When we hate conflict, it can feel horrifying to find an angry, dissatisfied customer yelling at us. In our personal lives, we yell back, shut down, give in, or whatever. But when we’re facing customers, we feel responsible to handle it better. Here are six steps to diffuse conflict in a different way:
- Take a deep breath. When folks come at us with lots of anger and energy, we pick that up. We may even jump into the fight or flight mode. The most important thing we can do to diffuse the conflict is to keep ourselves calm. If someone comes at me with a tornado of anger, I need to avoid leaping into that tornado with them. I have the power to calm them down and need to use it. I must plant my feet and grab their hand rather than dive into the tornado, flying around, slamming against each other in the chaos.
- Figure out what’s going on. Identify what happened to anger them. How do they see the problem? This is not the time to determine if their complaint is legit; it’s the time to understand completely what they’re upset about. Ask questions, clarify, and make sure you understand, but do not put your own opinion in yet. The person is not calm yet – I can guarantee you – so any disagreement on your part will just fuel their anger.
- Agree with them. I’m not saying that you have to grovel and say how wrong you are. (That’s a bad idea and I would not recommend it.) This isn’t “the customer is always right” – Please don’t shut down here – I’m saying you agree with how they feel. Telling someone they shouldn’t be upset or that they can’t really be angry about something isn’t effective. That’s how they feel. At this point, you’re showing you understand their perspective, thoughts, and feelings. For example: “You’re very angry and dissatisfied because you were expecting X and got Y.” You don’t say whether that expectation was reasonable. You aren’t judging their feelings. You’re just saying that you understand what they’re upset about. Now, a lawyer will probably want you to make sure that you are not giving them the sense that they should feel entitled to X and to be careful about admitting any wrongdoing. I agree – you’re not saying “You‘re upset because you should have gotten X when you got Y.” You’re saying that was their expectation and based on that expectation they’re upset with the outcome. You’re clarifying their perspective on the whole thing.
- Ask for their solution. Once people feel heard and understood, they calm down and become much more reasonable. Before that point, they escalate their complaints and ask for the moon (or your supervisor or the Better Business Bureau or whatever). Getting through steps 1-3 is critical – you’ve received their complaint and understood it. Therefore, asking for their solution is, oftentimes, going to be a calm, positive conversation. If you genuinely ask for their solution (no sarcasm or snarkiness!), you just might find they ask for much less than you’re willing to offer. You won’t promise that you can fulfill their desired solution; you’re listening to what they want.
- Decide how much you want to do. When you’ve completely heard the complaint and desired solution, you can then decide how you want to proceed. Was their expectation reasonable? Did you or your team members make a mistake? Did they misunderstand what was to be done or are they trying to get more without paying? There’s no correct answer to how you proceed – it will depend on your business model, your views around customer service, and the specific situation presented by this customer. The most important advice I can give you here is to present what you plan to do calmly, reasonably, and with clarity. Both of you should understand what you’re deciding to do. There can be negotiation and sometimes the customer will become angry again (start back at #1 if that’s the case). However, you’re now in the driver’s seat because you have all the information, you’re calm (and, hopefully, the customer is too), and you get to decide how to resolve the situation. It’s best if you can come to an agreement here and set up a specific plan for how it will be accomplished.
- Set limits on future behavior. Depending on how unruly the customer’s behavior was at the beginning, you may need to set some limits on how they approach you or your team next time. Talk about how best to communicate with you when they have questions or concerns as well as what type of communication you will not tolerate. You may also need to clarify their contract or their expectations, so that they won’t come back with this same concern. The more you can be clear on how you’d like the customer to behave going forward, the better your results. You will also be able to set limits in the future (up to and including letting these customers go). If it is really dicey or complicated, I would consult with your business attorney to make sure that you have all the legalese supporting decisions that you want to make in that direction.
Diffusing conflict can feel impossible at times, but, when done well, it can lead to very rewarding and effective conversations.
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