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Dealing with difficult people - angry or complaining customers

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Summary

Phil and Alex Gould discuss training they provided for a software company who were keen to equip their technical engineers for handling unhappy customers more effectively when things went wrong.

Podcast transcription

Hello, in today’s podcast Phil Gould and I discuss some training we provided for a software company.

From time to time things if something went wrong with the software customers would become angry, and complained loudly.

The company was keen to equip their customer facing technical engineers with skills for handle unhappy customers a bit more effectively. 

If you like the sound of what we’re saying about the training we provide, and you think it might be interesting, useful and relevant for you … or for someone you know … then contact us through our website at gouldtraining.co.uk for more information. 

You can also use the website to get in touch with us if you’d like to suggest a topic for an upcoming podcast.  We’d be delighted to hear from you.

Phil:  Hello again Alex.

Alex:  Good afternoon.

Phil:  What shall we talk about today?

Alex:  I’d like us to talk about the software company who we’ve been doing some work for lately.

Phil:  You mean the one we were invited in by the Customer Experience Director to deal with their customer service engineers.

Alex:  That’s right yes.

Phil:  Okay, yeah lets talk about that.  Why don’t you start by saying what we were trying to help them with?

What were the training needs of the customer service engineers?

Alex:  He had become increasingly concerned about the risk of them loosing customers to competitors.  Most of their business came from a relatively few customers, and having analyzed some customer feedback he felt as though they were vulnerable.  If a customer left it would be very hard to win them back.  It’s a very fast developing field.  From time to time there are going to be problems.  The software needs to interact with other systems their customers might be using, so bugs and issues and tickets are inevitable.  He was worried about the considerable variation in people’s confidence and ability to successfully handle customers when they complained about technical issues.

Phil: Yes, a lot of the customers were extremely uptight about it.  They felt at enormous risk, they were so dependent on the software working flawlessly for them.

Alex:  Yes you’re right.  The software was pretty critical for them.  Any problem could cost them a lot of money.  So they get pretty irate, and sometimes pick up the phone and harang the software engineers, the people who we were dealing with fixes immediately. 

Phil:  My memory of the software engineers is that a very high proportion of them were very good at handling people, and very good at sorting out problems, and yet they still had a great deal to learn about how to deal with some of the more tense situations.

Alex:  The vast bulk of them are highly educated and very experienced technically.  They are experts in their field.  Many of them had warm and friendly relationships and terrifically good rapport with their customers, sometimes with long standing relationships with the key people in their customer’s companies they dealt with most often, but most of them struggled if the customer would got angry.

How did we begin to work with customer service engineers?

Phil:  Lets get down to the nuts and bolts. Let’s give an idea now Alex of how we go about coaching somebody like a software engineer to handle a difficult conversation, something he’s not highly trained to do, and helping him to, or her to, explore the way they’re handling people in the moment.

Alex:  Absolutely!  The very first step is for us to get a flavor of how they approach these conversations to start with.

Phil:  Why don’t you describe how we do that?

Alex:  A very effective way to do it is to role-play it.  With a bit of a briefing from them … and a steer from them about how I could play it realistically, I pretended to be an unhappy and unsatisfied customer, ringing them up and complaining. 

Why did they find angry customers so difficult?

Phil:  What were some of the most common patterns that we were finding?

Alex:  Almost universally what they didn’t’ like was conflict.  It made them very uncomfortable.  It immediately put them on the defensive.  Because they were on the back foot, even though they were quick to apologize, and they sounded hesitant and unsure of what to say and wasn’t very effective at calming the customer down.  They tried to be as reasonable with their customers as possible.  They tried offering facts and figures about the software, and dates and about patches, and information about why the issue was occurring.  But, unfortunately, the result was that the customers frequently went away still unhappy, and the senior managers were being inundated with escalations … requests … demands even … for someone with more clout to get involved to make things happen more quickly.

Phil:  So their natural response was to try to be reasonable with the customer.  If the customer was showing anxiety, or being angry, they would try to be calm and reasonable to the customer. 

Alex:  Yes, that was their knee-jerk response.

Phil:  I remember that as well, handling some of these conversations, and realizing that these engineers were very reasonable indeed and very very patient.  It was hard to fault the way that they were responding to customers. 

Alex:  Yes, on one level, because they were being friendly and amiable.  But actually what they were finding is that although they thought it was going to be an effective way of getting through to somebody who’s unhappy, or upset, or angry, actually it wasn’t working very successfully for them.  In fact the very reason why they were being offered training is because they recognised that that strategy wasn’t working, so they were pretty receptive to the idea that it’s because the person they were talking to wasn’t yet in the right frame of mind to be able to absorb all that information.

Phil:  We did experience them being able to catch on to that.  They began to get the idea, didn’t they, that when somebody’s being emotional, it’s often not successful to try to handle that by being reasonable.  It needs something different.

Alex:  Yes, everyone seemed to pick that up very quickly and grasp it.

What did we teach them to do instead when customers became angry?

Phil: What was the thing that we were able to give them which gave them another way?

Alex:  The need make a better connection with their customers, by connecting emotionally, by being able to empathize with the situation their customer finds themselves in.  We encouraged them to get personal … to think about the difficulties the person they are liaising with might be having … the stress they might be under because this problem has occurred … and the consequences for that person … and that person’s career … or their professional reputation … if this software failure isn’t resolved promptly.

Phil:  To become even more concrete about it, say a bit more about what were we teaching them to say?

Alex:  Things like, “I can imagine this is embarrassing for you. I can imagine it must be difficult for you to have to handle your bosses if they’re angry at you and demanding to know what on earth is going on, and what you’re going to do about it to make sure this problem is resolved.  You must be worried about how a glitch with our software might effect your reputation.”

What were the results of the training?

Phil:  What effect did they begin to find that was having with their customers?

Alex:  They found that customers softened much more quickly.  Their regular meetings and conference calls with their clients to go over various issues would finish more quickly, and best of all there were far fewer escalations.

How did they respond to the training?

Alex:  It was a revelation to them to even think these technical problems might have a knock-on effect to their customer’s personal lives.  It hadn’t ever cross their minds before that the consequence might be that people start worrying about things like their job security, their ability to keep paying the bills, and to look after the family, the mortgage and so on.

Phil:  … because they saw their job as being technical … that it was unprofessional, or beyond the requirements of the job, to talk about how people actually felt, what the stress of the situation actually meant to them.

Alex:  All their training up until that point had been technical training, so they were thinking in terms of what the software does, and how the software interacts …

Phil:  … and solutions to the problem …

Alex:  Yes that’s right, and what we were encouraging them to do, probably for the first time … was to think of the customer on the other end of the phone as a human-being first, with all the usual frailties and failings, before engaging their brains to solve the problem.

Won’t it take too long if you stop to talk to angry customers in this way?

Phil:  But if somebody says to you, “But, surely the whole point of the job is to help people solve their technical problems, and if people are complaining that something is going wrong with the software what they want is a technical solution.  They don’t want all this airy-fairy soft stuff.”

Alex:  I wonder whether we’re giving the impression what we’re describing might take a long time … or is hard to do ...  or cause the customer be even more frustrated because it procrastinates the getting down to brass tacks and talking about the technical stuff.  Do you think people might worry we’re trying to obfuscate or avoid talking about technical matters?

Phil:  I think people do see it that way.  I think one of the big problems is the pressure of time, and they feel it’s their job to come up with the solution fast, and this is one of the reasons why a lot of them feel so bad about this sort of situation, because they feel as though they’re failing to satisfy the customer.  And what our training is giving them I think, isn’t it, is yes of course their job is to be a fixer, but the first thing they have to handle is the state of mind of the customer.  If the customer is in a very tense state then you can’t actually have a rational conversation with a customer that’s in that state.  You first of all have to bring them down, and have to let them let off steam, and you have to get them to relax a bit so they can trust you more.  Then they’re in a position to talk to you more about what the problem is and how to solve it.  So it takes less time to do that, rather than more.

Alex:  Yes that’s right.  I think people might be surprised at how quickly this can be done.  With a bit of practice and a bit of skill what we’re doing can be done within about half a minute or a minute or so.  If they don’t do it, if people skip this bit altogether then often-time it doesn’t matter how good they are technically, it’s not going to work, regardless of what they say.

Phil:  They did seem to get very excited didn’t they at the growing awareness and skill to be able to handle not just the technical problem, but also to handle the relationship when things got difficult technically.

Alex:  Yes.

How to be assertive with upset customers

Phil:  So what else?  That wasn’t the only need that came up with this particular group was it?

Alex:  Yes, as well as the need to be able to empathise with the customer, we taught how to firmly and assertively reassure their customer.  We showed them how to convey how important it was to them personally to be able to provide a good service and look after the customer.   We showed them to say what they were going to do on behalf of the customer … to be able to advocate on their behalf … to make sure the managers in charge of allocating resources where going to prioritize tackling their bugs.  So, for example to be able to say things like, “I’m really keen to be as helpful as I possibly can …”

Phil:  Ah.  I can imagine that if I’m a customer and I ring up, and the software has let me down, and I’m very frustrated and very alarmed about the consequences of this, and the effect on me and how I’m seen by my superiors if I don’t get this sorted out pretty quickly.  I need to know that the customer service engineer is taking me seriously.  I need to know that he realizes how serious this is and that he’s highly motivated, that I’m top of his list of priorities.  I need to know that he’s with me.  I won’t know this unless he actually tells me.  This is what you’re saying isn’t it?  We got them to spell out the straight forward thing like, “I can hear this is urgent for you”, and “It’s my top priority.  I will be with you until this is sorted”.  Stuff like that so he can relax and feel, “Ah.  I’m being looked after”.

Alex:  And to say, “This is what I plan to do about it, and I’ll keep you in the loop every step of the way”.

Reminder – why this was such a big issue in the first place

Phil:  Right.  It reminds me of the reason why we called in for this in the first place, because it was the customer experience director who realized that making customers feel they were being properly looked after and paid attention to was one of their most important competitive issues.

Alex:  Yeah, he was worried that customer might leave for competitors if they didn’t feel adequately looked after.

Phil:  So you could be brilliant technically, but if you can’t talk to the customer in a way that makes the customer feel understood, and confident that he’s got your best attention, then he’s going to loose confidence in you.

Summarising the two skills together

Alex:  Lets summarise the skills we’re discussing here because this really isn’t meant to sound hard … 

Phil:  … it sounds quite complicated how we were training them to talk, and that’s not the way we thought of it was it.  We were trying to get them to be simple.

Alex:  Yes indeed.  Simple and straight forward, respectful and disarmingly honest.  We taught them first of all to respond with empathy.  To respond with empathy you say how you think the customer is feelings, what about, and why.  So, for example they might say, “You sound incredibly frustrated, about this bug, it must be really inconvenient because it’s preventing you do such-and-such”.

Phil:  So the customer would then say, “Too damn right”.

Alex:  Exactly, it’s good if the customer says something like that, because they’ll be starting to let off steam, which is a necessary step towards if they’re to calm down.  And we encourage people to build on that.  So we’d recommend they go on and do it again, and say a bit more.  They might then say, “I can imagine this is particularly frustrating for you because you’ve probably got serious people on your back demanding answers”.

Phil:  “Absolutely”.  This is the customer.  The customer can’t help letting off steam if you say something along those sort of lines to show him how you appreciate how serious this is for him.

Alex:  Yep.  And they might even do it a third time by saying something like, “You must be worrying about how long it might take us to resolve this matter”.

Phil:  “Well yes, because in the past this has been really problematic”.  I’m being the customer now.

Alex:  Yep.  Got it.  So that’s the first step.  Being able to empathise two or three times in a row like that.  The other person beginning to feel understood.  That goes hand in hand with the other skill.  The other side of the coin by saying, “I’m really keen to get this resolved for you as soon as possible”.

Phil:  So as the customer I’m thinking, “Good that’s what I want to hear”.

Alex:  Then the customer support person might say, “I’ll need to go away and discuss this with the team.  I’ll come back to you as quickly as I can with a plan of action”.

Phil:  As the customer (I’m imagining myself as the customer in this conversation) I’m not feeling too good at the moment.  Therefore I’ve got a pretty long face.

Alex:  Yes, we were training the engineers to be more observant … to notice when the customer has a long face, not to ignore it, but to continue to empathise.  If you do it respectfully, and honestly then the other person is very likely to feel better.

Phil:  Well you then need to say, “I can see that this doesn’t really help yet, I can see that”.  “From the expression on your face I haven’t yet helped you, I realize that.”  You keep doing it.  You keep noticing how the customer is feeling, so that he can relax a bit, and when his boss questions him about it, and expresses the same anxiety, he can say to his boss, “No I really think these people are doing their best for us boss.  I felt I trusted this engineer to be getting his people to be doing their best for us”.  In the end it all boils down to trust doesn’t it.  The name of the game in the software industry is that things go wrong, and it’s about how you deal with customers when things go wrong.  That’s really the central part of it.

Another training need - internal negotiations with colleagues

Alex:  I’m having a thought.  There are probably a couple of things worth mentioning.  The first of which is the other reason we were bought in to this company to offer some training, which is to help them feel a bit more comfortable with the next step, where they were having to negotiate with colleagues internally, often rather more senior people who perhaps they were intimidated by, where they were needing to advocate strongly, firmly on behalf of their customer, in order to make sure adequate resources were made available in order to be able to tackle that.

Phil:  That’s great.  So what you’re saying is that it’s all very well giving the service engineers the skills for handling difficult conversations with customers effectively, but that isn’t going to wash … that isn’t going to be any use unless they can also get development needed within the company to sort out those problems with the customer.  Maybe it needs new software, maybe it needs a new patch developing.  They’ve got to manage the people who manage the resources to do that sort of thing within their own company.

Alex:  Yes, and the people they were needing to negotiate with were often under enormous pressure themselves.  There was an inbuilt tension wasn’t there?  The company made money from selling new software products, so that was their priority, and it meant there was almost constantly a struggle.  They were often spread pretty thinly.  They had to split themselves between making sure resources were available for new developments, as well as retaining sufficient man- power for fixing bugs in software that had already been released.  So what we taught the customer services engineers to be able to do was to assertively challenge these pressurized and put-upon managers.  We taught them to feel more comfortable talking about how worried they were about the risks of customers leaving if they didn’t feel sufficiently looked after.

Phil:  So they’d go to the head of the software development department and say, “I’ve got this customer who’s really in trouble because of the software.  It needs fixing straight away.  I need time with one of your engineers on this.”  And the chap would say, “Like to help, but sorry, all my people are tied up.

Alex:  Well yes, that was fairly typical.  What they needed to do was to empathise with the manager, in order that he felt understood by them, rather than just pilloried.  So we got them to say things like, “I realize how stressful all this must be for you, trying to juggle all the work that’s coming in.  It must be difficult for you to even think about sparing anybody right now.”

Phil:  To which they would receive the answer, “Yes it is, and I’m too busy to carry on this conversation any further, goodbye.”

Alex:  So in response to something like that we taught them to ratchet up their assertiveness by saying, “I’m alarmed about the consequences of us not adequately supporting this big customer, because I’m afraid that they might leave”.

Phil:  So we were training them to be more difficult to say not to, on the part of the people within their own organization.  We were training them to fight more successfully on behalf of the customer with their own internal resources.

Alex:  That’s right.

Phil:  And the two things seemed to go very comfortably hand in hand didn’t they.  On the one hand training them to be more understanding as well as more firm with customers, coupled with them being able to be understanding and yet very hard to say not to by their own internal people.

How to say "no" to an unhappy customer without jeapardising the relationship

Alex:  It didn’t work every single time, because occasionally they did need to go back to their customers and say, “Unfortunately, with the best will in the world, we’ve been told no.  This particular bug, or this particular ticket, although it might be frustrating or irritating for you, it’s so far down the list of priorities, realistically it’s not actually going to be able to be attended to for quite some time, just yet.”  They did occasionally have those uncomfortable conversations where they had to say “no” to a customer.

Phil:  So, that was another thing they wanted a bit of help with wasn’t it.  Which was how to say “no”.  How to handle those very difficult confrontations w here they had to on the one hand disappoint the customer, and on the other hand do it in a way which didn’t damage the relationship with the customer.

Alex:  I suspect that actually this topic of saying “no” without it jeapardising your reputation or your career, might be a suitable topic for another podcast.  I think there’s a lot of mileage there.  We might actually do that fairly soon.

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