This article is for the Professionals
Sign up to Inside Retail Professional now for only $5+GST for your first three months.
That's an 85% discount plus you’ll get FREE access to all Masterclasses during Retail Week. 5 retail industry leaders like you’ve never seen them before.Already a professional? Log in
According to research by PWC in its Future of CX report, a survey of 15,000 consumers found that one in three would leave a brand they love after just one bad experience, while 92 per cent would completely abandon a company after two or three negative interactions. No business can afford to lose customers, so every time you are faced with a negative or uncooperative customer, think about it as an opportunity to convert them into a raving fan!
Cooling down a hostile customer: The HEAT Method
Dealing with heightened emotions is rarely easy. Your ability to stay calm and manage your emotional state in high-pressure situations is the first step when managing customer interactions. You can achieve this by breathing, slowing down and focusing your thoughts. This action allows you to regain control and then choose an appropriate way to respond.
When faced with an angry or upset customer, it can be helpful to have a way to structure the conversation. The HEAT method is a four-step technique to help you to remain calm and de-escalate the customer’s frustration.
- Hear the customer out
The first step is simply to let the customer talk and do not interrupt. Listen attentively and wait until they have finished speaking before attempting any next steps.
At this point, it is crucial to remain calm. Look at the issues objectively and keep your emotions under control. While acknowledging it can be challenging, try not to take it personally and remind yourself the customer is normally angry because of the situation. Remember the customer will not be interested in resolving the situation until they have fully expressed their emotions.
Empathy is one of the most powerful ways to manage a difficult customer interaction. Empathising with the customer’s level of emotion shows that you are looking at the problem from their perspective. Use sincere empathy statements such as “I can appreciate you are upset.” Attempting to problem-solve before dealing with the customer’s emotions can be a mistake, as it can result in them feeling unheard.
- Apologise, ask questions
Apologising is another way of connecting with the customer. Ensure that apologies are sincere, personal and neutral. For example, “I am sorry that you have been kept waiting,” or “I am sorry this has inconvenienced you today.” Make apologies timely, too: the sooner, the better. A prompt and sincere apology can move the customer to a rational state where it is easier to deal with them and prevent further escalation.
Moving to problem-solving by asking questions is a useful next step. It can be helpful to ask the customer for permission to ask questions, for example, “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions about this?” Continue to ask as many questions as necessary to understand their issue fully.
- Take ownership
After the customer has vented their frustration, you have connected through empathising and apologising and asked questions to get to the heart of their issue, it is time to take ownership of the resolution of their problem. There are three ways you may do this:
- Presenting an immediate solution
- Committing to investigate the issue further
- Having to say no or deliver bad news
If you have to say no or deliver bad news to a customer, the following three steps are recommended:
- Always focus on potential options or alternatives
- Educate the customer by explaining why you cannot deliver on their expectation
- Empathise – a statement such as “I am so sorry there is nothing further we can do at this stage,” can at least provide acknowledgement
Diffusing a hostile customer through the HEAT method can calm the customer down, create connection and resolve the customer’s issue efficiently.
Service recovery strategy – making the experience positive
When a customer has an issue or complaint, there is always an opportunity for service recovery. The goal of any service recovery strategy is to identify and address customer issues to the customer’s satisfaction to promote customer retention.
The customer may be hostile or angry because of a perceived or genuine service failure such as delays, errors, poor service, or promises not delivered. If the business is genuinely at fault, it can employ a well-thought-out service recovery strategy to restore the customer’s confidence in the brand.
Simply fixing an error that should never have occurred in the first place will not necessarily increase customer satisfaction and can ultimately result in loss of business. The true value of service recovery is that it can create positive word-of-mouth about your business and can even strengthen customer loyalty if done correctly. Continuous improvement measures such as root cause analysis are also essential in preventing ongoing issues through proper identification and rectification.
I recently had my own experience, which illustrated the power of service recovery. I had my car serviced, and in short, the mechanic had left a ring spanner on the brake valve which caused my brakes to be defective. I was very distressed as I had purchased the car for safety reasons, and this service failure compromised both mine and my families’ safety.
After advising the dealership, I had a personal visit from the dealer principal and the master mechanic. They arranged for my car to be towed and for a loan vehicle to be delivered. They also refunded the cost of my service, and they gave me a complimentary service. The dealership also sent a beautiful bunch of flowers with a handwritten card. They apologised and explained what had happened and what they were doing to prevent this issue from occurring in the future. The swift action, genuine empathy and efforts they made to recover from such a poor experience are why I still cite this as the greatest example of service recovery that I have experienced.
The service recovery strategy will depend on the severity of the issue and may or may not include compensation. A simple follow-up call or handwritten card can be the extra step to demonstrate care and effort and enhance the customer’s experience.
As a business, it is important to ask: Does your team have the skills to de-escalate a hostile customer? What service recovery strategies are in place to learn from and recover from genuine service failures?
A positive customer experience can be created when everyone in the business has the confidence, skill and empowerment to manage difficult customer interactions. To quote an article from Harvard Business Review on The Profitable Art of Service Recovery, “Customers remember such experiences. In service businesses, the old adage must be revised: To err is human; to recover, divine.”
This article was published in the February quarterly edition of Inside Retail Asia. To subscribe, click here.