Managing the Irate Customer

(953 Words/5 Minute Read)

By: Joe Curcillo

While sitting in the lobby of one of my favorite hotels where I always know the service is excellent, I heard a guest checking in and vociferously complaining about his delayed flights and his overwhelming hunger. He was mad at the world or what we all know as: “hangry.”  Yes, he was “Mr. Nasty.”

I watched in horror as his temper drew a tear from the clerk’s eye. She remained polite and apologetic, but she had the cringe-worthy job of advising the irritable customer that the kitchen was closing in fifteen minutes. He demanded, “I want to go to my room first, and then I expected to be able to sit down and dine in peace!”

As I listened, my first reaction was to come to her aid.  Moving toward the check-in desk, I feared that my involvement would escalate his fury. Instead, I stopped and quietly looked on as he retrieved his room key and huffed angrily into the elevator.

Once he was gone, I complimented her on her composure. She replied, “Thank you. These things happen a lot near the airport. I just wish I had better control of the situation.”

I suggested that in the future she could hand him a menu to get his order in with the restaurant while he went to his room so his meal would be ready when he came back down. By doing so, she could have diffused his anger.

She thanked me and rather quickly picked up the phone to call “Mr. Nasty’s” room. She apologized and asked him if he could allow her to place the order from the menu on the desk with the in-house restaurant so that his table would be ready when he came back down.

I never heard his side of the conversation, but her face told me that he accepted her apology. When she got off the phone, and placed his order with the restaurant, she looked at me with a smile, and said, “I wish I had thought of that.”

A few moments later, “Mr. Nasty” walked into the restaurant. He was now smiling.

Unfortunately, under the circumstances, the clerk’s analytic ability was not at its peak. She was clouded by the irrational behavior of the guest; his adversarial attitude had forced all her thoughts to focus on maintaining composure.  I, on the other hand, was an outsider with no skin in the game. I was able to analyze the situation, because I was a fly on the wall.

When in a high emotion situation, it is best to look at the big picture objectively.  The best means of accomplishing this is to remember three rules:

  1. Do not take it personal. Allow the person to talk. As you listen, don’t form your response but instead, listen to their words. The person’s tone and word choice can come out abrupt and rude, however the real problem will be revealed in what they’re saying. Removing your human nature to retaliate in rebuttal will allow you to decipher what the person is truly saying so you can propose a win-win solution.

The only mistake the clerk made that evening was allowing his anger to affect her. He was not angry at her. He was angry at the airline, the delayed flights, and because he was “hangry.”  From my perspective, since I was not the primary focus of his anger and she was, I could see the bigger picture, she was working so hard to compose herself that she was not looking for a solution, but a polite way out.

  1.  Do not speak until you have listened. Listen before you reply. Do not look for opportunities to speak. Many years ago, a friend of mine asked me, “What is the opposite of speaking?”  I answered, “Listening.”  He smirked. My obviously incorrect answer led to a discussion of the uniquely different acts of speaking and listening. We concluded that the opposite of speaking was waiting to speak, and that listening is a separate task. In fact, it is an art.

As you listen to a complaint, pay attention to why the person is disgruntled. Do not look to speak, listen to the problem from the person’s point of view. In other words, listen to define the problem. How you manage the information you learn will define the experience as warlike or successful. Listen to the complaint, narrow down the cause, and search for solutions.

  1. Use solutions to take control.To take control of a bad situation, you must look for a solution. Sometimes these solutions may not be in the policy handbook. Some of the best solutions come from observation and experience.

On good days, listen to your customers, they will tell you what is working for them. Remember the details, circumstances, and reasons they are happy. Keep notes and record what does and what doesn’t work. These notes will help jog your memory when something bad happens. No, you’re not going to run to the notes and look up solutions, but the fact that you wrote it down will trigger your brain’s recall power and the solution will emerge.

The ability to take control and know where you are going will allow you to be more objective than subjective. As a result, the more you practice these steps, the more Rule #1 will come naturally because you have nothing to defend.

When you can see the solution, use it to steer the dialogue and redirect “Mr. Nasty” to his happy place. Once your steer him in the right direction, you will have control and peace of mind knowing that you did something good. And, after all, making others feel good is what five-star service is all about.

  • JOE CURCILLO is a speaker, consultant and entertainer who focusses on his passion for improving leadership, communication & culture with a Unifying Vision. He is the author of the Best Seller Getting to ‘US’: Discover the Ability to Lead Your Team to Any Result You Desire, and Don’t be a Hamster: 30 Tips to Spark the Imagination of Busy People.