Calming Crabby Customers

Clara Peller made an indelible impression on television viewers in a 1984 Wendy’s commercial playing the part of an elderly fast food patron who wasn’t happy with her meal. Remember the scene? Clara and her friends are standing at a restaurant counter eyeing their food order, a tiny burger sitting atop an immense bun. Suddenly, Clara bellows, “Where’s the beef?”

Calming Crabby Customers

There was something irresistible about the diminutive octogenarian snarling at the fast food chain’s competition. Wendy’s credited that ad with helping boost sales 31 percent and profits 24 percent in 1984. Furthermore, the “Where’s the beef?” line became a national catch phrase for demanding quality. Vice President Walter Mondale even used it to suggest a lack of substance in his 1984 presidential primary rival, Gary Hart.

We all have our “Where’s the beef?” experiences with customers. They can range from a mildly unsettling encounter to an openly hostile confrontation. Sometimes we deserve the customer’s displeasure and sometimes we don’t. Regardless of who is right or wrong, you have a decision to make: do you want to keep the customer’s business?

If your answer to that question is yes, then you and the people who work for you need a strategy for calming crabby customers. Here are some steps to follow:

Zip it. Unhappy customers want you to solve their problems. But first, they want to express their feelings. Don’t be in a big hurry to talk back to annoyed customers. Under no circumstances tell them to calm down—unless you really want to send them into orbit. Instead, nod your head frequently, give verbal listening cues, such as “I see” or “uh-huh,” and maintain eye contact.

Chill out. The people on the front line of your business must remind themselves during a heated customer encounter that they are not being attacked personally. At that moment, they are simply a big bull’s eye with your business’ name on it. The greatest challenge is resisting the urge to hang mental labels on difficult people, because once you tag a customer as a bozo, jerk, creep or moron, you give yourself permission to respond with equal rudeness. Instead, ask yourself: “How can I satisfy this customer’s need?”

Express empathy. Let unhappy customers know that you appreciate and understand their feelings. Simple phrases, such as, “I realize that this is upsetting to you” and “I’m sure this has been frustrating for you” can reduce the customer’s aggravation. Saying “I’m sorry” is always a good idea. This is not an admission of guilt, but an expression of sorrow over the customer’s bad experience. Always be genuine. Otherwise, the tone of your voice and your facial expression will erase any empathy you are trying to convey.

Fix it. Begin the process of correcting the problem by gathering any additional information you may need. Since upset customers rarely give you all the details about a problem, you may have to do some probing to get all the facts you need. Repeat back to them what they have told you so you can check your understanding of the situation for accuracy. Then offer a solution that you and the customer find mutually agreeable. Remember this maxim: Under promise and over deliver.

Follow up. This is where you rack up points with the customer after you have evened the score. Make a phone call or send a letter or e-mail to check on the status of the solution and to see if there is any other way you can serve the customer. Even if the customer is satisfied and requires nothing further, consider sending a small gift that conveys your appreciation for the customer’s continued patronage. Enclose a note to that effect.

Don’t overlook the final step of follow up: fixing the cause of the problem. Customer complaints are always good opportunities to examine policies and procedures that may have contributed to the problem. Consider convening a quality control group, a team of employees who work in the area where the problem occurred.

The group should look at the problem from the customer’s perspective and brainstorm ways to minimize the likelihood of it happening again. Corrective measures may include procedural changes, product improvements and employee training. Continuous quality improvement should be a priority for every business. Using customer problems as springboards to better service is just plain smart.

Last, but not least, take steps to recognize and relieve stress your employees may be experiencing from a clash with a customer. Acknowledge a job well done with a small reward. One idea I like is awarding an employee a cardboard medal with some movie passes attached for courage under fire. For employees who could have handled a customer problem better, invite them to be part of a quality control group to offer a firsthand account of what transpired. Encourage them to be open to the group’s suggestions for better responses to future customer disputes.

The next time one of your customers growls, “Where’s the beef?” serve her a hearty portion of prime customer service.