4 Steps on How to Handle Upset Customers with Skill and Caution

Emily Schunior
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March 19, 2019

Your Customer Called and She is Frustrated

Calls from angry customers are absolutely the worst. I get it – you want to ignore them and crawl under your desk. However, if you take some deep breaths and follow these guidelines, you may find that while it’s painful to go through in the moment, handling a customer problem well can actually make your relationship even stronger. So, take a deep breath and, as my old boss used to say, “Put on your Kevlar underwear.” We can handle this.

1. Get the Poison Out

Early in my career, a partner at my firm was speaking on a panel and got a question about handling angry customers. She told us, “When your customer is upset, before you can really address the problem, you need to get the poison out.”

She described a customer conversation like this:

You: I understand you’re really frustrated. I’ve gotten some background from my team, but I want to hear it in your words.

Customer: [Angry tirade, angry tirade, angry tirade.]

You: Ok. Yes, I understand. I would be very frustrated in your shoes. I have some ideas about how we can address that. What else is bothering you about the situation?

Customer: [More angry points, more angry points.]

You: Oh, yes. I understand. I want to address that too. (Make some notes.) Is there anything else?

Customer: Now that you ask, there is something that’s still irritating me from last week….

You: Ah, I see. Yes, ok. (More notes). What else?

And so on until they can’t think of anything else that is bothering them about the current situation or anything about the partnership between their company and yours. When you get to that point, the poison is out. Now you can start healing.

2. Freak Out So Your Customer Doesn’t Have To

This is one of my favorite “shorthand” phrases to describe the posture I take and want my team to take when we’re handling a customer crisis. I’ve had people argue with me on this – they declare, “You need to stay calm in a crisis!” But this phrase was born for just those people. Because in a crisis, a true DEFCON 1 crisis, someone is going to be freaking out. If it’s not you, you’re leaving a freak-out vacuum that will be filled by your customer, and believe me, you do not want that.

But let’s get on the same page about how to freak out as a competent executive. I do not mean you run around like a chicken with your head cut off, yelling at your team, trying one thing after another. But you should take the posture that the situation is not normal and not acceptable. This is your honor on the line, after all, and your customer’s business. You should be freaking out! You could say to your customer, very calmly, “I, also, am very upset about this situation. You and your business deserve for this solution to be working. You have my commitment that we will work aggressively to solve this until you are completely satisfied.”

If you do not demonstrate that you understand and you are taking it VERY seriously, then your customer will be forced to amp up their reaction until they feel like you get it. If instead you proactively claim that ground and you are the one reacting strongly, and (of course) effectively, you will be surprised at just how reasonable your customer can be. You are freaking out so your customer doesn’t have to.

3. Over-Communicate

One good way to freak out competently is to over-communicate. When something goes wrong, the level of trust between you and your customer is going to go down. You will have to hustle to get that trust back.

What I’ve seen happen is that your team lead may get into a zone of problem solving and not want to surface until he has good news. This is torture to your customer. It must be someone’s job to regularly communicate status updates to the customer, and it doesn’t matter what that status is! They just need to know before they ask.

It may help to agree on an approach to solving a problem, including an updated timeline. You really need to be explicit. Say, “I am planning to pull together a war room around this problem. I want to bring in Ben and Christie from the development team and also include Ethan since he has so much history with your implementation. I think there are three areas of research we need to pursue right away (name them.) I will send you a quick update each morning and at noon and then let’s do a quick standing call each afternoon at 4:00. Does that sound like a good approach?” Once you’ve agreed, then you can go about rebuilding that trust.  

Something else that works well is to proactively offer details. If you are working in an issue tracker, can you can open it up to your customer? If you are using a spreadsheet or OneNote or something to track tasks and progress, can you share it? Include these details as an attachment or link with a valuable executive summary of what’s included. You could write, “We’ve got a Tiger Team assigned to this bug. I’ve added you to the Slack channel they’re using in case you need any other details or just want to watch progress.” Chances are, they won’t join or review the detail, but you’ve opened the kimono which proves you have nothing to hide.

The key thing to recognize is that when you have been alerted to a problem and then get a call or email asking for a status update on that issue, you’ve failed. You need to anticipate and exceed the communication needs. The way you communicate status and details will indicate your attention, persistence, and capability—and that will begin to rebuild trust.

4. The Retrospective

When the crisis is over—when you have won and redeemed your honor—you really have an opportunity to emphasize all the good work your team did and cement your rebuilt trust. In some way, shape, or form, you should mark with your client the “resumption of normal.” Don’t rush this. The goal of this retrospective meeting is twofold. First, and this is the goal you communicate to the customer, you want to take time some time together to analyze the learnings. You will look back at root cause and discuss the new tools/processes you put in place to avoid a similar situation in the future. You also want to walk through the resolution process. How did they feel about your level of attention to the issue? How did they feel about your communication approaches? Did you feel you brought the right resources to bear? Etc. Of course, these are good learnings and you want to get into details—both for future interactions with this customer and with all your other customers.

But there will be a second goal that you don’t share. Your second goal is for your customer to articulate—to say out loud, meaning they say it and hear it—that they are happy with the way you handled the situation. You can even get them to elaborate and make the neural connection even stronger. If they say, “I thought the communication was very thorough,” you can say, “That’s great to hear. Is there anything you remember as being particularly helpful? I’d like to share that with my team.” If you handle it right, this is your chance to dig in and get them really excited about communicating how effectively you righted the ship.

By all means, avoid angry customers! Do everything you can to meet their needs and expectations the first time. But as Bill Gates said, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” So if, no – WHEN – something goes wrong, just take comfort that there can be a silver lining. Handled well, even big customer problems can lead to an even stronger relationship than when you started.  

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Emily has spent 25 years in a variety of consulting and leadership roles at organizations of all sizes, most recently as the VP of Professional Services at a software startup. She now works with growing tech companies to build out and maximize their delivery operations.