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  Management Feature

Six Steps to Calming and Retaining Angry Customers

Posted 3/1/2007
By Margie Seyfer, AAM

Birds do it. And so do bees. Educated customers also do it. Plus we do it ... we get angry. The good news is that it's a normal emotion. However, the way we manage our emotions when dealing with an angry customer will often determine whether the customer remains ours or becomes someone else's.

It takes work and wisdom to calm customers who may yell, threaten to take their business elsewhere, sue or even report us to the Better Business Bureau. For that reason, staff preparedness is of utmost importance in delivering outstanding customer service. Car repairs are delayed occasionally for a variety of reasons, and there are technical malfunctions. These are the facts. Have you and your staff discussed different scenarios and practiced personal and customer-calming techniques? Good customer insurance is having a well-prepared plan, along with options we can provide our customers. If your people approach an angry customer with uncertainty or use weak vocabulary, the customer gets even angrier. Understanding how to calm and retain angry customers is a learned skill. It's also a life skill.

Rational customers get angry not so much based on the actual event but based on a prior experience with us. If we treat them really well when there are no emergencies, they know that we will be there for them when emergencies occur. A new customer hasn't developed this level of trust, yet. For some, it may take several visits to our business and interactions with our staff before they feel we can be trusted. Unfortunately, it's the nature of our business. Whenever a customer feels we have not communicated honestly or don't have their best interest at heart, there becomes an increased possibility of having an angry customer. It's all about customer perception.

Here are six steps in becoming skilled at calming and retaining angry customers:

  1. Whenever a customer does get angry, it's important to turn on your ears and zip your lips. When people get angry, their tendency is to blame everything on whoever their first contact is with. One of the key elements in calming angry customers is to accept all blame personally. Be fully accountable and don't say a word during this phase. Do not interrupt the customer midway into their story with your own version. This will only make them angrier. Absolute silence on your part is paramount during this first encounter, and vital to calming angry customers.

    After the customer has finished his or her story, remain silent and thoughtful. The customer may ask, "Are you still there?" This is another calming technique. Remember that pregnant pauses are powerful in calming angry people. By being silent, you have accomplished a major goal. Your goal is to get them from Mars (where all angry people temporarily reside) to earth where you can communicate with them.

    We are at our best when we decide not to take what the customer is saying personally. They are yelling to you, not at you. They see themselves as small and without recourse. They see you as holding all the keys because you literally and figuratively are. Your customer feels vulnerable.

  2. Let them know you are still listening and wish to reconfirm what they just said. Make this statement, "Let me see if I have this straight." Then paraphrase back to them the notes you have taken. You did document this incident for review with your owner or co-workers, didn't you? Writing down information makes your customer feel important. And if they are swearing, it is another calming technique. When you ask them to slow down because you are taking notes, they quickly get that you are writing all their words. Any method you can devise to slow down the rate of the conversation to between 100-120 words per minute will have a calming effect on both you and the customer. Even though you may understand completely what the customer's complaint is, be sure to take the time to paraphrase what you think you heard. This important step increases the likelihood of having a more rational exchange of information. In paraphrasing, ask several times if you are correct in your understanding. Tip: Use closed questions so their response will be "yes." The word "yes" calms people.

  3. The next step is to apologize for what has happened even if it is not your fault. It's important that you accept full responsibility for the situation. Do not blame a new employee, your parts supplier, the computer or the technician. You must apologize for what has happened and tell the customer you will help them. "I apologize for this inconvenience/what's happened. I'm here to help you."

  4. Tell the customer what you are going to do and how soon. Tip: The sooner the better. "How soon can you bring the car in? We'll send the tow truck for it right now. We'll get it on the schedule immediately and check it out for you."

    Seventy-five percent of customers prefer staying with a business that resolves their complaint quickly. Contrary to popular belief, customers would rather not look for another shop to do business with. They will remain loyal to businesses whose employees treat them with respect, honesty and courtesy.

  5. Thank the customer for bringing the matter to your attention. Tell them it will be discussed at your next staff meeting. Every complaint should be reviewed with your staff. Just to complain to each other that a customer was unhappy is not a review of how we will handle a similar situation in the future.

    What is your customer service policy about saying "yes" to customers? Do you fear that what the customer primarily wants is a refund or some other form of restitution? Not true. What customers really want is for you to show you care about their well-being and have a willingness to offer them options when things go awry. Do you say "yes" more than "no" to angry customers? Consider what would happen to your level of customer loyalty if your business philosophy became, "Our goal is to always say yes."

    I recently experienced this "always tell the customer yes" in making arrangements for an event at Denver's top-rated hotel. Every U.S. president has been a guest at this hotel. When we requested to hang a banner on the wall in a well-appointed banquet room, we were provided another option for our banner, which was completely acceptable. We hadn't really thought about the expensive wallpaper on the wall. We had a need and we hoped we would be accommodated. This whole experience helped us realize that this "can-do attitude" is what makes this a five-star hotel. The staff leaves nothing to happenstance. It has a solution for every scenario requested by guests. Do you? Have you given your staff a dollar amount they can spend to satisfy an upset customer? Consider, as a part of your outstanding customer service package, allowing your employees to send flowers or a gift card to the disgruntled customer.

    Consider follow-up flowers as a part of your advertising campaign because that is exactly what would happen. Picture, in your mind, your now-satisfied customer receiving flowers from you at work. Co-workers would be asking the customer who had sent them the flowers. Wouldn't co-workers be shocked and pleased that your auto repair business had sent flowers? This idea is for those of you who want to have a reputation as being the best. It's a fact that reputation and perception walk side by side.

  6. Last and most importantly, make a courtesy follow-up call to the customer no more than three days after the incident has been resolved. Notice how surprised the customer is by your call. This courtesy call takes one minute of your time and ensures you retain a now happy customer for life. It seals the deal.

It's simple, isn't it? All you have to do is be the person you want your customer to be.

Six Steps to Calming and Retaining Angry Customers

  1. Whenever a customer does get angry, zip your lips and listen.
  2. Reconfirm what they just said so they know you have listened to them and understand their complaint.
  3. Apologize for what has happened even if it is not your fault.
  4. Tell the customer what you are going to do and how soon you are going to do it.
  5. Thank the customer for bringing the matter to your attention.
  6. Make a courtesy follow-up call to the customer no more than three days after the incident has been resolved.

Editor's note: This article is one of several management articles that are being contributed to AutoInc. this year by Automotive Management Institute (AMI) instructors. A complete lineup of AMI instructors will be sharing their knowledge throughout the year on a variety of topics including customer service, advertising, sales excellence, managing change and much more. To learn more about AMI, its courses and instructors, visit

Margie Seyfer is an AMI instructor. She resides in Wheat Ridge, Colo., with her husband, Don, who owns Seyfer Automotive. To contact her, please visit her Web site at; send an e-mail to; or call (303) 233-0836.

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