learned in dealing with occasional hotheads helped him and his employees operate a successful business and keep the pot from boiling over.

Western Equipment Dealer asked Facente to tell us what he learned as an equipment dealer, which he shares in his article “De-Escalation Strategies for Dealing with Upset Customers.” 

Your dealership’s customer experience is on center stage. How you treat customers during these challenging times will be remembered forever.

Customers may not recall all the services you’ve provided for them in the past, but they will always remember how your dealership treated them during tough times. As an essential business, the challenges faced by your dealership are likely shared by many, if not all, of your customers, and they’re relying on you to perform at an incredibly high level.

Now is the time to take your employees’ customer experience skills to that higher level. Before COVID-19, the majority of business was conducted face to face. Now, as a result of social distancing, customers are relying on a sense of community, belonging, and purpose. They are looking for service from providers that use their customers’ names, know what their customers do and what is important to them, and trust that the person with whom they are dealing will help solve their problems. During this challenging time, the relationships you build and shape are going to be more vital than ever in growing and maintaining customer loyalty.

During this incredibly strange and stressful time, a customer’s patience can be short and, at any given time, you or your employees may be faced with dealing with an upset or angry customer.

The best thing you can do is never let the situation get out of control. Here are several ways to de-escalate the situation with an upset customer.

  1. Avoid the customer’s emotions. If you become argumentative, it will only inflame the situation and things can quickly spiral out of control. Your job is to keep cool.
  2. Don’t try and solve the customer’s problem in the beginning. This is a BIG mistake because this is not what the customer wants at this stage. What the customer really wants is to be listened to and let you know they’re upset.
  3. Let the customer blow off steam by following these four steps:
    1. Don’t interrupt.
    2. Don’t tell them they’re wrong.
    3. Don’t try and justify your actions.
    4. Just listen.
  4. Hit them with the last thing they expect – AGREE with them. When you agree, it makes it difficult for the customer to argue with you.
  5. Use the two magic words, “I’m sorry.” You must apologize in a general way. Statements like, “I’m really sorry this happened” or “I apologize. I can see how upsetting this would be” go a long way in smoothing over a bad situation.
  6. Focus on the solution and not the problem. Try asking the customer what they believe would be a fair way to resolve the problem. Never say, “I’m sorry, but it’s our policy.” Don’t let company policy prevent you from solving a customer’s problem. If a solution is not readily available, consider getting your manager involved.
  7. Show empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another and it’s more of a character trait than a skill. That’s because even when you can’t tell the customer exactly what they want to hear, a dose of care, concern, and understanding will go a long way. An employee’s ability to empathize with a customer and craft a message that steers things toward a better outcome can often make all the difference.
  8. Have patience. If you deal with customers daily, be sure to stay patient when they come to you stumped and frustrated. Take the time to figure out what they truly need by asking good diagnostic questions.
  9. Be attentive. The ability to really listen to customers is so crucial for providing exceptional service for several reasons. Most people don’t listen with the intent of understanding; they listen with the intent of replying. The greatest gift you can give a customer is your undivided attention.
  10. Practice clear communication. Make sure you’re getting to the problem at hand quickly. Customers don’t need your life story or to hear about how your day is going. More importantly, you need to be cautious about how some of your communication habits translate to customers and it’s best to err on the side of caution whenever you find yourself questioning a situation. When it comes to important points that you need to relay to customers, keep it simple, and leave nothing to doubt.
  11. Watch for signs of aggression. Even if you do all of the above, in rare cases, the situation can spiral out of control. Watch for key indicators that a situation with a customer could become risky, such as ignoring social distancing, use of foul language, a raised voice, or, worse, shouting. If you can’t calm the situation, take action, don’t jeopardize the safety of other customers, employees, or yourself… call security or local authorities.

If you want to be a hero with an angry customer and create a customer for life, use these techniques to deal with angry customers… it’s what the top industry people do. 

Article Written By Jim Facente

JIM FACENTE is president and founder of Creative Sales Solutions. Facente spent 20 years as owner of industrial equipment dealerships in south Florida. CSS is a customer experience training company that works with dealerships and their employees to develop guidelines to ensure excellence in providing a complete customer experience. CSS has called, recorded, and evaluated more than 3,500 dealership employees throughout North America.

Facente has conducted customer experience training for hundreds of equipment dealers and dozens of international companies where he shares the secrets of the equipment industry’s top performers. For information, write to Strategies 


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