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How To Deal With Grumpy Customers

‘You’re a dumb b*$#@%d’ one of your best customers yells down the phone. Your stomach churns, you get that sinking feeling and …

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‘You’re a dumb b*$#@%d’ one of your best customers yells down the phone. Your stomach churns, you get that sinking feeling and you inwardly curse the despatch guys, the purchasing department, the warehouse and the management. You brace yourself for the details. ‘That order I gave you last week has turned up with only half the stuff. Where’s the rest of it? How the hell do you expect me to run a business if I can’t rely on you to keep me stocked up? I’m losing sales because of this’.

As a salesperson you are right in the front line! You have the relationship with the customer and you get to hear about it when there is a failure. It may not be your fault but you somehow wear it.

What can you do to calm them down, find out exactly what is wrong and above all keep them as a valued customer? Even more, how can you look after yourself when you keep getting abused like this?

These suggestions can help you thrive when you are under fire so that you can look after yourself well, deliver excellent service, improve your relationship with upset customers and increase your sales.

We’ll examine the APE principle then consider a couple of practical ways you can respond to their emotions, not take it personally and stay positively connected with your customers.

The APE principle

APE is a way of understanding what happens when someone is upset. There is an


The Action is that not all of the order was delivered.

The Perception is that you are incompetent and did cause the mix-up.

The Emotion is anger, frustration, annoyance, panic, irritation, or any number of things.

The APE principle says Respond to the EMOTION first. This is the thing that the customer is experiencing most intensely. When someone feels an emotion, especially when it is felt so strongly, they tend to shut off from the rest of the world. They are alone with their feeling and they don’t expect anyone to appreciate what they are going through.

If you can find a way of letting the person know that you see them and you can acknowledge their feeling, without fear and without judgement then you have a good chance of staying in relationship with them.

Two common mistakes
1. You want to correct the perception– such as ‘It wasn’t me that did that, the warehouse must have got it wrong’, or ‘No, that was the order you put through’. Even if the person has a completely wrong perception, that can wait. It may seem unjust to you to be blamed for something you didn’t do, but that is not the most important thing right now. What is important is their experience, their emotions. Acknowledge those!

2. You want to fix the problem immediately without first acknowledging the emotion. Fix-it people are very task oriented, they want to be as helpful as possible and in the process they can miss the importance of recognising the feelings in the other person. Feelings don’t need to be fixed. They just need to be recognised and acknowledged, then you can fix the problem. It might only take a sentence or two, but do it.

Some notes on responding to emotions

Say sorry
When you say sorry you implicitly acknowledge that the other person is aggrieved. You may or may not be culpable but you are concerned that they are affected by what has happened. ‘I’m sorry this has happened again’ or ‘I’m sorry you aren’t happy with what we delivered’, then you can expand and acknowledge the emotion more specifically.

Be genuine
You may need to practice in order to acknowledge their emotion in a genuine way that is not condescending or fake. Certainly you want to avoid a statement like ‘I know exactly how you feel’. Nobody knows exactly how anyone else feels. Our feelings are like the fingerprints of the psyche. We can nevertheless make an approximation based on what we hear, see and feel is coming from the other person. Try something like: ‘I know you are totally frustrated that this has happened again’.

You do the work
You don’t ask ‘How do you feel?’ because it is patently obvious that they are feeling upset, angry, frustrated, disappointed, or whatever. Besides, your question in this situation requires work from them. It is better for you to do some of the work and say ‘I can see this has really upset you’.

Give space
As you can see a simple statement acknowledging what is right there in front of you would be a good place to start. ‘I can see this has really upset you Amanda and I can understand that. I am very sorry that it has happened’ and then PAUSE. When people are angry and upset you might feel uncomfortable and want to get past that moment as quickly as possible. One way to do this is to keep talking, but that will only frustrate your customer. Give them plenty of time and space to express themselves, to say what they need to say and listen to them.

Stay present
You may be tempted to emotionally ‘run away’ or tune out to protect yourself from this onslaught. They will notice. You could take a different view and not think of what they are saying as an onslaught. Instead you could see them as someone who is expressing strong emotions. Their emotions belong to them. They are having strong feelings and this is the best way they know how to express those feelings.

Don’t take it personally
The feelings belong to them, not to you. They are feelings, they need to be acknowledged. They won’t hurt you, although you may fear what action the person may take because of these feelings. You may fear you will loose this account, or they will report you to your boss and you will loose your job. Having those thoughts won’t help you in this moment and they are probably not accurate. You don’t make a customer feel angry. The customer actually chooses how they will feel in response to events which may include among other things what you and your company have done.

Feelings change
Feelings are simply feelings. They come and go in people all the time. They tell people what is important to them. People get angry if something important to them is threatened. The customer in this instance is passionate about their business. They are upset because they are loosing business. That is perfectly understandable. Of course they are angry.

Just do it
You don’t have to crack this in one go. Start out practicing on ordinary people in ordinary situations. Acknowledge what anyone is feeling, happy, sad, upset, disappointed or whatever.

If you respond to the emotion first you will form a stronger relationship with your customer and be in a better position to deal with the Perception and the Action that led to these strong feelings.