This is the first post in a series that will explore a set of questions I received from participants during a webinar on the topic of customer service. (I say "explore" rather than "answer" because I've discovered over the years that there is rarely a single right answer to these types of questions. More often, there are a variety of solutions or guidelines that, when applied, produce successful outcomes.)
Question:How do you best support employees when disgruntled customers react negatively because of something that has occurred?
This is an important question because the reality is that we, as human beings, are emotional creatures. Sometimes, it's the customer who is emotional and, because of a problem, vents into the ear, face, or inbox of an employee who is not directly responsible for the offense. It's normal in these situations, as an employee, to experience an emotional tug (affronted, devalued, disrespected), take it personally, and be left feeling bad about the exchange.
When I worked for a large corporation, we used to say to employees, "Leave your problems at the loading dock on your way into work. At work, you're on stage!" Years later, I see the futility of this advice. It's unrealistic to expect employees who have real concerns about childcare, finances, relationships, health, or transportation to place these burdens in a "box" near the loading dock and collect them on the way home.
A better way to assist employees is to listen to their concerns and to make resources available to address their problems, if not eliminate them altogether. In the same way, employees can be supported by their immediate supervisors in the event customers behave in an aggressive or reactive manner after experiencing a problem.
Most occurrences of this sort of customer behavior involve the line, "Can I speak with your supervisor?" before the situation intensifies. But then, what are most employees instructed to do? That's right. They're trained to avoid escalating calls and, instead, remedy the situation themselves. Unfortunately, not all employees are sufficiently experienced/trained to accomplish this. As a result, customers receive frustrating responses from employees such as, "There's no supervisor here at this time (even when there is)" or "Sir, they're going to tell you the same thing." These responses are sure to fan the flames and further agitate disappointed customers.
One remedy: Encourage employees to escalate calls to a supervisor when requested by customers. After all, unless your company has promoted an ill-prepared employee to a supervisory-level position, he or she should be better equipped to address the customer's concerns. This demonstrates support for the frontline employee and will alleviate much of the stress associated with contentious interactions with customers.
If your response to the above suggestion is, "Steve, if our employees escalate every disgruntled customer call to a supervisor, then that's all these supervisors will be doing all day! There won't be any time left for them to focus on important things-like improving customer service."
Perhaps you've already identified the flaw in this argument?
If your company's customers are so frustrated as to overwhelm supervisory-level staff with their grievances, this indicates a larger, more systemic problem (e.g., product and/or service quality, billing errors, etc.) that is ultimately beyond the control of your frontline staff-who, inevitably, receive the brunt of complaints.
In the first paragraph, I suggested that there's rarely a single "right" answer to these types of questions. You've read my response. Now it's your turn. How would you respond to the above question?
About the author
Steve has 20 years of experience between hotel operations, sales and marketing, training and development, and customer service roles working for Marriott International, one of the premiere customer-focused companies in the world.