How to Handle Tough Customer Conversations

Lori recalls a recent flight from hell—and reveals how tough customer conversations should be handled.

Lost luggage

I love the commercial where the CSR working in a remote call center poses as the supervisor “Peggy” to get out of a tough customer conversation.

I thought it was funny until I met my personal version of Peggy going by the name of Boris.

I was headed to Albany on an early morning flight along with a handful of other people. I was taken by surprise when my suitcase didn’t make it. I wasn’t going to let a suitcase mishap ruin my day, so I reported the loss to baggage claim and went on my way.

I was sure it would arrive before the night was over.

I met my customers in my warm up jacket and gym shoes, hoping my humility would work to my advantage. We joked about the possibility of a spontaneous shopping spree if the suitcase never made it, but I was certain my airline would come through. Sure enough, I received a phone call at 4:00 pm telling me my suitcase had landed in Albany and was on its way. I felt as if the airline did its best to help me. I was happy and all was right in the world.

Fast forward a few hours. It’s 8 p.m. and I don’t have my suitcase. I am dying for a shower and a change of clothes. The mall is closing soon. Panic is setting in. I called my airline and the agent was full of compassion and understanding for my situation. She went out of her way to call the delivery company who assured her it was in their vehicle in route to my hotel. She reassured me and I trusted her. At 10 p.m. I have no suitcase, the mall is closed and I am trying to mentally prepare myself to wear my warm up jacket and gym shoes one more day. I thought I would call baggage claim once more to see where my suitcase was.

I did not get the compassionate and understanding agent I first had. This time, I got Boris. Boris was very blunt as he said my suitcase was still sitting at the airport and that they did not have anyone to deliver it as of yet. I explained what his co-worker had said, but he had no record of that conversation. I tried to be more assertive and demanding as I said I wanted to know when my bag would be delivered. His response was, “Lady, do you want me to tell you it will be there in 30 minutes and lie to you just to make you happy?” And then we sat in silence as we both contemplated our next move.

I asked for his supervisor and he replied that she was busy. I was silent—I’ve heard that one before. He had a sudden burst of enthusiasm and sincerity as he asked if I wanted to have a supervisor call me back. I commented that it would be great if he could do that for me. His voice conveyed that he was smiling ear-to-ear—he knew he won. In his mind he had effectively handled this upset customer. He knew no one would call me back. Sadly, so did I.

At times, we do have customer situations which are out of our control. You may not be able to say exactly when a driver will be there or when a billing issue will be corrected. You may need to enforce your service rules or you may be unable to explain why the customer has been on hold so long. Even if you must tell your customer something that she doesn’t want to know, you need a strategy to minimize repercussions.

Use your customer’s name and apologize, in your own words. I would have really appreciated, “Ms. Miller I am so sorry that we didn’t deliver your suitcase as expected.”

Be sure to document the conversation immediately versus when you have time to catch up later that day. As your customer becomes more concerned, he/she may call back and the lack of timely notes will set the next CSR up for failure. When you tell your customer you don’t have a record of a conversation that is important, you are in essence calling your very important customer, a liar. The end result is the customer is offended and is certain everyone who works with you is lying, too.

Know your company’s policy for investigating service failures, property damage and accidents. Let the customer know what will be done and whether or not you will update the customer. I would have valued hearing Boris tell me that they had a process that included investigating why the delivery company had failed to deliver as promised in order to prevent it from happening again.

All’s well that ends well. I fell into a deep sleep and as the clock struck midnight, I had a call from the front desk. My suitcase had finally arrived. Even so, now that I am making my next airline reservation I am not using the same airline. Boris made that decision for me.

About the Author

Lori Miller is President of Tooty Inc., a creative company devoted to evaluating, training, monitoring and mentoring your customer service and sales teams.

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