Category Archives: Complaints

Writing to Unhappy Customers? – Five Points to Note

Customers are often frustrated by perceived insincere responses to their complaints. They feel that writers use template-style messages with meaningless words and phrases without dealing with the real issues.

Here is an example.

Henry’s organisation manages a building with retail shop spaces.

A tenant, Ms Chew, has written in to complain about the noise and dust generated by a neighbouring unit that is undergoing renovation works.

Ms Chew has also asked for a waiver of rental payment for the following month, as she says that her business has been affected.

Henry wrote this reply. What do you think of it?

Dear Ms Chew,

We refer to your email dated 26 April 2018 regarding your request for waiver of the monthly rental for May 2018.

We have taken measures to reduce the noise and dust generated from the renovation works like restricting drilling works to timings outside retail hours. We have also deployed more cleaners around the areas undergoing renovations.

We will send your feedback to the on-site contractors, so that they can further minimise the inconvenciences caused.

We are unable to accede to your request for a waiver of rental as it is unfair to tenants who have duly paid the monthly rental.

Please note that the renovation works should be completed by 10 May 2018, and we seek your patience and understanding in this matter.

Please contact us again if you have further queries.

With Best Regards,

Henry Ho

Customer Relations Executive

_______________________________________________________________

Five Points to Note in Responding to Complaints

(1) State Your Writing Purpose Clearly and Correctly

When Henry stated that Ms Chew’s email was about the waiver of rental payment, it might have missed the point.

Ms Chew may not appreciate being portrayed as someone asking for waiver of rental payment. There were other issues troubling her, and these could be more important than the rental payment.

(2) Show Empathy for the Other Party

In Henry’s message, there was no empathy shown at all for Ms Chew’s difficulties.

Before he explained the actions he had taken, Henry could have shown some empathy. For example, he could have written:

“The noise and dust generated must have been inconvenient and indeed upsetting for you, and I am sorry to hear about that.”

A simple empathy statement like this would demonstrate that Henry was not just writing from his point of view, and that he had actually considered it from Ms Chew’s point of view.

(3) Be Logical and Reasonable When You Reject a Request.

Henry wrote that waiving the rental payment for Ms Chew would be unfair to tenants who have duly paid the monthly rental.

To Ms Chew, this is not even logical. Other tenants are not affected by the noise and dust, so how can the comparison be fair?

We cannot always give the other party what they want. However, we must explain it clearly and logically.

(4) End on a Positve Note.

Henry ended the message by saying that Ms Chew should contact him again if she had further queries.

To begin with, Ms Chew did not have a query, so there cannot be further queries. She had some real concerns to deal with. To describe that with the word “query” can seem dismissive.

This is not a positive way to end the message.

(5) Use Words and Phrases Meaningfully.

In responding to complaints, refrain from using standard templates.

Of course you can cut and paste from an older message, but tailor it carefully to meet the needs of your existing situation. Words and phrases work differently under different circumstances.

For example, the phrase “Please note that…” is commonly used in email writing. However, innocent as it may seem, the phrase actually sounds pompous.

Can’t we just tell the reader something without first asking them to “note” it? It even feels like we are stressing something to someone who is not really paying attention, or who may be a bit slow in understanding.

Do we really want to give that impression to a complaining customer?

________________________________________________________________________

Here is a possible revised message to Ms Chew:

Dear Ms Chew,

Thank you for your email dated 26 April 2018. We are sorry to hear about the situation you are facing.

The noise and dust generated by the renovation works in unit 02-98 must indeed be inconvenient to you, and I can understand your frustrations about this.

We have taken measures to reduce the noise and dust generated by the renovation works. For example, we have now restricted all drilling works to timings outside retail hours.

We have also deployed more cleaners to the areas outside units #02-95 to #02-100, so as to ensure the general cleanliness of these public areas.

At the same time, we will send your feedback to the on-site contractors, so that they can further minimise the inconveniences caused to you in whatever ways possible.

As for your request for a waiver of rental, much as I understand your situation, I am not able to waive your May rental payment.

As you know, most tenants need to undergo some renovation works in their units when they move in. This usually causes some inconvenience to other tenants. As such, we feel that the best way forward would be for all tenants to be patient and understanding in these situations.

The renovation works will be completed by 10 May 2018, and we seek your patience and understanding in the meantime.

Please email or call me at Tel: 6788 8766 if I can be of help in any way.

With Best Regards,

Henry Ho

Customer Relations Executive

________________________________________________________________

What Do Customers Want?

If you work in customer service, you will have encountered unhappy or difficult customers. When a customer becomes angry, demanding or difficult, there is usually a reason for it.

Customers generally expect:

(1) Quality

Terrence Lim was very happy to have secured two tickets to a concert by a popular British singer. He wanted to take his wife, who was a fan, to the concert as a birthday treat.

On the evening of the concert, Terrence and his wife arrived early to avoid the crowds. To their astonishment and disappointment, the gates to the sports stadium, where the concert was held, were all locked till well after the concert commencement time, which was 7 pm.

The gates were only opened at 7.25 pm. By then, the crowds were clamouring to enter the stadium, and there was a lot of pushing and shoving. Although Terrence and his wife managed to get to their seats in relatively good shape, their happy and anticipatory feelings earlier on in the evening had all but disappeared.

They were feeling cheated about he amount they had to pay for the tickets, because the event seemed to be so badly managed. They had even felt a little frightened by the jostling crowds at some point.

The quality of the concert, in their eyes, had been marred. It would take a die-hard fan to want to chance buying concert tickets from the company again.

(2) Product knowledge

Let’s take a closer look at the case above. When Terrence and his wife arrived at the concert venue and found the gates locked, he tried to get more information from the staff members who were deployed to help the concert goers and manage the entrance gates. Many other people were doing the same.

The staff members, however, seemed flustered and lost. None of them seemed to know what was going on; all they could do was to apologise and plead with them to be patient.

Although the staff members were unfailingly polite and patient in the face of an impatient crowd, it did not mask the fact that they had no idea what was causing the delay.

However, the people who bought tickets had the expectation that they would know.

(3) Courtesy and Respect

Everyone has esteem needs, and customers are no different. In fact, this need is even more explicit because the transaction is financial in nature.

Enough has been said about customers being irked by the real or perceived disrespect shown by service providers.

Why should you care?

You should care about what customers want and expect, and what makes them unhappy, so that you can respond in a focused and effective manner to their unhappiness.

You do not want to focus on irrelevant issues that do not target the root cause of unhappiness.

When customers complain, you may think that the problem is solved if you give them what they want. However, customers may still feel un-cherished and dissatisfied when a company offers them what they want in an inappropriate manner, or does not address issues that have upset them.

When you deal with an unhappy customer, treat that as a chance to put things right. Don’t be quick to assume that the customer is problematic, unreasonable, or creating extra work for you.

A happy customer can tell ten other persons about their experience with your organisation.

So can an unhappy customer.

Writing to Unhappy Customers?

When customers complain, it is easy to label them as being demanding or difficult. However, something could be causing them real distress.

Examples of Customer Complaints

Here are some examples of difficult customer service situations you may have to deal with in writing:

  • You are an environmental officer. A resident has complained about cigarette smoke wafting up from the unit below his.
  • You work in the Urban Redevelopment Authority, Singapore’s land-use planning and conservation authority. Some residents have complained about the noise generated by diners at the restaurants at the foot of their apartment block at night.
  • You work in a hospital. A patient’s daughter has complained about the perceived poor treatment her father had received during his hospitalisation.
  • You work in a fashion boutique. A customer wants to return a dress she bought recently, but she has misplaced the receipt.
  • You work in a hotel. A guest has complained about having to pay extra for WIFI service in the room.

In each of these examples, there is a gap between what the customer expects and what the organisation can provide. This conflict must be managed carefully to preserve the goodwill.

The Challenges of Writing to Unhappy Customers

Unhappy customers could be asking for things you cannot provide, or asking for decisions you cannot make. It is difficult to say no to them and still preserve the relationship.

The key challenges in writing to them are:

  • You must explain the situation accurately and objectively.
  • You must manage your tone so that you don’t sound condescending or insincere.
  • Your writing must be clear and grammatically sound.
Write with a Positive Mindset

When you receive complaints and negative feedback, you decide how you want to react.

Here are some negative (but common) reactions:

  • Look for ways to defend yourself.
  • Mentally list incidents in the past that show how troublesome this customer can be.
  • Look for justifications to say no to the customer.
  • Forward it to someone else to handle.

Positive reactions would include empathising with the customer and looking for ways to make the customer feel better.

Writing to an unhappy customer is challenging, but it is worth the effort if you can retain the loyalty and confidence of the customer.

Don’t under-estimate the damage that an unhappy customer can do, especially with the many social media platforms today, where an unhappy customer can broadcast his or her unhappiness easily and widely.

Does the Customer Just Want the Bag?

Sometimes, it is easy to assume that customer service is just a financial transaction, especially in areas where the exchange seems simple and straightforward.

Let’s say Sophia buys a bag. When she does that, she would have these expectations:

(1) Quality

In Sophia’s mind, the monetary value of the product must correspond with its quality.

Let’s say she pays $30 for a bag. If, after 3 months of use, it starts to show wear and tear, she may not be too surprised.

Her expectations would be different if she were to pay $100, $200, $500 or $1,000 for the bag.

Whatever the amount, the customer usually has a quality expectation of the product or service purchased. A wise service provider should be clear about this expectation and manage it effectively.

(2) Product Knowledge

Before Sophia buys the bag (or even after she does so), she might want to know more about it.

Where was the bag made? Is it a limited edition? What kinds of materials were used? What production process – was it hand-made? What colours are available? Are returns and exchanges possible?

Customers can become upset or lose their confidence if a service provider cannot manage expectations related to product knowledge.

(3) Courtesy and Respect

Everyone has esteem needs, and customers are no different. In fact, this need is even more explicit due to the financial nature of the transaction.

Customers can be turned off by real or perceived disrespect shown by service providers.

Therefore, in providing service, your words and actions must show respect and courtesy.

What Do These Expectations Mean to Service Providers?

As a service provider, you should care about what customers want and expect, and what makes them unhappy, so that you can respond in a focused and effective manner.

Many customers are left dissatisfied even after you try your best to resolve issues for them. Why?

This is because when customers complain, you may think that the problem is solved if you give them what they want.

However, customers may still feel un-cherished and dissatisfied when a company offers them what they want in an inappropriate manner, or does not address issues that have upset them.

When you deal with an unhappy customer, treat that as a chance to put things right. Don’t be quick to assume that the customer is difficult, unreasonable, or creating extra work for you.

A happy customer can tell ten others about their experience with your organisation. So can an unhappy customer.

 

Writing to Unhappy Customers? – Five Points to Note

Customers are often frustrated by perceived insincere responses to their complaints. They feel that writers use template-style messages with meaningless words and phrases without dealing with the real issues.

Here is an example.

Henry’s organisation manages a building with retail shop spaces.

A tenant, Ms Chew, has written in to complain about the noise and dust generated by a neighbouring unit that is undergoing renovation works.

Ms Chew has also asked for a waiver of rental payment for the following month, as she says that her business has been affected.

Henry wrote this reply. What do you think of it?

Dear Ms Chew,

We refer to your email dated 26 April 2018 regarding your request for waiver of the monthly rental for May 2018.

We have taken measures to reduce the noise and dust generated from the renovation works like restricting drilling works to timings outside retail hours. We have also deployed more cleaners around the areas undergoing renovations.

We will send your feedback to the on-site contractors, so that they can further minimise the inconvenciences caused.

We are unable to accede to your request for a waiver of rental as it is unfair to tenants who have duly paid the monthly rental.

Please note that the renovation works should be completed by 10 May 2018, and we seek your patience and understanding in this matter.

Please contact us again if you have further queries.

With Best Regards,

Henry Ho

Customer Relations Executive

_______________________________________________________________

Five Points to Note in Responding to Complaints

(1) State Your Writing Purpose Clearly and Correctly

When Henry stated that Ms Chew’s email was about the waiver of rental payment, it might have missed the point.

Ms Chew may not appreciate being portrayed as someone asking for waiver of rental payment. There were other issues troubling her, and these could be more important than the rental payment.

(2) Show Empathy for the Other Party

In Henry’s message, there was no empathy shown at all for Ms Chew’s difficulties.

Before he explained the actions he had taken, Henry could have shown some empathy. For example, he could have written:

“The noise and dust generated must have been inconvenient and indeed upsetting for you, and I am sorry to hear about that.”

A simple empathy statement like this would demonstrate that Henry was not just writing from his point of view, and that he had actually considered it from Ms Chew’s point of view.

(3) Be Logical and Reasonable When You Reject a Request.

Henry wrote that waiving the rental payment for Ms Chew would be unfair to tenants who have duly paid the monthly rental.

To Ms Chew, this is not even logical. Other tenants are not affected by the noise and dust, so how can the comparison be fair?

We cannot always give the other party what they want. However, we must explain it clearly and logically.

(4) End on a Positve Note.

Henry ended the message by saying that Ms Chew should contact him again if she had further queries.

To begin with, Ms Chew did not have a query, so there cannot be further queries. She had some real concerns to deal with. To describe that with the word “query” can seem dismissive.

This is not a positive way to end the message.

(5) Use Words and Phrases Meaningfully.

In responding to complaints, refrain from using standard templates.

Of course you can cut and paste from an older message, but tailor it carefully to meet the needs of your existing situation. Words and phrases work differently under different circumstances.

For example, the phrase “Please note that…” is commonly used in email writing. However, innocent as it may seem, the phrase actually sounds pompous.

Can’t we just tell the reader something without first asking them to “note” it? It even feels like we are stressing something to someone who is not really paying attention, or who may be a bit slow in understanding.

Do we really want to give that impression to a complaining customer?

________________________________________________________________________

Here is a possible revised message to Ms Chew:

Dear Ms Chew,

Thank you for your email dated 26 April 2018. We are sorry to hear about the situation you are facing.

The noise and dust generated by the renovation works in unit 02-98 must indeed be inconvenient to you, and I can understand your frustrations about this.

We have taken measures to reduce the noise and dust generated by the renovation works. For example, we have now restricted all drilling works to timings outside retail hours.

We have also deployed more cleaners to the areas outside units #02-95 to #02-100, so as to ensure the general cleanliness of these public areas.

At the same time, we will send your feedback to the on-site contractors, so that they can further minimise the inconveniences caused to you in whatever ways possible.

As for your request for a waiver of rental, much as I understand your situation, I am not able to waive your May rental payment.

As you know, most tenants need to undergo some renovation works in their units when they move in. This usually causes some inconvenience to other tenants. As such, we feel that the best way forward would be for all tenants to be patient and understanding in these situations.

The renovation works will be completed by 10 May 2018, and we seek your patience and understanding in the meantime.

Please email or call me at Tel: 6788 8766 if I can be of help in any way.

With Best Regards,

Henry Ho

Customer Relations Executive

 

 

What Do Your Customers Want?

If you work in customer service, you will have encountered unhappy or difficult customers.

When a customer becomes angry, demanding or difficult, there is usually a reason for it. Customers generally expect:

(1) Quality

Terrence Lim was very happy to have secured two tickets to a concert by a popular British singer. He wanted to take his wife, who was a fan, to the concert as a birthday treat.

On the evening of the concert, Terrence and his wife arrived early to avoid the crowds. To their astonishment and disappointment, the gates to the sports stadium, where the concert was held, were all locked till well after the concert commencement time, which was 7 pm.

The gates were only opened at 7.25 pm. By then, the crowds were clamouring to enter the stadium, and there was a lot of pushing and shoving. Although Terrence and his wife managed to get to their seats in relatively good shape, their happy and anticipatory feelings earlier on in the evening had all but disappeared.

They were feeling cheated about he amount they had to pay for the tickets, because the event seemed to be so badly managed. They had even felt a little frightened by the jostling crowds at some point.

The quality of the concert, in their eyes, had been marred. It would take a die-hard fan to want to chance buying concert tickets from the company again.

(2) Product knowledge

Let’s take a closer look at the case above. When Terrence and his wife arrived at the concert venue and found the gates locked, he tried to get more information from the staff members who were deployed to help the concert goers and manage the entrance gates. Many other people were doing the same.

The staff members, however, seemed flustered and lost. None of them seemed to know what was going on; all they could do was to apologise and plead with them to be patient.

Although the staff members were unfailingly polite and patient in the face of an impatient crowd, it did not mask the fact that they had no idea what was causing the delay.

However, the people who bought tickets had the expectation that they would know.

(3) Courtesy and Respect

Everyone has esteem needs, and customers are no different. In fact, this need is even more explicit because the transaction is financial in nature.

Enough has been said about customers being irked by the real or perceived disrespect shown by service providers.

Why should you care?

You should care about what customers want and expect, and what makes them unhappy, so that you can respond in a focused and effective manner to their unhappiness. You do not want to focus on irrelevant issues that do not target the root cause of unhappiness.

When customers complain, you may think that the problem is solved if you give them what they want. However, customers may still feel un-cherished and dissatisfied when a company offers them what they want in an inappropriate manner, or does not address issues that have upset them.

When you deal with an unhappy customer, treat that as a chance to put things right. Don’t be quick to assume that the customer is problematic, unreasonable, or creating extra work for you.

A happy customer can tell ten other persons about their experience with your organisation.

So can an unhappy customer.

Handling Difficult Customers on the Phone

This is a true account of someone (let’s call him Thomas) working in the warranty servicing department of a company selling water heaters.

Here is the telephone transcript from the recorded telephone conversation (edited to preserve confidentiality and increase readability).

Thomas: Hello?
Customer: Is this Green World Technology?
Thomas: Yes?
Customer: Is this Green World Technology?
Thomas: Yes. Green World. How can I help?
Customer: Who am I speaking to?
Thomas: Thomas here.

Answer the Phone Professionally

That was a poor start. Why?

Thomas should not have let the caller guess what company he had reached, or who he was speaking to.

Basic telephone courtesy here means to announce our name and company when we answer the phone. A friendly “Good morning” or “Good afternoon” would be good too.

Let’s go on with the transcript.

Customer: I just bought a heater from you a month ago and…
Thomas: What’s your warranty number?
Customer: Erm… it’s XS8788966
Thomas: Hang on…. OK, yes, what is it?
Customer: Well, there seems to be a lot of water flowing out from the drainage pipe. There’s water all over the bathroom floor, and…
Thomas: We can get someone to extend the drainage pipe so that it drains right into the drainage outlet in your bathroom.
Customer: That’s great.. but I’m concerned about excessive loss of water. Is something wrong?
Thomas: Once the water goes right into the drainage outlet, the floor will be dry and it won’t bother you. When can we send someone to your house to take a look?
Customer: Well let me see… But I’m still concerned about losing so much water. I’m not sure if this is normal.
Thomas: Just let our guys look at it OK? They will extend the pipe.

Listen Actively to the Customer

Did you feel the customer’s frustration?

First of all, Thomas should not have interrupted the customer rudely (which he did more than once). This is disrespectful and unprofessional.

On top of that, Thomas just did not hear the customer’s concern about excessive water loss.

Over the phone, because we cannot see the customer, it is extra crucial to listen carefully to what the customer is saying.

Do not jump to conclusions about what the customer needs or expects. Listen. Ask questions to clarify and confirm.

There’s more.

Customer: Look, you’re not listening. Why are you in such a hurry to send your people down? Do you even know the problem?
Thomas: Look, I’m trying to help here. Extending the pipe will solve your problem.
Customer: Are you an idiot or what? I am concern about water loss!
Thomas: Hey, if I’m an idiot, why are you talking to me?
Customer: What? Let me talk to your supervisor!
Thomas: My supervisor is not in.
Customer: Oh forget it! This is a waste of time. (Hangs up)

Deal with Negative Emotions Professionally

This call is getting from bad to worse.

A customer can get upset and call us names (and in this case, it seems like Thomas played a part in getting the customer to that state).

Handle it professionally. It is usually not about the person but the issue.

Remember, the customer usually does not know us personally. They are trying to get an issue sorted out or a problem solved, and it is not personal. Therefore, focus on the issue, not on the name-calling.

When the customer called Thomas an idiot, Thomas should have focused on the issue by saying something like, “I’m sorry you’re upset. When our technicians come to take a look, they will be able to gauge if the water drainage is excessive. Is that OK with you?”

Show Some Empathy to Difficult Customers

By saying, “I’m sorry you’re upset”, Thomas would already be showing some empathy.

It would be even better if he could be more precise by saying something like, “I can sense that you are anxious about possible excessive water loss. That can be worrying”

A programme participant once said this:

Yes, I’ve been trained in empathy skills, but I always have this nagging worry that if I said something like, “I know how that must feel.”, then the customer would reply with something like, “If you understand this so well, why don’t you just give me what I’m asking for?”

Empathy sounds a lot like agreeing to me, so I would rather not make that commitment.

This is a common worry among service providers. Unfortunately, in refraining from showing empathy, you lose the chance to make the customer feel better.

Empathy does not mean agreement. Empathy is a platform for communication and relationship-building.

You can disagree with someone and still accept the way he or she feels. You can accept that these feelings are important to this person. We all need to know that our feelings are respected.

When you empathise with someone, you are really saying, “I know how you are feeling right now, and I respect that you have a right to this feeling.”

If you are concerned that this may cause any misunderstanding, add in these phrases before your empathy statements (in blue):

– Although I cannot say that I agree with that, you are right about this being a rather long wait.
– I cannot commit to a confirmation by tomorrow, but I understand how you feel about this.
– I am not able to make that decision, but I can see why you are upset about this.
– I am sorry I cannot authorise a refund. I would be upset too if I were you.

Do not compromise your level of customer service by holding back on empathy.

Customers may not be happy when you cannot give them what they want – even when you empathise – but you will at least be professional and fair, and customers can sense it if you do it sincerely.

Eight Things You Should Do

When you are dealing with an upset or difficult customer on the phone, here are 8 things you should do:

(1) Greet the customer professionally by stating your name and company.

(2) Use a friendly voice. It should be clear with a wider intonation (rather than a flatter one).

(3) Listen actively when the customer is describing the problem. Ask questions to clarify and confirm.

(4) Empathise with the customer if you can sense some distress or anxiety.

(5) Be clear in explaining what went wrong and what can be done.

(6) Ask permission to offer solutions if the customer is upset or highly emotional.

(7) Confirm the action you will take, or that the customer needs to take, after the call.

(8) Thank the customer for calling before ending the call.

Over the phone, you cannot use your body language and facial expression to help you convey your message.

Therefore, you must try your best to convey your message the way you want it to be – clear, friendly, and helpful.

Writing to Unhappy Customers? Do it with Care

If you work in customer service, you will sometimes need to write to unhappy customers. They could be asking for things you cannot provide, or asking for decisions you cannot make.

You could feel daunted and depressed when you have to say no to customers, or simply to write in a negative situation.

Handling Conflict in Writing

Good customer service involves responding to customers and resolving conflicts positively, honestly and tactfully.

How do we define a conflict? A conflict occurs when another person’s priorities (objectives, opinions, or concerns) are different from ours or our organisation’s.

Here are some examples of challenging customer service situations you may have to deal with in writing:

  • You work in a fashion boutique. A customer wants to return a dress she bought recently, but she has misplaced the receipt.
  • A mobile phone user wants to have his mobile phone repaired at no cost, because his service warranty expired just yesterday.
  • You are an environmental officer. A resident has complained about cigarette smoke wafting up from the unit below his.
  • You work in the Urban Redevelopment Authority, Singapore’s land use planning and conservation authority. Some residents have complained about the noise generated by diners at the restaurants at the foot of their apartment block at night.
  • You work in a consumer watchdog organisation that informs and protects consumers. A consumer has written in to complain about the higher price (as compared with another store’s price) she had paid for a washing machine.
  • A customer has written in to complain about the late shipment of goods ordered.

In each of these examples, there is a gap between what the customer expects and what the organisation can fulfil or provide. This conflict must be addressed carefully for goodwill to be preserved.

The Challenges of Writing to Unhappy Customers

Customers could be angry with the organisation for a real or perceived service lapse, they could demand things that are difficult to justify, or they could be asking for the rules to be bent for them.

You need to explain the situation accurately and objectively without coming across as blaming or making excuses. You need to manage your tone so that you don’t sound condescending or insincere, and to ensure that the relationship is not compromised. On top of all that, your writing must be clear and grammatically sound.

Why You Should Manage Conflict Carefully

It is easy to hide behind a piece of written document, and only take care of your priorities. However, this could result in a win–lose situation, and it will be hard to repair the relationship after that.

More seriously, one unhappy customer can tell ten friends about the experience, and you could lose ten potential customers.

Write with a Positive Mindset

When you receive complaints and negative feedback, you have a choice in how you could react, both mentally and physically.

Do you look for ways to defend yourself? Do you mentally list incidents in the past that show how troublesome this customer can be? Do you look for justifications to say no to the customer? Do you try to forward it to someone else to handle?

These are unconstructive reactions, but some people are so used to reacting in these ways that they don’t even realise it.

Positive and constructive reactions would include empathising with the customer and looking for ways to make the customer feel better.

Your attitude drives your actions, and it is important to have a positive attitude if you want to be of real service and make a difference to the customer.

Writing to an unhappy customer is challenging, but it is worth the effort if you can retain the loyalty of the customer. And don’t under-estimate the damage that an unhappy customer could do, especially with the numerous platforms in the social media landscape today.

Empathising with Unhappy or Disgruntled Customers

When you are responding to a customer complaint, it is important to show empathy.

Empathising shows that you have tried to see things from the customer’s point of view, instead of merely writing a standard reply without taking into consideration what matters to him or her.

Is it easy to show empathy in writing? 

Showing empathy in a face-to-face situation is somewhat easier, as you can use your body language and facial expressions to help you.

In a written response, however, it is more difficult.

Print can come across as cold and hard. If you are not careful, the customer can be easily led to think that you are rude, cold, indifferent or unfeeling.

So how do you show empathy in writing?

Don’t use vague and general statements.

Because empathising takes effort, it is easy and thus tempting to write vague and general statements.

For example, here are some customer complaint situations:

  1. A member signed up for a dancing class at a country club. At the last minute, the class was cancelled, and the member was unhappy about the last minute cancellation.
  1. A customer booked a function room in a hotel and paid a deposit. However, he could not turn up to use the room due to a minor accident. He asked for a refund of the deposit, as he felt that he had a valid reason for not using the room. He was not happy when the hotel could not refund his deposit.
  1. A customer ordered some parts from a supplier. Delivery was delayed, and the customer has complained about it.

For these situations, it would be easy to say: “I can understand your frustration.”

However, this is not specific enough. Does this statement really reflect your understanding of how the customer was inconvenienced or disappointed?

Look at the situation from the customer’s point of view. Really visualise yourself in their position, and see how they might be upset or angry.

By doing so, you will be better able to come up with empathy statements that reflect that understanding.

Here are some examples:

  1. I understand why you are frustrated with the change in schedule. It upsets your plans and creates inconvenience, and you would wish to avoid that if possible.
  1. Your frustration about having to pay for facilities that you did not ultimately use is understandable. It does seem to be such a waste.
  1. We do understand that timely shipment of parts is crucial to your operations, and this delay must have caused you considerable inconvenience.

Does empathy mean agreement?

No, empathy does not mean agreement. It does not say that you are going to give the customer what he or she wants.

It merely shows that you understand how the customer feels, or what is important to the customer.

If you have to reject a request, the empathy statement is all the more important to show that you are not just doing it without careful consideration.

Handling Difficult Customers on the Phone

This is a true encounter of someone (let’s call him Thomas) working in the warranty servicing department of a company selling water heaters.

Here is the telephone transcript from the recorded telephone conversation (edited to preserve confidentiality and increase readability).

Thomas Hello?
Customer Is this Green World Technology?
Thomas Yes?
Customer Is this Green World Technology?
Thomas Yes. Green World. How can I help?
Customer Who am I speaking to?
Thomas Thomas here.

Answer the Phone Professionally

That was a poor start. Why?

Thomas should not have let the caller guess what company he had reached, or who he was speaking to.

Basic telephone courtesy here means to announce our name and company when we answer the phone. A friendly “Good morning” or “Good afternoon” would be good too.

Let’s go on with the transcript.

Customer I just bought a heater from you a month ago and…
Thomas What’s your warranty number?
Customer Erm… it’s XS8788966
Thomas Hang on…. OK, yes, what is it?
Customer Well, there seems to be a lot of water flowing out from the drainage pipe. There’s water all over the bathroom floor, and…
Thomas We can get someone to extend the drainage pipe so that it drains right into the drainage outlet in your bathroom.
Customer That’s great.. but I’m concerned about excessive loss of water. Is something wrong?
Thomas Once the water goes right into the drainage outlet, the floor will be dry and it won’t bother you. When can we send someone to your house to take a look?
Customer Well let me see… But I’m still concerned about losing so much water. I’m not sure if this is normal.
Thomas Just let our guys look at it OK? They will extend the pipe.

Listen Actively to the Customer

Did you feel the customer’s frustration?

First of all, Thomas should not have interrupted the customer rudely (which he did more than once). This is disrespectful and unprofessional.

On top of that, Thomas just did not hear the customer’s concern about excessive water loss.

Over the phone, because we cannot see the customer, it is extra crucial to listen carefully to what the customer is saying.

Do not jump to conclusions about what the customer needs or expects. Listen. Ask questions to clarify and confirm.

There’s more.

Customer Look, you’re not listening. Why are you in such a hurry to send your people down? Do you even know the problem?
Thomas Look, I’m trying to help here. Extending the pipe will solve your problem.
Customer Are you an idiot or what? I am concern about water loss!
Thomas Hey, if I’m an idiot, why are you talking to me?
Customer What? Let me talk to your supervisor!
Thomas My supervisor is not in.
Customer Oh forget it! This is a waste of time. (Hangs up)

Deal with Negative Emotions Professionally

This call is getting from bad to worse.

A customer can get upset and call us names (and in this case, it seems like Thomas played a part in getting the customer to that state).

Handle it professionally. It is usually not about the person but the issue.

Remember, the customer usually does not know us personally. They are trying to get an issue sorted out or a problem solved, and it is not personal. Therefore, focus on the issue, not on the name-calling.

When the customer called Thomas an idiot, Thomas should have focused on the issue by saying something like, “I’m sorry you’re upset. When our technicians come to take a look, they will be able to gauge if the water drainage is excessive. Is that OK with you?”

Show Some Empathy to Difficult Customers

By saying, “I’m sorry you’re upset”, Thomas would already be showing some empathy.

It would be even better if he could be more precise by saying something like, “I can sense that you are anxious about possible excessive water loss. That can be worrying”

A programme participant once said this: 

Yes, I’ve been trained in empathy skills, but I always have this nagging worry that if I said something like, “I know how that must feel.”, then the customer would reply with something like, “If you understand this so well, why don’t you just give me what I’m asking for?”

Empathy sounds a lot like agreeing to me, so I would rather not make that commitment.

This is a common worry among service providers. Unfortunately, in refraining from showing empathy, you lose the chance to make the customer feel better.

Empathy does not mean agreement. Empathy is a platform for communication and relationship-building.

You can disagree with someone and still accept the way he or she feels. You can accept that these feelings are important to this person. We all need to know that our feelings are respected.

When you empathise with someone, you are really saying, “I know how you are feeling right now, and I respect that you have a right to this feeling.”

If you are concerned that this may cause any misunderstanding, add in these phrases before your empathy statements (in blue):

  • Although I cannot say that I agree with that, you are right about this being a rather long wait.
  • I cannot commit to a confirmation by tomorrow, but I understand how you feel about this.
  • I am not able to make that decision, but I can see why you are upset about this.
  • I am sorry I cannot authorise a refund. I would be upset too if I were you.

Do not compromise your level of customer service by holding back on empathy.

Customers may not be happy when you cannot give them what they want – even when you empathise – but you will at least be professional and fair, and customers can sense it if you do it sincerely.

Eight Things You Should Do

When you are dealing with an upset or difficult customer on the phone, here are 8 things you should do:

(1)   Greet the customer professionally by stating your name and company.

(2)   Use a friendly voice. It should be clear with a wider intonation (rather than a flatter one).

(3)   Listen actively when the customer is describing the problem. Ask questions to clarify and confirm.

(4)   Empathise with the customer if you can sense some distress or anxiety.

(5)   Be clear in explaining what went wrong and what can be done.

(6)   Ask permission to offer solutions if the customer is upset or highly emotional.

(7)   Confirm the action you will take, or that the customer needs to take, after the call.

(8)   Thank the customer for calling before ending the call.

Over the phone, you cannot use your body language and facial expression to help you convey your message.

Therefore, you must try very hard to convey your message the way you want it to be – clear, friendly, and helpful.

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