Accounting for Irate Customers

What is it about customer support that drives us mad? Not just for those of us that manage and provide customer support, but ourselves as consumers. Is it that as a society we have lost all faith in the ability to get what we perceive to be quality service that we immediately begin each engagement with a chip on our shoulder?

As a consumer myself, I can attest to this feeling. Try picking up the phone, calling your bank, maybe your ISP, or god forbid a government agency. All I want to know is why my bill is so high, or why my network is performing so poorly. You follow all the phone prompts and somehow the call is disconnected, or you’re in the wrong group. Let’s say you get to the right group, but they’re unable to assist and have to push you over to another group, but that group is unfamiliar with your problem and you have to start from scratch. Sound familiar?

This is the sad reality of customer support these days, and as someone that runs a company that also provides customer support, it provides for a challenging dilemma. Whether we like it or not, it’s these experiences that create an overly negative disposition to working with support that our teams have to work with.

Customer Psychology

Understanding what you’re dealing with is the first step to mentally preparing yourself. Know what is going through the mind of a majority of your buyers, both during the buying and post-buying process.

In the industry I work in, our customers are often in a state of despair. They’ve lost all faith in technology and are suffering a sense of vulnerability they’re unaccustomed to.  Immediately, they have little faith in all systems and people; they’re websites have been compromised or under attack. Their host has disabled their account, they’re losing customers (possibly revenue), maybe they’ve been blacklisted and worst yet, they’re not exactly sure how to make sense of the bits of information they’re getting from their tech person, host, and possibly search engine. They are in despair.

This creates an environment that is highly emotional, and potentially irrational. They’re looking for solutions, and they need it now. Details are the furthest thing from their mind, at least in the initial engagement, but will inevitably rear it’s ugly head at some point in the process, often post-purchase.

This coupled with what they’re already expecting to receive, “shitty service”, makes for a very challenging engagement from the get go. Combine cultural / social differences, with a global business enabled by the internet, and you have a recipe for a potentially disastrous exchange.

Dealing With Irate Customers

It’s wrong to categorize all customers into the stereotype I’ve outlined above, because they obviously aren’t. I’d argue the description probably speaks to maybe 5% of your customer base. They are the loudest though, resembling the squeaky wheel in your customer support engine.

They’re the cause of much stress amongst your various teams, whether it’s your support, marketing, sales or engineering teams. They will leverage all the tools in their arsenal to get their way; social, friends, emails, phone calls, or any means at their disposal in a form of business cyber-bullying you’ve likely never experienced before. They are also often the most unreasonable.

Running a business, one that provides customer support, I have learned one undeniable fact: customers are not always right. In fact, whomever came up with that saying should be forced to work in a customer support apparatus for a month, minimum.

So how do we deal with these customers?

1 – Focus on the Problem

Simple, yet complicated.

What I have just recently realized is that most supports agents actually do a very poor job of recognizing the problem in most engagements. They get so caught up in the noise of the dialog, we forget what they came to us for initially. The fact that they are still engaging, happy or angry, means they still have a very serious problem and what they really want is some help.

The emotions are but a result of the hopeless feeling they likely feel, compounded by the 100’s of other customer support engagements they’ve had and come to expect from all service providers.

2 – Empathize with Your Customer

Empathy is important, shouldn’t be confused with sympathy.

We all want to know that whomever we are talking to understands the problem. So acknowledge it. Yes, we focus on the problem, and ignore the emotion, but we also acknowledge the problem in the same engagement before offering the solution.

When we go right for the solution, without any acknowledgement or explanation to how we came to that solution it provides for a very confusing experience. What the hell is this guy talking about? Did you even read my ticket? We likely have, and have been too brutally straight forward, taking the few extra minutes to help them understand how we came to a specific solution and how it relates to the problem they’ve described is paramount.

3 – Recognize and Admit Your Failures

It’s ok to say you messed up. It’s ok to admit your network failed. It’s ok to say there was a problem you didn’t account for. Most reasonable people will understand, if they don’t, then maybe the fit is not meant to be and your brand will be better off.

Try to follow up the admission of failure with some form of solution to a) address the problem and b) avoid it in the future. The common theme we hear from our customers is they just want to know, knowing provides them the information they require to convey it to their customers or to provide them some peace of mind that someone is on it.

4 – Recognize your own Personal Biases / Emotions

Similar to our customers, we are human and susceptible to our own personal emotions and biases. Maybe we’ve been burning the midnight oil too long. Maybe we had a bad day, we failed / lost a customer. Maybe we’re sick, and not feeling up to the task, but it has to be done and the last thing we need is someone mouthing off unnecessarily. Don’t they realize I’m trying to help?

Every customer is a new experience, and we can’t forget what it is not to know. We can’t allow previous engagements, or environmental situations, influence other engagements. Treat every engagement as if it’s on a clean slate.

5 – Netiquette is a Foreign Concept

Assume the idea of netiquette is a foreign concept to every customer.

Yes, it exists. It’s the principle that we have some form of etiquette when communicating with others on the Internet. It’s supposed to reiterate the basics of in-person human interactions, things we learned as child. Simple things, things like we should be nice to others; treat others the way we want to be treated. The Internet however makes it incredibly hard. We forget that the keyboard is but a means to communicate, it shouldn’t change your personality and should not be used as a shield to be a jacktard.

It’s hard though. You have to be prepared to deal with stuck CAPS LOCK keys, and amplification of points with extra punctuation (!!!!!!!) and use of profanity and insults (i.e., are you guys complete idiots?, you are a stupid twat!!!).

While the behavior is absolutely inexcusable, it’s a sad reality and your teams have to be prepared to work with it. The first step is understanding and assuming that Netiquette is a foreign concept so look past the noise, and focus on the problem. Responding to the issue only further amplifies the problem, and it’s rarely a true personal attack but their only way of dealing with the issue. It doesn’t mean you can call them on the issue respectively, inform them that type of behavior is never acceptable.

6 – Don’t be Afraid to Fire or Refuse Service

Finally, don’t be afraid to fire or refuse service. I’ll admit, this was a tough one for us early on, every dollar was needed, and we were naive to think that exemplary support would make everyone happy. It doesn’t. Now in our sixth year of business, things are different. We know customers are not always right, and now we know that our product is not for everyone so it’s ok to say, “it’s not you, it’s me.”

Customer Service is Tough

People are tough nuts to crack; they’re not code, they’re impossible to debug. When you mix different cultures it gets even more complicated. Some cultures are just naturally a bit more curt than others, it’s not personal. Some people are also more sensitive than others, both customer support agents and customers, and so you have to navigate those waters as well. People though, as complex as they are, are at the core of any great customer support apparatus.

It’s something you have to work on continuously and be prepared to evolve as your audience changes, something that will happen as you grow. Growth will bring about a number of challenges in customer support, not just because of changing audiences, but also the natural challenges of scaling people. We have to be cognizant of our support agents that are working the front lines dealing with our customers.

While irate customers likely make up 5% of your customer base, they are the ones that your support agents have to deal with the most and so it’s easy to feel that you’re failing as an entity. If you believe every pissed off customer it can be a real morale killer, so remember to actively search for the positive engagements and share it with your team. It’s also why it’s so important to protect your team, identify those customers that are no longer a fit and get rid of them. Get them out of the mix, they function as a poison to the entire support engine and you reach a point in the relationship where there is no recovering or repairing the experience. Perfect time to recommend a competitor.. :)

When your company has a customer service function, that means everyone has a customer service responsibility regardless of your role or position in the company.

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