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?”


“Oh my dear, you sound so upset.”


“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!

Applying empathy to sell on purpose instead of by accident

Part 1 – Pre-call research

In 1977, I applied for a job as a salesperson with a company supplying equipment and chemicals to researchers in the health sciences field. I had some trepidation about being in sales, but in one of my interviews with my prospective manager, I’d asked him what kind of training I would receive. “Oh – don’t worry, you’ll get full training,” he told me. So I accepted the job.

On the first day my manager sat me down at a desk in the warehouse, gave me a copy of the company catalogue, and told me to read it from cover to cover. Two days later, I told him that I’d finished reading it, and he said, “Read it again.” This scenario repeated itself a number of times over the next two weeks. Finally, I asked when the next phase of my training would start. “How about now?” came the cheerful reply, and with that he grabbed his car keys, and enthusiastically told me to get in his car. We spent the next two hours cruising around with him pointing out the locations of our major customers in the city. Back at the office, I thanked him for the tour, and enquired as to when the rest of my training would begin. “That was it – that was your training. You’ve studied the catalogue, you know where the customers are, now go sell something!”

Needless to say, without any guidance as to what to do, my first sales calls did not go well. In fact, as a defence mechanism against my embarrassment for not knowing what the heck I was doing, I started telling customers I was the new technical support person for the company, and I would ask if there were any problems I could solve for them. That was my whole sales approach for the first few months. It did help in starting some dialogues, and actually led to some sales (though I have to admit I wasn’t setting the world on fire with my spectacular sales numbers!). I was merely “lucking” into sales simply by virtue of being in the right place, at the right time. In other words, I was selling by accident, and not with any plan or purpose.

How do you ensure you’re selling on purpose instead of by accident? I’ve identified a number of ways to do that, and empathy plays a major role in all of them.

They say that if you want to know a person, walk a mile in their shoes. That’s what empathy is all about – understanding why and how other people do the things they do. The dictionary definition is: To mentally identify with another person, thereby understanding their side of a situation. So put yourself in your prospect’s or customer’s shoes for a few minutes, and imagine how it feels to be them. What’s going through their minds when you try to interact with them.

Picture this: you’re the customer, and you’re in your office, fifteen things to do in the next ten minutes, a deadline looming for a meeting with the boss, seven things you’re thinking about all at once, and you’re expecting a call from your spouse. Just then your phone rings. Thinking it’s your spouse, you reach out and take the call without thinking to check the caller I.D.

So – you pick up the phone, and lo and behold, it’s a salesperson on the other end. Here’s what the salesperson actually says: “Hi there – this is Derrick Pick calling from Solutions R’ Us. I’m the new Account Executive for your territory, so I’m just calling to introduce myself and let you know all the great things that Solutions R’ Us has to offer, and to see if there’s anything I can help you with today…”

As the harried prospect, here’s what your brain actually hears:  “Hi there, I’m Blankety-blank from some company or other, and I’m just calling to waste some of your time and make you late for your meeting, and blah, blah, blah……”

How can you avoid this scenario?  Well, one of the rules of selling on purpose instead of by accident is to put yourself in the customer’s shoes. Use empathy to gain an understanding of what would be of value to them in their situation, and give them a reason to engage with you.

Prior to contacting the customer:

Research the customer’s organization. Visit their website to develop an understanding of their situation, and identify some of the challenges the organization may be facing, and how you might be able help them meet and overcome those challenges.

Research the individual. Gain some insight into their background and current role – LinkedIn and Google are excellent for this. Anticipate what issues that would be uppermost in this customer’s mind. Talk with other people in your company or industry about dealing with people in similar circumstances. Conduct a quick search of the internet for blogs, articles, tweets, etc. for tips on possible ways you could help.

Use this knowledge to gain a preliminary understanding of the customer, and to anticipate how your product or service could help them.  Then you can develop a customized strategy for your approach. What will you say to gain their attention and interest? What questions will you ask to gain a deeper understanding of their issues, goals, and challenges? What benefits of your solution will you present to help them understand the value you bring to the table, and what would motivate them to take action?

Using empathy to put yourself in the customer’s shoes will better prepare you for your interactions with them, and position you for more successful outcome to your sales calls.

Look for more ways that you can use empathy to help you sell on purpose instead of by accident in future blogs.