“I’ll never go there again!”

How often have you thought/spoken those words after walking out of a restaurant or slamming the phone down after speaking to a less than ideal service provider?

My guess is….a few times, at least.

If you are a small business owner/sales rep/customer service rep, chances are you spend some of your time agonising over how to handle angry customers who are unhappy with some aspect of doing business with your brand.

In the many years I spent in pharmaceutical sales, making the transition from rookie sales rep to gradually managing a team, I learned several strategies for winning life-long loyalty from customers and certainly, a big part of that learning curve was figuring out how to win over the ‘sulkers’. So below are some of my top tips:

1) Listen to understand, Not to reply Stephen R. Covey once said “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” If you allow yourself to start feeling defensive, a vital shutter inside your brain will shut down, and you’ll simply drift through the accusations/insults/grievances, listening to a word here or a phrase there, waiting for the customer to pause before jumping in with your response. When our intention is to reply, rather than to listen, we fail to take in the essence of the argument. One trick I always used as soon as I realised I had an irate customer yelling down the phone was to put aside everything I was doing, and tune in COMPLETELY to what was being said. I trained my brain to resist formulating a response while the customer was talking. This was because I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss a single thing the customer was saying.(Often this included tuning in to non-verbal cues as well. Because, at times, what’s said is just as important as what’s left unsaid). Most people worry about not being ready with a comeback and so they fall into the trap of imagining their response while the customer is still mid-tirade. Avoid this trap at all costs. Don’t worry…if you give yourself permission to fully tune in to your customer’s complaint, you’ll know what to say when it’s your turn to talk.

2) Your customer has an identity. Use their name. There’s nothing worse than feeling as though you’re speaking with a nameless/faceless person as it robs the entire interaction of a personalised tone. Find out your customer’s first name and wherever possible, use it in your conversation. Saying ‘Joan, let me see if I’ve heard you right’ as opposed to ‘Let me see if I’ve heard you right’ makes a WORLD OF DIFFERENCE. This might seem like a trivial point, but in all my years in sales, I’ve found that using the customer’s name goes a long way in calming them down.

3) Don’t take it personally. It helps telling yourself that the customer is unhappy with the experience/the product/the service….not with YOU personally. I’ve seen wonderfully talented sales reps reduced to tears because of an arrogant customer and I always told them: ‘It’s not compulsory to bring yourself into the centre of everything. If you do, you miss the woods for the trees.” (you can’t view the big picture objectively because you’ve allowed your personal feelings or a sense of being judged/criticised to seep through)

4) Use the word ‘But’ carefully. Ideally, avoid using it at all. When you say ‘I know you’re upset, but…’, what the customer actually hears is ‘I don’t really care that you’re upset.’ A good word to replace it with is ‘and’. For example: ‘I know you’re upset and I’d like to suggest a couple of options that might help you.” When you use the word ‘and’, the customer gets the feeling you’re an ally and not an opponent.

5) Re-iterating their concerns (in your own words) calms down majority of customers Sometimes, all that a grouchy client is doing is venting. They want to be heard. It’s as simple as that. One strategy I always used is to repeat exactly what the customer had complained about in my own words. So, for instance, I would say: “So, Tom/Mr Smith, let me see if I’ve understood correctly. You’re unhappy with how long you’ve had to wait for xyz product and the fact that when it did arrive, it was the wrong dimensions. Also, when you tried calling to complain, you were left on hold for a long time and then re-directed to the wrong department. Have I got it right so far?” You’ll be amazed at how just the simple act of re-phrasing your client’s complaint helps calm them down. They get the sense that someone has actually cared enough to listen and understand.

6) You don’t HAVE to know the solution, but you need to know where to look for it. If you know how to solve the problem right away, go for it. Nothing better than a speedy solution. However, often, we don’t really know the exact answer. At times like these, it’s okay to acknowledge that provided you add that you will go out of your way to figure it out within an agreed-upon time frame. ‘Miss Jones, your business is very valuable to us. While I don’t have the perfect solution right this minute, allow me to get back to you within 24 hours on how we can best proceed from here.”

7) Stick to your promises. If you’ve promised the customer to get back within 24 hours, DO SO. There’s nothing worse than not sticking to your promise and there’s always the danger of losing your customer forever. Even if you haven’t figured out the solution in 24 hours, re-connect with your client and explain the status quo. Customers want to feel like their grievance is at the top of your mind.

So, these then are some of my top sales strategies that have helped me for years in winning customers for life. Once we recognise the simple fact that at the other end of a complaint is a human being who simply wants you to tell them everything will be okay, all the missing links start falling in place. As Bill Gates once said: “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.”