Upset Clients? LEARN!

A question posed in the monthly magazine distributed by Costco inspired this article. The question was simply, "What's the best way to handle unhappy customers?" This brought to mind something for which I strive when faced with this situation, and I believe my efforts have served me well enough to describe my approach here.

When you have an angry customer, it's in your best interest if you learn from the situation so that you can avoid similar problems in the future. If your client "escapes" while you're still getting over your first reaction to their complaint, you usually stand to lose much more than they will. To make a successful transition from learning about the situation to learning from it, you can use a simple guideline based on that goal of learning. The acronym LEARN, as described below, can help you keep the customer around long enough to gain that important knowledge, and it might even convince them to not leave at all.

So what is LEARN? When you have an angry customer:


Let's examine each of these:

Listen -- This means that you must really tune in and listen attentively to what they're saying. You can't afford to feel offended about how they say it, if your emotions prevent you from acquiring potentially valuable business intelligence. Listen attentively, and let them know you're listening.

Empathize -- If you can listen to and understand what your customer tells you, the next thing you must do is try to empathize with them. This doesn't mean that you must agree with what they say, or that you have to agree with how they present themselves, but it does mean that you should try to see the problem from their angle. Imagine yourself in their position, and try to relate to how they see you and the situation.

Answer -- By this, I don't mean that you should give your upset client empty words to try to "smooth their feathers." What this really means is to answer with integrity. Although you should not divulge protected information, make commitments beyond what is appropriate, or make any derogatory statements about anyone who may have contributed to the problem, you may need to acknowledge and apologize for an error on your part, or refer to restrictions that prevented you from performing as expected, etc. In other words, give your client the same honesty you would want, within the bounds of propriety.

Respect -- If this client means anything to you -- and an angry client should mean something to you -- then it can pay significant dividends to mentally focus on your respect for the client, the client's needs, and your relationship with the client (both in the past and what it could mean to your business in the future). The old saw about respect being a two-way street may come to mind, but when you stand to learn something from a bad situation you will probably have to overlook (at least temporarily) your client's lack of respect in the heat of anger. Continuing disrespect on the part of your client might be as good a reason as any to terminate the relationship, but if it's just a matter of some harsh words that are the exception rather than the norm, it's in your best business interest to take the higher ground and maintain respect even when it's not being returned.

Negotiate -- I firmly disagree that "the customer is always right" but I do believe that the customer almost always deserves to be satisfied. Perhaps not ecstatic, maybe not overflowing with praise, but satisfied. When you negotiate toward a solution with your angry client, you should not "give away the store" or allow the relationship to become a long-term liability. However, I do believe you should seek a resolution to the problem that will at least satisfy the client. Even if it's not possible, the mere act of attempting such negotiation can be part of the learning process that helps you prevent similar problems in the future.

When you have an angry client, a natural instinct is to quickly do whatever will get past the problem and keep the client. However, learning as much as you can to avoid repeating the problem with other clients may be a much more valuable goal in the long run. Not only will the LEARN approach improve your business for all of your clients, it can also demonstrate to your angry customer that you honestly want an effective solution that they are comfortable with. The hasty alternative may give them a much worse view of you, by leading them to think you'll sweep anything under the carpet as long as you can still get their money.

Of course, individual situations vary widely, and (depending on your business) key clients may need to be handled much differently than other clients. However, the LEARN approach can be a useful tool in your mental toolbox the next time you have to face an irate client.