Customer complaints are an inevitable part of business. A few simple policies and skills can help control the situation. Start by understanding that the goal of good customer service is to keep normal people from becoming more angry or difficult, not to make crazy people sane.

Customer complaints are an inevitable part of business. A few simple policies and skills can help control the situation. Start by understanding that the goal of good customer service is to keep normal people from becoming more angry or difficult, not to make crazy people sane. Normal people become more difficult to gain your attention and make sure they are being heard. Crazy people are difficult because, well, they are crazy and it is ingrained in their personality.

In seminars, I use this little formula to help attendees understand the importance of controlling emotions. Crazy plus logic always equals crazy. It is like multiplying by zero; it always comes out the same, zero. No matter how logical you become, if the other person is upset, the end result is always crazy. Upset people are simply not logical. Your first goal is to help the customer to calm down. Start with the following three steps:

1. Listen. Don’t talk, try to be right, argue or provide logic. Just listen. Think of a balloon analogy when dealing with customers. Let all the air out of the balloon and you can easily manage it. Let the customer vent, try to get them to talk, don’t take it personally. Remember, you are just letting the air out of the balloon.

2. Take notes. Write down what the person is saying. This accomplishes several things. First, it shows the customer that you are listening and for most normal folks, that is enough to get them to calm down. Two, it gives you something to do while they are being a jerk. I know that seems silly but this can be pretty important. It can difficult to exhibit the appropriate emotion when dealing with an upset person. If you frown or show anger, you are feeding their anger. If you smile, you will probably upset them even more. Taking notes is a neutral action. Last but not least, taking notes will tend to control the exaggerated complaint. If you are writing down what someone says, they are going to be more careful about what they say.

3. Focus on feelings, not facts. It is OK to agree with the person’s feelings. If they are unhappy, it is OK to say something like, “I can appreciate how you might feel that way” or, “If I were in your shoes, I might feel the same way.” You are not saying the customer is right or wrong; you are merely agreeing that they have a right to their own emotions.

What if the person does not calm down? Well, you might have a crazy person on your hands, but don’t jump to that conclusion too quickly. Stay calm, listen, and take notes. Most normal folks will eventually calm down.

Establish a Policy for Field Employees

Field employees are normally the closest person to the upset customer. Many field employees have never been told what to say or how to handle these types of problems. If you do not offer a policy or a little guidance, field employees tend to make up their own answer. Out pop things like, “You will have to call the office. I just work here.” Your best policy is probably to instruct field employees to simply listen and tell the customer they will call the office so someone can get back to them.

Tracking customer complaints can give you an idea of what is going wrong. When it comes to complaints, many companies mistakenly think, “We are a good company with good people, we are not at fault.” The problem is that many complaints are systems driven, not individual performance based. System complaints arise from situations such as the salesperson promised something outside your normal scope of work and your system does not clearly denote such changes, or there is a weather delay and your system does not help the customer. If a pattern persists, then you need to change your system to avoid such problems.

Another example of a systems problem might be something like change orders. For residential change orders, you may want to establish a policy that they are signed for and paid under a separate agreement as they occur. There is a tendency for the customer to say “OK, OK, OK” and make lots of requests but not realize how much money it is costing.

Difficult Customers

Difficult customers represent another challenge. Difficult customers are difficult all the time and you are just the unfortunate person now dealing with them. They are difficult with the dry cleaners, at a restaurant, with their friends, etc. They tend to be a small percentage of the population, but we remember them the most because their encounters are the most painful. The goal in dealing with a difficult customer is to get the work done, get paid and to get the heck out of there.

In dealing with difficult customers, remember that your completing the job is your most important negotiation tool. Be careful of saying things like, “Don’t worry, we will take care of it,” or, “The customer is always right.” Remember this person is difficult and not reasonable, so you must clearly communicate an end result. Start by clearly offering what you are willing to do to correct the situation, get them to agree to accept it and that they will pay you on the spot when it is done. Then put it all in writing.

Some consultants will tell you to see complaints as an opportunity. I am not going to go that far, but remember that for every person that complains, others simply take their business somewhere else and never say anything. Laws of averages dictate that the more work you do, the more complaints you are going to have. A little training and a simple policy can help ease the pain.