We all know that customer service plays a huge role in purchasing decisions, and is a key to retaining your customers and increasing customer lifetime value. If your service doesn’t measure up, your customers are likely to go to a competitor.

85% of customers are willing to pay more for better customer service, and to switch to a business that has a reputation of good customer service.
RightNow survey

We’ve talked about tips for improved customer service and how tools like Help Scout can be used to streamline your customer service or help you manage it.

However, offering great customer service is easy when you have great customers. What if you have a not so great customer? How do you deal with angry customers, and even impress your angriest customers?

You could just fire them and not deal with them, but you’ll risk negative reviews of your business, and turning an negative interaction around can be incredibly powerful and impactful for your customers.

Impress Angry Customers: Overview

The most difficult customer service interaction I’ve had was one I’d escalated to a teammate, who ended up handling it beautifully. As I was supporting eCommerce software in the interaction, the merchant was frustrated that something wasn’t going as expected.

For background, what the merchant wanted to happen was something that was (1) covered by sales materials and documentation, (2) was not remotely related to our software in the first place (the FAQs explained why, so it’s not something we were able to fix, and would have been glad to if we could).

This also happened on July 4, which is one of the biggest US holidays, and we were working a half day since we’d had an unusual amount of customer service emails that week. Despite the holiday, the merchant had waited no longer than 3 hours for a response to any email. By all measures, there were no reasons for the larger-than-Hulk-like-rage this conversation brought on.

My teammate stepped up to the plate, and perfectly executed on a resolution by staying calm, empathizing with the merchant, and clearly explaining all of the issues at hand in a timely manner. By the end of the conversation, the merchant was happy and became an advocate for our brand, going from completely outraged for no apparent reason to happy as a clam.

To this day I’m still convinced this person was just trying to test us to see where we’d crack in order to write an exposé or something, but who knows?

So what systems were in place to handle this person’s outrage without losing the customer, prompting a bad review, or going outside of the level of service we can provide included in purchase? We’ve got a few rules in our customer service tone guide that helped.

1. Impress Angry Customers: Have a North Star

The first key to our team’s customer service is to have a North Star — every team should have a guiding principle that you and your team can refer to and which drives your customer service interactions, especially for when customers are being difficult. Our internal guide is a few very short chapters, but it starts with our service North Stars.

We came across this idea from Help Scout, who wrote about how the Ritz-Carlton has a great philosophy and motto: “Ladies and Gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” They use this motto to inform all of their customer interactions. In our case, this became, “We help eCommerce merchants run successful online stores, becoming partners in their success.”

From your driving motto, create 3-4 “steps of service”. Here are some I’ve used with my customer service teams:

  1. Greet merchants in a warm, friendly manner. Use an appropriate greeting like, “Hey John,” or “Hiya Susan!”
  2. Answer both asked and unasked questions; you know what questions are likely to follow, or what may be related to what’s explicitly asked, so answer all questions in a helpful, educational way.
  3. Close with a question (to welcome further conversation or questions), not something like “Hope this helps!” and a salutation. Example:
    Can I help out with any additional questions?
    Cheers!

We also have a list of “teammate values” (following the Help Scout / Ritz Carlton example) that describes our customer service personnel. Here are a couple of examples from our list:

  • I empathize with merchants’ struggles because I am on their team. My goal is to help them succeed.
  • I solve problems first and foremost. If our software isn’t the optimal solution for the merchant, I’ll suggest another. If I can’t solve an issue, I’ll suggest someone who can. I’m here to help.
  • I will ensure that every conversation has a resolution, whether a vote on the idea board or a bug fix.

Use your North Star to outline how every interaction should ideally go, and some principles that your team should make important in service interactions.

2. Impress Angry Customers: Manage Your Tone and Voice

MailChimp is a fantastic example of tone and voice, and they nail their voice throughout their product. However, your tone is just as important as your brand’s voice:

You have the same voice all the time, but your tone changes…You wouldn’t use the same tone of voice with someone who’s scared or upset as you would with someone who’s laughing. Same goes for MailChimp’s voice. Our voice doesn’t change much from day to day, but our tone changes all the time.

Have some guidelines on managing your tone. In our team tone guide, we have a few keys to our tone for the majority of conversations, then our tone adapts to the merchant’s / customer’s needs. For example, here’s one bullet point:

  • Use positive language whenever possible. No one likes to hear, “I can’t…{do something}.” Instead, always start with what you can do. Merchants read emails, docs, or posts because they want a solution, not an explanation or an excuse.

Another part of our tone is empathy. To me, this is the biggest key of quality customer service. Help Scout calls this looking “past the fury for friction”. Instead of “you vs the customer”, this aligns the both of you and puts you on the same side. You want to help the customer to a resolution. It may not be the exact one they want, and it won’t be a poor one that hurts your business, but your goal is to help.

Here’s one of our keys that helps us empathize:

If the merchant is upset, apologize for why the merchant is upset, not what the software did. This ensures that you both actually understand the merchant’s problem, and shows the merchant you care enough to understand.

This is tough to do at first, and it definitely takes more time to apologize or treat conversations this way. I refer to this internally as “Atticus Finch-ing”. One of my favorite quotes from To Kill a Mockingbird (spoken by Atticus) is:

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

Empathize with the merchant so you can understand the problem, and be aligned with them on getting a resolution. If there’s an issue, apologize. As the wise Frank Underwood has said, it requires very little of us and will mean the world to them.

Our emails are thus shaped by our tone, and require us to:

  1. empathize and be positive
  2. take responsibility
  3. offer resolution in some form

3. Impress Angry Customers: Don’t Take it Personally

Part of what makes a positive, empathetic tone difficult is the natural tendency we have to take things personally. We see unhappy customers as a reflection of our brand, company, or products, and may be defensive about it because the customer should agree with me that my brand is great.

Customers will always respect you more for recommending a different product if it helps them. Separating this is hard to do, which is why we have our North Star and values. Instead of customer service interactions becoming a way to advocate for my product, they instead become a way to help potential customers.

By doing so, resolutions may often be the use of my product, but may not be. I’ve found that customers will always respect you more for recommending a different product if it helps them, and they’ll remember you for the future, versus customers who feel you led them to use your product when it wasn’t right for them.

When you treat every customer service interaction like an opportunity to serve your customers, you don’t take offense to the slight against your business as often because you understand the customer’s issues and work to resolve them. Your business is now external to the problem, and will either be a potential solution or not. The negative interaction is between the customer and the distance to the customer’s needs, not between the customer and your brand.

4. Impress Angry Customers: Set Clear Expectations

You won’t always resolve the issue in the way they angry customer wants. That is okay, as you shouldn’t do harm to your business just to satisfy the customer. You still try to offer a resolution, but it’s up to the customer to take this resolution as well.

If you offer a resolution (a partial refund, a future coupon, and additional month of service, a recommendation for the right product), be clear about what this resolution is. “I will refund this,” may be an okay description of the resolution; “I will refund the cost of this item on the order and your shipping fee,” is better. There’s no ambiguity about what the resolution is.

If you’re intentionally unclear about what the customer can expect, your thoughts and the customer expectations may not align, which is going to eventually spell trouble. It’s better to be on the same page about resolutions.

Rather than trying to sugar coat language in customer service interactions (“We’ll make this right for you”), be explicit: “We will make sure you are completely refunded for the damaged item.”

5. Impress Angry Customers: Blacklist Some Phrases

As a final chapter in our customer service team tone guide, we have a “blacklist” of words or phrases we don’t use, or limit the use of. There are some phrases that can sound condescending, shut conversations down, or don’t efficiently convey your message. The best way to use these words or phrases is to not use them at all, and remove them from your support lexicon.

Our blacklist serves to help us be clear in our communication and set appropriate expectations, maintain positive and empathetic language, and avoid appearing unwilling to help.

Here are a few examples from our blacklist.

  • But: Whatever you say before “but” doesn’t matter. “I really appreciate you writing in, but unfortunately we don’t have this feature available.” All the customer hears here is “we can’t do it”.

    Instead, let’s make both of those phrases clear: “I really appreciate you writing in! Unfortunately, we don’t have this feature available.”

    Related to this, never say, “I’m sorry, but…”. This means you’re not really sorry. If you’re sorry, then be sorry, not with conditions.

  • Just: This one depends on context, but “You just have to log in,” makes it sound like everything should be easy. For some merchants, it’s not, and we shouldn’t make them feel bad about it. “You can log in,” or “Could you please log in?” work better.

  • To be honest: You should already be honest. This makes it sound like the rest of what you’ve said may not be.

  • Please let me know if I can help with anything else / Hope this helps!: Or some variation of this. We don’t tell merchants to do something; we ask if we can help. This keeps the conversation open and welcomes more questions instead of shutting it down.

    “Can I help out with any other questions?” or “Before you go, was there anything else I could assist you with today? I’m happy to help.” are almost always better choices.

Summary

It may feel silly to have a tone guide for one or two people in your organization, especially if one of those people is yourself. However, having used this in a small team, it’s a great reminder for all of us on what standards we hold ourselves to.

It also reminds us to empathize with the merchant and not take their anger personally — angry customers are not a reflection on your store, but are a reflection on a disconnect between the customer’s expectations and reality. When you have keys in place that should drive your support interactions, these give you a safety net to fall back on when those interactions become difficult, and remind you of what’s important to your company, along with your goals for each email.

When trying to turn around angry customers,

  • don’t take their anger personally,
  • give yourself training to fall back on, and
  • keep your conversation goals in mind,

which will let you manage angry conversations instead of reacting to them.

If you want more resources to build your own tone guide or “angry customer” playbook, here are some resources I’ve found really helpful:


Cover Photo Credit: Dennis Skley (CC BY-ND 2.0 license)
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Posted by Beka Rice

Beka Rice manages the direction of Sell with WP content and writes or edits most of our articles to share her interests in eCommerce. Or she just writes as an excuse to spend more time jamming out to anything from The Clash to Lady Gaga. Who knows.

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