CustomerEruption_Body.jpgby Erin McDermott.

Kristen Carney has felt the wrath of an angry customer. It took up a full page, was single-spaced, and “a little bit of a rant.”


The customer had signed up for the free beta version of Cubit Planning, an online demographic-data tool from Carney’s business, which she co-founded in Austin, Texas. The site had been upfront that the tool would turn into a paid service once it left beta—a detail that apparently went unnoticed by this client once that shift came. But she still wanted to keep this customer.


“We were targeting a very niche audience,” Carney says. “There weren’t many folks that we were going after. So to have one of our exact customers—someone who we wanted to be a long-term customer—be unhappy with us about the switch to a paid tool, we had to show him that we would go out of our way to keep him happy.”


CustomerEruption_PQ.jpgSo Carney not only apologized, she even sent cookies as a peace offering, along with a letter that said she understood his frustration and an offer of a way to move forward. It was a gesture that resonated with the customer, who has continued to mention it even now, three years later, whenever they work on projects together.


“We got such a great reaction from him from that batch of cookies,” Carney says.


It’s a perennial issue for anyone in business: How to deal with a customer who’s upset. Whether in person, on the phone, or even online, these situations can be volatile. So, how can you ensure that you and your employees who deal with customers know how to react properly when a client explodes?


For a small business owner, getting this right is critical, says Susan Steinbrecher, a management consultant, executive coach in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, and author of Heart-Centered Leadership. The reason: Everyone on your staff is watching you for cues on what the appropriate response should be.


With less staff around, “everyone is watching how you handle the customer,” Steinbrecher notes. “Did you cuss them out? Did you call that person a loser, or ‘Can you believe that jerk?’ If you do that, it’s over. You’ve just given them full permission to treat everybody that way. Leaders don’t know half their impact. They are on stage at all times.”


So where to start for your small business?


The first step is listening, giving the customer undivided attention and hearing out their issue, showing empathy for the pain they experienced—even if you might disagree with them. Do not interrupt them, emphasize that you are there to help, and that you understand their frustration. Steinbrecher frames the situation in psychological terms.


“Every individual has two primary needs,” she explains. “One is ego and its personal needs. The other is the practical need. The ego is the need to feel valued, appreciated, cared about, listened to, empathized with, and involved. The practical side is ‘What do I need to get a problem solved.’”


In customer-service situations, early problems arise when the person representing the company cuts too quickly to practical matters and overlooks the importance of soothing a bruised ego, or what Steinbrecher calls “ignoring one side of the equation.” 


“When you try to get right to the point, ignoring all those ego needs, it creates all kinds of havoc,” she says.


From there, simply ask what would make the situation right. Again, by putting the customer in the “driver’s seat,” they feel in control and will often ask for less than what you would have offered.


For her clients, Steinbrecher has devised the “HELP” method, an easy-to-remember acronym that outlines the steps she says are necessary to follow when you’re faced with an unhappy customer. For staffers, it should be displayed prominently to encourage everyone to follow it:

H-Hear the customer out

E-Empathize and apologize in that order

L-Lead the customer to a resolution

P-Provide a responsible course of action

Of course, there is that small minority of customers for whom no answer will ever suffice, or whose ultimate aim is, yes, to get something for nothing. These disgruntled, vocal few are often the reason that businesses have to create these procedures in the first place.


And that’s its own delicate balance: how to know when to let go of that difficult customer. “While the vast majority of people are very reasonable, there are certain customers that, no matter what you do, you’ll never make them happy,” says Bruce Specter, a business development consultant based in the Reno/Lake Tahoe area. “Sometimes you have to be comfortable with firing customers.”


As a possible solution to having a system to handle these complaints, Specter points to software that businesses of all sizes are now using for this task. Once implemented, these systems can deliver information about the behavior of certain customers—for example, individuals who exacerbate complaints to justify asking for unwarranted upgrades or unreasonable discounts or freebies.


“Looking at the data, you might say ‘Man, this guy’s come back a few times, and he always wants something for free,’” Specter says. “At that point, that’s a bad customer and you’ve got to be able to just let them go, from that perspective.”


To illustrate his point, Specter cites an example from business author Patrick Lencioni’s recent book, The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business, In one of its anecdotes, the book recounts a letter Southwest Airlines’ CEO Herb Kelleher received from an angry frequent flier. The customer was demanding that he fire a flight attendant who had joked about the possibility of a water landing during the safety demonstration, adding that she’d stop using the carrier, known for its culture of fun, if she wasn’t satisfied. Kelleher’s succinct response to the disgruntled consumer: “We’ll miss you.”


But aside from an occasional bump in the road, there’s hope with the majority of customers.


“Yes, there are going to be those outliers,” Steinbrecher says. “But most people, if you have heard them out, if you have empathized appropriately and apologized, and sincerely offered to make things right, they’ll come down enough and be more reasonable, even if they didn’t start out reasonable.”