Managing the Irate Customer

(5 Minute Read)

While sitting in the lobby of one of my favorite hotels, where I always know the service is excellent, I heard a guest checking in and vociferously complaining about his delayed flights and his immediate hunger. I watched as his temper drew a tear from the clerk’s eye. She remained polite and apologetic, but she had the unthankful job of advising the guest that the kitchen was closing in eight minutes. He demanded he had to go to his room first, and then expected to be able to sit down and dine in peace.

As I listened, my first reaction was to come to her aid. I began to move towards the counter, but I feared that my involvement would escalate his fury. So, I stopped and quietly looked on as he retrieved his room key and huffed angrily into the elevator.
Once he was out of sight, the clerk looked at me to check her own sanity, and I assured her that she was not out of line in anyway. I suggested that he was irritable, and she did not deserve the berating that he gave her. She wiped her eyes and regained her composure.
She looked at me, giggled and asked what I was going to do when I was walking over. By the giggle in her voice, I think she thought I was going to come over and do something drastic. I chuckled and said “No, I was not going to beat him up. I was going to propose a solution.” She replied, “These things happen a lot. We are near the airport. What was your solution?”
I told her that I would have handed him a menu and had him placed an order with her prior to checking him into his room. That way, the food would be prepared in a timely fashion.
Rather quickly, she picked up the phone and called the restaurant. She asked them if it would be okay staying open for a few more minutes and explained the situation. She then called Mr. Nasty’s room, apologized and asked him if he could look at the menu on his desk and allow her to place the order so that his table would be ready.

I never heard his side of the conversation, but her face told me that he accepted her apology and ordered. When she got off the phone with the restaurant, she looked at me smiled and said, “I wish I had thought of that.”

Unfortunately, under the circumstances, her analytic ability was not at its peak. She was clouded by the irrational behavior of the guest; his adversarial attitude had forced all her thoughts to focus on maintaining composure. I, on the other hand, was an outsider with no skin in the game. I was able to analyze the situation. I was a fly on the wall.
Prepare to remove yourself from the fray and look at the big picture. The best means of accomplishing this is to remember 3 rules:

1. Do not take it personal.

Step back and allow the speaker to talk. It is rarely the individual who is the target of the Mr. Nasty’s of the world. As you listen, do not formulate your responses, but follow the talker with an eye towards understanding the nature of their accusations and allegations. The ability to effectively challenge someone’s attitude hinges upon your understanding of their position, not on the merits of your position.

The only mistake the clerk made that evening was allowing his anger to affect her. He was not angry at her. He was angry at the airline. He was angry at delayed flights. He was angry because he had gone hours without eating. I was not the focus of his ire, so I was unaffected by him. She was the focus; therefore, she was working so hard to compose herself, she was not looking for a solution but polite way out.

2. Do not speak until you have listened.

Many years ago, a friend of mine asked me “What is the opposite of speaking?” I answered, “Listening.” My obviously incorrect answer led to a discussion of the uniquely different acts of speaking and listening. We concluded that the opposite of speaking was waiting to speak. Listening is a separate task, and in fact is an art. Listen before you reply. As you listen to a complaint, pay attention to why the person is disgruntled. How you manage this information will define the experience as warlike or successful. Listen to the complaint, narrow down the cause, and search for solutions within your grasp.

3. Use solutions to take control.

To take control of a bad situation, the solution will appear. Answers are not always found in policy. Your business may have policies that anticipate the concerns of guests and customers, but some of the best solutions come from observation.

On good days, listen to your customers, they will tell you what is working for them. Remember the details, the circumstances and the reasons they are happy. Keep notes and record what works and what doesn’t work. These notes will help your memory when something bad happens. No, you’re not going to run to the notes and look up solutions, but the fact that you wrote it down will trigger your brain and the solution will emerge. The ability to take control and know where you are going will allow you to be more objective. Then, Rule 1 will come naturally, because you have nothing to defend.

Once you see the solution, use it to steer the dialogue and redirect Mr. Nasty to his happy place. Once your steer him in the right direction, you will have control and peace of mind knowing that you did something good.