Got Cranky Customers? How to Keep Your Cool.

customer serviceWe're all familiar with the old saying "the customer is always right."

While that well-worn adage may make good business sense to your boss and those in the customer service department, it's often small consolation to front-line employees who often have to endure a face-to-face encounter with an angry, unreasonable or simply rude customer.

"I was overwhelmed with a lot of customers asking me questions from all sides," said Maddie, a thrift shop clerk and assistant manager. "... when one impatient woman came up to me and started snapping her fingers literally within inches of my eyes and nose to get my attention."

Diane, another clerk had a similar nightmare story. "We have a policy where customers have to leave their bags from outside the store behind our counter for security reasons. When I politely reminded a lady of our policy, she said to me. 'What? Leave my bag behind the counter? ... What's the matter with you? Are you stupid or something?"

Elaine, a bar waitress near Boston said, "I've been grabbed a few times, just by customers wanting to get my attention to give their order. One time, a woman who was impatient with me as I gave her some info that she was writing down, threw the pencil in my face and told me I needed to get an education."

These days, it doesn't take much of a reason, if any, for a rude, unreasonable customer to go ballistic.

The customer may be angry about a broken or defective product, poor service by another employee or the company itself, or simply having a bad day and looking for somewhere to vent their rage. Life isn't fair, and chances are you, as the employee, are going to be "the face" of the company upon whom customers dump their frustrations, even if you aren't the person directly at fault.

However, in these tough economic times when jobs are hard to hold onto -- let alone to find in the first place -- eating a bit of "humble pie" with a rude or cranky customer has become a necessary function in helping to assure job security. The last thing you want is for your response to escalate into a situation where your boss may feel it's necessary to fire you in order to maintain the company's customer-friendly image.

Many employers advise their workers to be patient with difficult customers, and try to not only diffuse the situation, but also make the customer happy and ultimately satisfied.

"It pays dividends business-wise, if you treat the customer the way you'd like to be treated," says Joel Lloyd, a supermarket manager in Waltham, Mass. "I also welcome customer complaints, because I can't fix a problem if I don't know something is broken."

However, not all customers are willing to deal with a situation in a calm manner when tensions and personal dissatisfaction are high.

"I've had customers come in and be rude for no good reason," says John Ackerman, a drugstore employee near Boston. "They may be upset because their doctor forgot to call in a prescription, but some think it's our fault and those few are pretty tough to reason with."

Some store employees say they've even seen customers become so impatient that they verbally abuse clerks who may be elderly or mildly disabled, whom the customer thinks may not be serving them quickly enough.

So, what are some tips to help employees deal with the minefield of unexpectedly cranky or rude customers, and also manage to keep their cool -- and their jobs -- under trying circumstances?

1. Keep smiling.

Often rude customers simply want to see you become as upset as they are. Some may have nasty attitudes and low respect for those who may work in the service industry. Instead of emotionally reacting to their angry complaint, baseless or not, keep your cool and try to resolve the situation in a friendly manner. At the very least, you prevent the customer from having grounds to report you to your boss for being uncooperative. Maddie, the thrift shop employee mentioned earlier says, "I find a controlled non-reaction to rudeness works best."

2. Acknowledge the customer's feelings.

An acknowledgment of the customer's frustrations, coupled with a sincere interest in resolving the problem, can often work wonders quickly. Using simple, easy phrases such as "I understand how you feel," "I see," "I'm sorry" and "I can see how you might feel that way," can make a customer feel they've been heard and their feelings have been respected and affirmed. It helps to diffuse the emotion and clears the path to a resolution of the problem.

3. Offer tips for resolution.

Often, simply providing quick possibilities that the customer may not even be thinking about in the heat of the moment can end a confrontation. Suggesting an exchange of the product, a refund or an upgrade to a better product, can head an angry customer off at the pass and lead to a pleasant and acceptable solution that will bring a smile to the customer's frowning face.

4. Don't engage in debate.

Sometimes, a cranky or rude customer will be impossible to please. Your best course of action in this case will be to stay cordial, even smiling if possible, and refer the customer to a supervisor or manager who may be in a better position to resolve or handle the matter. Getting in the mud with a disagreeable customer will only get you dirty. Diane, the employee who was asked by a rude customer if she was stupid, reacted by calmly saying, "I am not stupid and if you can't speak to me with respect, then please leave the store."

"We try to coach our employees to deal with difficult customer situations," says Lloyd. "We give training to help them do things that will ultimately please the customer. We also find that such training for our employees helps them to make better decisions under tough circumstances."

5. Stay calm.

Dealing with a rude customer often makes it difficult to continue working, even after the encounter is over. Once the customer leaves, take a few moments to relax and breathe easy. That way, the incident won't affect your more pleasant interaction with other customers to come. Realize the rude customer has the problem, not you.

6. Remember the good customers.

For every rude, angry and nasty customer, there are also many more nice, friendly and appreciative ones to replace them. Everyone who works in the service industry will encounter a difficult customer. However, your best course of action is to forget the occasional bad apples and appreciate the others who offer you a sincere smile and a thoughtful "thank you."

"The good customers often outweigh the bad ones", confirms Maddie, "but, sometimes it gets SO bad that you just feel like you can't get through the day and that makes it hard."

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