Why You Need to Partner Up with Angry Customers


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It was the yelling that caught everyone’s attention.

Well, that and the guy emphatically slamming his hand on the hotel’s registration desk. A line of people waiting to check in stared at the scene, transfixed by this irate guest.

The problem was obvious. He thought he had a reservation. The hotel said he didn’t. Plus, the hotel was sold out so they couldn’t accommodate him. The front desk agent effectively said, “Too bad, so sad.”

A supervisor stepped in to intervene and immediately made two mistakes. 

First, he turned to the long line of weary travelers and said , “I’m sorry for the delay, folks, but you know, some people….” He tilted his head towards the irate guest just in case nobody knew who he was talking about.

Mistake number two was to face the guest directly, hold up the palm of his hand, and loudly say, “Sir, I’m going to need you to calm down!”

All hell broke loose. Someone called security.

Are You With Me or Against Me?

The hotel supervisor treated the irate guest as an adversary.

Objectively, we know we aren’t supposed to do this. Customer service professionals are there to help, right?

It gets a little more complicated when the situation is real. Angry customers can trigger our fight or flight instinct. Upset customers are harder to help because they tend to get more judgmental and less open to ideas. Some customers are just jerks.

Unfortunately, treating a customer like an opponent tends to make things worse. Now, they have two problems. There’s the initial issue plus the maddening feeling of being stonewalled.

Consider the infamous Comcast cancellation call from two summers ago. Nobody really cared that the customer wanted to cancel his service. It was the Comcast agent’s unwillingness to facilitate the cancellation request that caught everyone’s attention.

Customer service reps stonewall upset customers all the time. Perhaps not at an extreme level, but they still do little things that make matters worse:

  • Robotically quoting policy
  • Using trigger words like “No” or “Policy” to defend a decision
  • Trying to argue with a customer or prove them wrong
  • Failing to demonstrate empathy
  • Using defensive body language

The Partner Technique

You’ll have better luck serving angry customers if you make them feel like you’re on their side. 

This is called the Partner Technique. Here are some examples of using partner behaviors:

  • Shift your body language so you’re both facing the problem together
  • Listen carefully to customers so they feel heard
  • Use collaborative words like “We” and “Let’s”

I introduced the Partner Technique to an airline client’s ticketing agents. They’d often encounter travelers who were upset about baggage fees or long check-in lines.

Here’s how the ticketing agents used the Partner Technique to make their passengers feel better:

First, they’d physically move to the passenger’s side. This allowed them to look at the passenger’s ticket together, but it also avoided more defensive face-to-face body language.

Second, they’d ask questions and listen carefully to the passenger’s concerns. 

Finally, the ticketing agent gave the passenger their commitment to assist them. This didn’t always mean giving the passenger exactly what he or she wanted, but it did mean making an effort to demonstrate empathy and provide assistance.

This change in perspective helped more passengers feel better and made the ticketing agents’ jobs a little easier.

One final note: 

Being on the customer’s side doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t on your company’s side. It just means that you are making an effort to understand your customer and help them succeed.

Republished with author's permission from original post.


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