The Customer

Defensive Selling

How businesses cope with rage-filled customers.

A senior citizen checks in at the airport using a credit card.

Consuming is a two-way street. This column usually concerns itself with the customer’s plight, but every once in a while it’s worth remembering that the seller’s life has its travails, too. After my sophomore year at college I took a summer job at a liquor store in a decrepit neighborhood near (then-seedy) Venice Beach. “Forget all that ‘customer is always right’ crap,” a seasoned co-worker advised me. “In here, the customer is usually a drunk.” He had a point. After one of them tried to smash the storefront window with a length of plywood (I can’t remember how we’d failed him), I traded Venice Beach’s balmy breezes for a bookstore in sun-splashed Beverly Hills, where the clientele was sometimes rude but never dangerous.

There is, as it happens, an entire literature advising businesses how to deal with customer complaints, and lately I’ve been perusing one of the more popular volumes, A Complaint Is A Gift: Recovering Customer Loyalty When Things Go Wrong. Its authors, Janelle Barlow and Claus Moller, cite a 2007 study that found that 47 percent of those who suffered a “negative experience” with a business or other organization responded by swearing and/or shouting. Interesting regional differences were observed. Midwestern customers were “more likely to swear, feel their chest tighten, or get a headache,” while Westerners were likeliest to saunter silently off, never to return, and perhaps write something nasty about the company online. Southerners were quick to complain and bad-mouth the company to their friends, but least likely to swear. The best possible type of customer to screw over was apparently a Northeasterner. This group was “least likely to register a complaint, tell others, or post a blog entry or online review.” Does that mean Northeasterners are the most courteous people in America? More likely, I think, is that Northeasterners encounter bad customer service so frequently that they’ve stopped even noticing it.

But what about when the customer is out of control, like my plywood-wielding drunk? We turn now to Chapter 8, “When Customers Go Ballistic.” Barlow and Moller outline five principles to handle “difficult customers.”

1.) Aikido. This concept is borrowed from Japanese martial arts. “Masters of aikido do not resist the physical force of their opponents,” Barlow and Moller explain. “[R]ather, they turn with it and let it pass them.” Anger, they explain, is “like a volcanic eruption.” Don’t interrupt the volcano while it’s spewing lava! Take notes instead. Once the eruption is over, acknowledge your customer’s anger by saying something like, “I know you’re angry. I would be, too.” If that doesn’t calm your volcano down, remove him from the crowd so he can subside without losing face in front of the other customers. If the customer shows no signs that he will ever subside, then say as nicely as you can that you don’t seem able to satisfy him and that perhaps some other business might serve his needs better. Then breathe a sign of relief as he stomps off.

2.) Pacing. “All of us have a strong tendency to like people who are most similar to us,” Barlow and Moller write. You must therefore find something in yourself that resembles the customer and display it. Obviously this is going to be tricky when the customer is in a really bad mood. If he’s shouting, you don’t want to start shouting, too. But neither do you want to be smiling. Instead, put on a sober face and make eye contact to acknowledge that this is a serious problem (even if it isn’t).

3.)  Euphemism. Euphemism isn’t the term Barlow and Moller use to describe this principle, but that appears to be its essence. Avoid saying anything that sounds like a command or contradiction. For instance, don’t say “You must.” Say, “I need you to.” (Fear of enraging nicotine addicts is why “No Smoking” signs were replaced by language-mangling signs that said “Thank you for not smoking.”) Avoid words like “but” and “however” because the pissed-off customer will only hear the words that follow these qualifiers. If you have to say “no,” then first “put a look of regret on your face or make an ‘effort’ sound.” Say you’re sorry you can’t do X, then explain why, then suggest an alternative solution.

4.)  Partnership. Talk about solving a problem together.  Make your challenge the customer’s challenge. What are we going to do, partner? Avoid handing him off to someone else, but if you must (assuming the customer is on the phone), then ask for his phone number in case he gets disconnected and then stay on the line until the person you’re handing him off to is on the line.

5.)  Get personal. Don’t call him “sir.” Address him by name, and give him your name, too. Give him a business card if you’ve got one. If the customer hurts your feelings, let him know.

The aikido method reminds me of some advice a mentor gave me when I got married 20 years ago. When fighting with your wife, he said, never apologize too early. Angry people need time to vent, he explained; apologize too quickly and your wife won’t get what’s made her mad off her chest. Pacing is just common sense. Euphemism annoys me on principle; I am a writer, after all. But our chip-on-the-shoulder culture has come to demand it. Partnership is easy to overdo (call an irate person “buddy,” and he may punch you in the nose). Getting personal is all right if the purpose is to say I’m a person too, damn it!Treat me like one! But using the customer’s name can be tricky if you first have to ask for it. That feels invasive. (I’ve always felt sorry for waitresses who have to wear name tags.)

None of these techniques would have helped me in Venice Beach back in 1978 when that drunk started waving that hunk of plywood. I therefore offer one additional option: Quit your job and get another one. This is not, alas, easy to do in the current economy.