Bakers Journal

Calming cranky customers

April 25, 2013
By Jeff Mowatt

April 25, 2013 – It seems in our fast-paced, frenetic world, customers are now more
tired, rushed, stressed, and downright fed-up. Here
are five do’s and don’ts for calming cranky customer from Jeff Mowatt. 

April 25, 2013 – Perhaps you’ve noticed that customers are becoming increasingly
hostile. Case in point was the highly publicized incident where a
patron in a fast food restaurant became so enraged that he attacked the
restaurant manager. The customer spilled his coffee on his breakfast
and when the manager refused to replace the meal, the ensuing argument
led to violence that ended with the customer being arrested.

It seems in our fast-paced frenetic world customers are now more
tired, rushed, stressed, and downright fed-up. That’s why in my
customer service seminars both managers and frontline employees
frequently ask me how to handle the proverbial customer from hell. Here
are five do’s and don’ts for calming cranky customers.

1.  Do consider the big picture. Don’t focus on the single transaction

The fast food fisticuffs could have been avoided if the restaurant
manager (better yet, the frontline employee) would have cheerfully
replaced the patron’s meal for free. The incremental cost to the
restaurant would have been nominal, and the loyalty and subsequent
return on investment would have been substantial. Instead, the manager
took the low road and focused on the cost of the meal and the fact that
it wasn’t the restaurant’s fault. 


2.  Do acknowledge feelings. Don’t say, “calm down.” Ever.

Can you think of a single example in the history of the world when
telling somebody to calm down did anything other than make things
worse? Me neither. It’s never appropriate to tell someone how they
should feel. On the contrary, you’ll improve their demeanor by
validating their feelings with empathic statements like, “That sounds

3.  Do ask the four Ws. Don’t ask “Why”
When a customer has a problem and you need the pertinent details, ask the four Ws: who, what, where, and when. But avoid asking why. Generally, the response to why
something went wrong is that someone was inept. Imagine asking a
customer, “Why didn’t you read the instructions?” This is not
constructive and just makes things worse.

4.  Do apologize for foul-ups. Don’t over explain
Over the 20 years that I’ve written and delivered customized
customer service seminars, I’ve discovered that the main reason
customers become irritated is simple – the organization broke a promise;
one that was either expressed or implied. Telling a customer, “I’ll
call you back,” then neglecting to do so is called lying. If we
normally complete a project in three days, and this time it takes three weeks,
we are now breaking an implied promise. In both cases the customer
didn’t get what they expected so we need to apologize. It’s also helpful
to give them something extra to make up for the customer’s hassle
factor. If there are extenuating circumstances then give the customer a brief
explanation. But keep it short. Going into lengthy details about why
you couldn’t keep your end of the bargain sounds like trying to
rationalize poor service. It only makes matters worse.

5.  Do be respectful. Don’t become a doormat

Some customers are not in their best when they get angry. They can
shout, swear, cry, or become abusive. That does not give us license to
react in kind. We do need to be respectful. We don’t need to kowtow.
Imagine a customer, upset about a late delivery, is swearing at a
supplier on the phone. In that case the supplier would do well to
respond with something like, “Sir, I want to help you. Using that
language however, is preventing me from focusing on resolving this
issue. So I’m going to ask you to stop using that language so we can
focus on fixing the problem.” If the customer continues with the verbal
abuse, close the conversation with, “Sir, as I explained earlier I want
to help you, but I can’t help you when you’re using that kind of
language. I’m going to hang up now, but please call back when you can
talk to me without using that language. Goodbye.” Then go immediately
to your supervisor and give them the details of the conversation. That
way, they’ll be forewarned when the customer calls back demanding to
talk with the manager.

Bottom line – have some empathy

Who among us can claim that as a customer, we’ve never been terse
or worse with a service representative who was in no way responsible for
the foul-up? Some customers are cranky because stuff happens in their
lives that has nothing to do with you. So before becoming too
self-righteous or casting proverbial stones at those miserable customers, we’d do well to put ourselves in their shoes.

It’s also worth remembering that if work was supposed to be fun
they wouldn’t need to pay us. Dealing with upset customers sometimes
comes with the territory. Fortunately, by learning to handle difficult
customers well, you’ll make them even more loyal than before the foul-up. That makes the job less stressful and more rewarding for everyone.

Customer service strategist and professional speaker, Jeff Mowatt is an authority on The Art of Client Service .  .  .  Influence with Ease. For Jeff's other tips, self-study resources, and training services on resolving conflict, visit

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