When you communicate with an irate customer, he will often “take the floor”, refusing to stop talking long enough to listen to you. Often, this involves a verbal attack, and can include peppering you with questions, or insults, interrupting and talking over you. This is particularly pronounced on the phone, but occurs in person too. Some have characterized the behavior of the irate person as “ranting”.
In addition to the verbal behavior of the irate customer, he may use nonverbal behavior to intimidate, anger, or otherwise make you feel uncomfortable. This may involve a move into your space, staring, glaring, and attempts to use height and position to advantage.
The customer attempts to control the interaction, by causing you to become defensive, angry, or off-balance. So, your first goal in the defusing process is to gain control over the interaction. You must get the person to stop talking and listen. If he doesn’t stop, there almost no chance of a positive outcome. If the person is using non-verbal methods to control you, you will need to stop those also. Remember that you cannot help the person unless he starts responding to you.
The key in reasserting control is to behave in ways that send the subtle sub-message “Your techniques are not going to work on me”.
When we teach you specific ways to control the interaction, you will see that subtle and indirect is better than confrontational. Telling a customer to “get out of my face” is not likely to work very well. The key in reasserting control is to behave in ways that send the subtle submessage “Your techniques are not going to work on me”.
Here’s a brief example of a government employee taking command of a conversation, albeit in a rather unconventional and risky way.
Picture a government office. Since the branch deals directly with the public, it has a storefront. It looks much like a bank, where people line up and are served at a wicket.
Mr. Jones walks in, and after waiting in line, arrives at the wicket. He asks for what he wants and the employee, Fred, informs the client that he must fill in a series of forms, and provide some documents (i.e.. birth certificate, etc.). Mr. Jones blows his top.
Why the hell didn’t anyone tell me about this before. You want me to spend the next hour filling out your damn forms, and on top of that you need a birth certificate ... why the heck can’t I just use my driver’s licence. You guys are so stupid and inefficient .. I am sick of having my tax money support your inefficiency.
Sir, I know it’s frustrating, but we can’t process your application without the forms being filled out and your birth certificate. I’ll even give you a hand to speed things up.
This doesn’t help at all, and the customer continues on.
Well, I have better things to do with my time, it’s too bad you don’t. You know what you can do with your F***** forms? You can take them and shove ‘em where the sun don’t shine. [Actually he used more graphic language].
Mr. Jones, I would love to oblige you on that, but unfortunately, I have five file folders, six other forms and a large filing cabinet up there, and quite honestly, I don’t think that there is room for much more.
Mr. Jones stops talking for a moment. When he realizes what the employee has said, his jaw drops. Then after a second or two, he starts laughing. Fred joins in.
Mr. Jones says:
Look, I’m sorry. I’m having a bad day, and I don’t mean to take it out on you. Do I really have to do all this?
I know you are frustrated, but yes, we need the forms done. Can I make a suggestion as to how you might do this as quickly as possible, so you don’t spend anymore time than necessary.
Mr. Jones replies:
Fred uses humor and stunned the customer into giving up the floor. It worked because it was completely unexpected and the customer didn’t have a ready made response. The customer’s angry rant was derailed, and they then moved on to helping him get his task accomplished.
In the exercises for this section we will ask a few questions to further explore the technique used. The important thing to note is that Fred gained control of the interaction so that he could move on to a more productive discussion.
Important: Note that we do NOT recommend using humor with an angry hostile customer, since it's a "high risk high gain" tactic that can blow up in your face.