Applying empathy to “defuse” angry customers

When we first established Delaine Consulting, it occurred to me that the word Delaine had seven letters in it. This was perfect for a 1-800- type toll-free line, so I decided to look into it and set one up. The first thing I had to do was to see if the number was available. I decided to call the phone company to enquire as to the availability of the number. I should have done the smart thing and just dialed 1-800-DELAINE to see if anybody answered, but instead I called the phone company. Given what transpired, this initially seemed like a huge mistake, but what came out of it was an excellent technique for defusing angry customers. I have since shared this with thousands of Customer Service Representatives who have used it to help them successfully resolve customer issues and enhance customer satisfaction.

Back in those days, companies still had live telephone receptionists to field incoming calls. I asked the receptionist to connect me with someone who could tell me if a particular 1-800 number was available for use. After being told I would be transferred to the appropriate department, there was a click and a pause before someone picked up the call.

“Yes – can I help you?”

“Good Morning. I wonder if you could tell me if 1-800-DELAINE is an available number, please?”

“Hmm – I don’t know why they put you through to me. That’s not our department. Hold on – I’ll transfer you.” Before I could say anything else, there was a click and I was en route to another department.

“Good Morning. I wonder if you could tell me if 1-800-DELAINE is available as a number?” I asked again of the new person who picked up. This was met with basically the same answer as the first time, and before I knew it I was on hold waiting for another department to answer.

When the next person picked up, we went through exactly the same routine. Lo and behold, the end result was yet another transfer. And, just like the man in Monty Python’s “Do you play cricket” sketch who kept getting hit repeatedly in the head with a cricket ball: Of course, I was getting used to it by then. But that didn’t make it any less frustrating, and I was becoming angrier by the second. I remembered a study by Anderson Consulting of what happens to a customer’s frame of mind when they are transferred multiple times in order to get an issue resolved. They found that customer satisfaction is diminished by 20% with each transfer. Since I had now been transferred four times, my customer satisfaction was rapidly approaching zero!

And then I reached Betty.

“This is Betty, how can I help you today?”

“WELL, THE FIRST THING YOU CAN DO IS NOT PUT ME ON HOLD OR TRANSFER ME!” I shouted.

“Oh my dear, you sound so upset.”

“YOU’RE DARN RIGHT I’M UPSET. I’M JUST TRYING TO GET A SIMPLE ANSWER TO A SIMPLE QUESTION, AND NOBODY SEEMS TO BE ABLE TO HELP ME. I’VE BEEN TRANSFERRED 4 TIMES ALREADY! WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE?”

“Oh my goodness! No wonder you’re upset. I don’t blame you for being angry – I would be too! Why don’t you tell me what you want to know and I’ll see what I can do to help you – and I promise I won’t transfer you.”

Well – that sure knocked the fight out of me. How can you argue with someone who’s validating how you are feeling and offering to help? I immediately began to calm down and started to feel more rational again.

“Betty – I’m just trying to find out if a 1-800 number is available,” I sighed.

“Is that all? And they got you all upset over that? I’m so sorry we made you feel that way. What’s the number you’re looking for?”

I repeated the number and then Betty said: “1-800-DELAINE? Okay, let me find out. Actually, I will have to put you on hold first. You’re going to laugh – or maybe not – but that’s not my department. But I’m not going to transfer you and I will get an answer for you.”

I didn’t actually laugh, but I did feel a whole lot better, and I at last had confidence I was going to get an answer one way or the other. About a minute later Betty was back.

“After all that, I have to tell you the number has already been taken. I’m so sorry about that. Is there another number you’d like me to check?”

There wasn’t, so I thanked Betty for her help, and was about to hang up when she said:

“Listen. Let me give you my direct number. If you ever have to call us again for anything, you make sure you call me, and I’ll make sure you get the help you need.”

With that we said our goodbyes. I never did get a 1-800 number, and I didn’t have any reason to call the phone company again, but if I did, you can be sure I would have called Betty!

The next time you are dealing with an emotional customer, take a leaf out of Betty’s book and implement her process for defusing the anger:

Empathize with the customer and show you understand how they feel.

Validate their emotion to calm the customer, and show them that you are their ally not their enemy.

Apologize – not for the problem, but for the fact that the company made you feel that way.

Take personal command of the situation and do everything you can to ensure the issue is resolved.

Give them your contact information in case they need to be in touch again.

Using this process you will ensure that you defuse customer anger so that you can resolve their problem, while actually boosting customer satisfaction and ensuring long term loyalty. Try it – it works!

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