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Six Steps to Having Positive Outcomes with Angry Customers


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Construction has many opportunities to make customers angry. Changes, budget issues, and on-time issues rank as the top three, but there are plenty of other reasons clients get upset. The best way to deal with angry or unhappy customers is not to have situations that cause them in the first place. When that doesn't work out though, here are some tips for smoothing things out.

1. Stay in Control of Your Emotions

The natural tendency when someone is venting at you is to adopt a defensive stance and start acting the same in return. This quickly devolves into a shouting match with the goal of having the last word. Having the last word might make you feel as if you won, but in truth, you lost. Instead, stay in control of your own emotions and diffuse the other person's anger by staying calm and showing respect, according to Dr. Joe Shrand , an instructor at Harvard Medical School. A little empathy also goes a long way to cooling things down.

2. Acknowledge and Empathize

Try to suspend judgement for the present and assume the customer has a good reason for being angry. Once you do that, you adopt a cooperative attitude instead of one that is confrontational. You will usually have absolutely no idea just what type of day the person has had, or possibly even what their issue is with your company, or with you. Visibly show them your concern. Turn off your cell phone and avoid other distractions. Maintain eye contact with them and don't cross your arms or act as if their issue is unimportant. If on the phone with them, step to where you can talk without distractions. What's most important now is to show you are honestly interested, and willing to listen with an open mind.

3. Really Listen

While it's difficult to listen without simultaneously formulating a response, this is what's required if you want to understand the source of the problem. Solving the problem comes later, but at this stage you need to avoid jumping to conclusions. Don't hesitate to take notes if the problem is complex and has many aspects to consider. Let the customer talk while you listen to understand. Sometimes the person might start and stop several times in telling the story. Don't act impatient. Reassure them they can take their time. Once the customer has finished, summarize your understanding of the problem in your own words. Ask questions to get clarification on anything you don't understand.

Be especially proactive in customer communication and you'll minimize the times you have to deal with angry customers.

4. Apologize

Except in those situations where you don't care whether you keep the customer or not, it's best to view the complaint as legitimate. Apologize for the inconvenience or whatever is annoying the customer. Do it simply by saying something like, "I’m sorry you had this experience as one of our customers. Let's get together and make it right for you." 

5. Solution Time

After listening to the customer and understanding the situation, you might have an idea of how to fix it that would be likely to please the customer. Suggest your idea clearly and with all the details included. Sometimes, the customer's problem might leave you wondering how you could possibly fix it to their satisfaction. In this case, ask the customer what would fix the problem. In both cases, there might have to be some negotiations and you should be willing to compromise to reach a friendly resolution. Even if the customer never hires you again, the damage they can do by word-of-mouth is worth avoiding.

6. Closeout and Learn

With the solution reached you should explain exactly what you are going to do, when you are going to do it, and any other important aspects. If the customer will have to take actions, then be sure to stipulate those. Sometimes you might have to put it in writing and sign it along with the customer, just to be sure there is a record of what you agreed to. Followup with the customer to verify the solution is underway, and again to confirm everything is satisfactory. With the problem resolved you might consider sending a note thanking the customer for bringing the problem to your attention. Other times it might be proper to offer a gift certificate or some other incentive on future work. 

Finally, review what caused the problem, figure out how to avoid it in the future, and make sure the fix gets done. It's also a good time to review the effectiveness of your customer relationship management with special emphasis on how you handle complaints and feedback.

Construction is notorious for having angry customers simply due to a lack of communication. When a customer is shocked about the cost of a change, that is a communication problem. You should be asking yourself why the customer didn't know about the cost? When a customer is angry because a portion of the project is dragging on too long, that's a communication problem. The customer should have known it would take longer and more important they should have known why it would take longer. Be especially proactive in customer communication and you'll minimize the times you have to deal with angry customers.