About once a month during one of my customer service seminars, a young attendee will pose a question concerning the handling of difficult or irate customers. The question is usually phrased something like, “How do I make them stop yelling?” or “How do I make them go away?”

Then the attendees who ask these types of questions will sit there with a look of growing dissatisfaction when I do not answer with the response that they had anticipated. My stomach twists into a knot each time I find myself faced with this predicament.

The Message

My response usually starts with the following message: “We can’t really make customers do anything. In the world of customer service, the customer’s behavior is outside of our sphere of control. The only behavior that a service professional can control is his or her own.”

The attendees who have asked the initial questions at this point start to wince and make visible signs of disagreement. I then begin to feel the knot tighten in my gut. To further make my point, I explain that handling a difficult customer is hard work but that there are techniques a service professional can utilize that will yield positive results. “It takes time and empathy,” I explain.

By now I sense their impatience as their facial expression conveys the following plea: “Just tell me how to make them go away happy.”

This attitude is really not a surprise to me. I can usually detect this type of individual in a crowd early in my talk. I just continue to smile and remain with the tried-and-true method that has served me so well for more than 30 years.

Attitude and Reaction

The reactions to my response might be a result of inexperience in and a misunderstanding of how customer service is supposed to work. Additionally, it is a signal to me that the person asking the question really needs to be in the seminar.

They expect me to share a profound or even magical tactic that will immediately placate irate customers,
getting them to cease their tirade, smile, and become submissive. Could it be that some technicians and phone reps have become so accustomed to immediate results and instant gratification that they fail to grasp the true nature of their work?

What is most disturbing to me is that the tone and attitude of these attendees imply that customers are things. I get the sense that these attendees may not fully understand the concept of putting themselves in the place of the customer for that moment. This notion seems foreign to the attendee because they do not really view the customer as a person. The customer to them becomes an inanimate entity. Feelings, therefore, are of no consequence. That also extends to empathy, patience, or good listening.

Work with a Smile

Any trade professional with even a minimal amount of customer interaction, whether in residential or commercial work, must understand that dealing successfully with the capricious nature of people is a required skill. Technicians are misguided if they believe that learning to operate a multimeter is a required skill but that dealing with difficult customer behavior is not.

At the beginning of my business presentations, I often make a few remarks about the importance of a smile when serving customers. I present clinical proof that a smile is not just a reflection of our feelings, but that it can also change the way we feel. Facial muscles affect attitude and behavior depending on whether we smile or frown. I urge service professionals to smile and advise them that an insincere smile is better than a sincere frown. I sometimes see a few skeptical faces in the audience after my reference to the smile. It is usually one of these cynical attendees who just do not get the concept.

How did we get to a point in our business culture where customers have become dehumanized? I surmise the answer lies in the technological changes that have resulted in so many virtual relationships and automated transactions. An automated transaction is based on perfunctory and sequential steps that yield a predictable outcome. Little or no human interaction is required whether it occurs on the Internet or at the grocery store.

Do some service professionals wish that their face-to-face customer encounters would instead resemble the automated transaction with its absence of a smile, a greeting, an invitation to help, and a thank-you? I hope not.

Publication date: 6/18/2012