Categories : Communication De-escalation Difficult Situation Measurement Relationship Building Retention Training


Last week, one of our clients told us they were having a very difficult time calling us. The call would ring twice and then just disconnect. For years, our telephones have been set up to roll into voice mail if a live being
doesn’t answer the line. Our customers are the lifeblood of our company, so we verified that the calls were being dropped and immediately called our local telephone-service provider.

After I reached the phone company, I maneuvered the voice prompt menus and ultimately found myself speaking with Randy from the repair department. You might ask why I remember his name. I remember because Randy gave me a customer experience I won’t soon forget.

Randy pulled up my account information and, after a brief review, told me the problem I had described to him was not really a problem. He told me I didn’t have the feature I described and, therefore, could not have the
dropped-call situation. He said he would transfer me to customer service if I wanted to add the roll-over feature.

I informed him that our business numbers have been in place for a number of years and that we have been paying for that feature all along. He then proceeded to tell me that I was mistaken about the services I had with their company, that there was nothing further he could do and that he would transfer me to customer service if I wanted to add features. I asked for a supervisor. Randy said he would have to locate one. He put me on hold and shortly thereafter I was disconnected.

Something funny happened at that point. I noticed that my attitude had changed. I became one of the dreaded . . . Difficult Customers!

Every day, your customers call your utility company for a variety of reasons: they have a service problem, they don’t understand the charges on their bill, they don’t understand why their utility bill is so high, etc. They
have an expectation that when they call your company, a customer-friendly person will listen attentively, give them an explanation that’s easy to understand and provide a solution if a fix is needed.

Customers become difficult when they feel their expectations of how they should be treated are not met. When that happens, customers become emotionally upset and react in a number of ways.

Consider these techniques when dealing with emotional customers:

Listen attentively. Carefully listen to the customer’s explanation of why they’re calling. Many customer service representatives have a tendency to interrupt the client because they’ve heard the same story many times before.  They think they know what the customer is going to say and can interject to save time. This behavior sends a very strong message to your customer . . . and it’s not a positive one! Respect your customers and allow them to explain their situation uninterrupted.

Apologize or empathize. If the customer’s problem is the result of a company error, apologize immediately for the inconvenience. If it’s not a problem the company created, show empathy for the customer’s situation. Voice inflection is a critical part of communicating compassion to the customer. The tone of your voice truly conveys that you care about their problem.

Ask open-ended questions to understand their situation. Open-ended questions require your customer to provide more information than a simple “yes” or “no.” Having additional information from the customer can help you understand their situation in order to create the solution or explanation.

One of the most valuable open-ended questions when dealing with difficult customers is, “What can we do to make this right for you?” Research has proven that a customer’s solution will usually cost far less than the one you might offer to correct the problem.

Confirm the solution or explanation. Whatever the solution or explanation, confirm with the customer that they clearly understand it. Make certain that the customer knows what’s going to happen and when it’s going to
happen. This simple step can prevent further miscommunication and unfulfilled expectations.

Deliver on the solution. Follow up with the customer to make sure they received what was promised and that they are satisfied with the solution. This is another simple way to let your customer know that you care.

Mistakes happen. If the error was the fault of the utility, send the customer a small gift certificate or note to acknowledge the mistake and apologize for the inconvenience. Again, this tells your customer how much you
care about them.

Train your staff to deal with difficult customers. Dealing with difficult customers is a skill. Role play a variety of difficult-customer situations to help your staff become more comfortable with learning how to
maintain their composure, how to ask open-ended questions and how to create solutions. Experience is critical to maintaining a cool head when dealing with an emotional customer.

Measure the customer experience. Send a survey to a sampling of your customers who called in with a problem. How would they rate the way they were treated during their interaction with your utility? What could have been done differently to improve that experience? What happened that caused the customer to become emotional? This information can be valuable in helping CSRs work with difficult customers in future interactions

Customers become difficult when their expectations aren’t met. Dealing with difficult customers isn’t a fun time for your staff but neither is feeling like you’ve been disrespected or disappointed as a customer. What strategies are in place at your utility to empower employees to create solutions for your customers while exceeding their expectations?