Solve Your Worst Support Situations
By Rich Gallagher, LMFT
Difficult customer situations seem like a fact of life for any customer contact operation. But most of the time, you have more control over these situations than you think. They are often a dance with two partners, which can be understood and managed with the right communications skills.
Many challenging customer situations are fueled — or even caused — by fear and defensiveness from agents who do not know what to say. This is why learning to handle your worst customer situations is the key to providing awesome service in any situation. Let’s break down some of the most common types of difficult customers and look at the mechanics of how to handle them:
- The high-maintenance customer: People who demand too much
You know the type. The rules don’t apply to them, because they feel they are important. They expect you to drop everything to serve them, have no patience for lead time and try to make everything your problem. And soon enough, it feels like they have you on speed dial, literally and figuratively.
The two key skills for handling demanding, high-maintenance customers are acknowledgment and boundary-setting. Acknowledgement means framing the other person’s position as that of a totally reasonable person first, using one of four response types:
- Paraphrase: Hand back their words. “You want this right now.”
- Observe: Hand back their feelings. “This is really important to you.”
- Validate: Compare their feelings with others. “No one likes to wait.”
- Identify: Share how you would feel. “That would frustrate me too.”
Good acknowledgment actually makes it easier to then set firm or reasonable boundaries with these customers. Focus on what you can do, sell the benefits of your solution as a “win” for the customer and normalize their reactions while being firm about your own limits. As long as your goal is to hear them and respond to them — not to beg for their permission — you have a better chance to negotiate successfully with a demanding customer.
- The technologically challenged: Users who take up too much time
Modern technology remains beyond the grasp of many people, including professionals — and these situations hold the potential to drain the resources of a support team. Here is a strategy for helping these customers while being fair to your time:
- Meet customers where they are by validating their point of view. “You’re right. This technology is often very frustrating.”
- Explore the customer’s goals. “What kind of outcome are your trying to gain?”
- Never shame the customer — instead, make him or her feel good by reframing limits as solutions. “Lots of people struggle with complex applications like this, and people often need computer assistance that goes beyond our scope. Do have people who can work with you? I can also recommend some good training options.”
So what about the “serial killer” who calls repeatedly with basic computer or technology questions? One possible solution is to offer to discuss their situation with their manager so you can try and arrange more appropriate resources. Depending on their situation, they may either welcome the offer or refuse having their incompetence “outed” — both of which will stop them calling constantly.
- The intimidator: Those who are always ready to use anger as a weapon
For most customers, anger is a (hopefully rare) reaction. For a few, however, it is a longstanding negotiation strategy. In either case, the “triple A” approach is an effective way for defusing anger:
- Acknowledgment: Validate or identify with their concerns. “Wow — that sounds horrible!”
- Assessment: Ask good questions to learn AND lower the heat. “Tell me what happened just before you called us.”
- Alternatives: Explore possibilities. “I realize you want the moon and the stars. I could offer you half the moon and a quarter of a star right now — would that work for you?”
Keeping your cool and not reacting emotionally will help defuse these situations more quickly. You can also use the “rule of threes” for knowing how long to keep negotiating: After your third effort to make your best offer, shift your focus to boundary-setting.
- The victim: Customers who feel they’ve been wronged
Finally, some difficult customer situations spring from real consequences that your organization did, in fact, cause. Good service recovery involves showing an appropriate level of ownership of the problem (subject to the financial and legal ramifications of the situation), acknowledging the impact on the other party and asking them what they want before offering a resolution.
The bottom line is that even your very worst customer situations can be mastered — and doing so is a matter of skills, not attitude. These skills form a critical part of high-contact environments like customer support operations, and learning to handle your toughest issues will change everything about your service quality, morale and turnover.
Rich Gallagher, LMFT, is a former customer service executive and a practicing psychotherapist whose firm Point of Contact Group has trained over 30,000 people. His nine books include two number one customer service bestsellers: “What to Say to a Porcupine” and “The Customer Service Survival Kit.”