Change Management Communication /Voice Culture Presentation Skills

Why Customers Get Angry Even When You’re Polite – And How to Avoid it

I recently had an unpleasant encounter with a sales clerk at a shoe store. He was serving me while I tried to find the correct size of a gorgeous little pair of red pumps. As he was serving me, he answered a personal phone call, and I was left waiting while he joked around on the phone.    

I called the company’s customer service hotline and found myself complaining to a very polite and professional young woman. She listened to my feedback and then said in a courteous voice that she would make out a report and someone from the company would get back to me. After hanging up the phone, I was left feeling dissatisfied, irritated and frustrated.

How is it that such a well-mannered young woman could leave me feeling dissatisfied? Well, quite simply, the one thing that I wanted to hear in that conversation, was not said. What I wanted to hear was that she understood my feelings – that she felt sorry that I felt bad. I wanted her empathy.

When a customer – or anyone else, for that matter, is upset enough to contact us, we often feel that it’s enough to be courteous and promise to take action. But is it?

A Case Study

Let’s imagine for a moment that you live in a house with a pretty flower garden outside, flowers you have planted yourself. Now, imagine that one day, see your neighbour’s young son trample across the garden, stepping on all your flowers. You have no bad feelings toward your neighbour, but you want her to know so that this won’t happen again. 

So you knock on her door, and in a warm voice you tell your neighbour what happened. Now, imagine that she simply says in a polite tone, “Thank you for telling me. I will talk to my son about that.” Would you not feel somewhat angry? Would you not feel that she should have aplogised on her son’s behalf?

Now, in her defense, let’s imagine that she wants to talk to her son and get all the facts before deciding whether her son was in the wrong or not. In other words, she wants to withhold her apology until she has more information. Fair enough. But would you not expect, at the very least, that she shows some understanding of your misfortune, some empathy toward how much trouble this incident has caused you with having to replant all your flowers? The neighbour could have said, “I’m sure you put a lot of effort into that garden. How awful to see it damaged.”

More Than Politeness

Empathy is more than politeness. It is the art of reducing someone’s upset by letting them know that their feelings are understandable and ‘right’ for this situation. Empathy is showing an unhappy person that you, as a fellow human being, can feel what they feel.

So why do we avoid empathising? We avoid it because we confuse empathy with admitting wrongdoing. We fear that by acknowledging a customer’s anger, we are blaming ourselves and shaming our company.

So how can we empathise with upset customers’ negative feelings without admitting wrongdoing? Here is one way:

“I’m sorry to hear that” + the customer’s experience

By framing your apology this way, you show that you are sorry that the customer is upset, without taking the blame. Look at the difference between the following pairs of apologies. In each pair, one person blames the company. The other simply shows sorrow for the customer’s perceived experience:

  1. A)  I’m sorry our food was not good. B)  I’m sorry to hear that you didn’t enjoy your food.
  2. A)  I’m sorry that our staff did the wrong thing. B)  I’m sorry to hear that you didn’t have a great experience.
  3. A)  I’m very sorry to hear that you had to wait so long. B)  I’m sorry. My boss is behind schedule today.

Can you see that the apologies in examples 1.B, 2.A and 3.A don’t blame the company.  These apologies refer to the customer and his experience.           

Happy Endings

So, let’s go back to my call to the courteous woman in customer service who I complained to about the shoe store sales clerk. She could have told me that she understood my upset – that she too would feel angry if someone made a personal call while serving me.

Would I have gone back to that store for my next pair of shoes? Perhaps not. But would I have hung up the phone feeling valued, cared about and understood by the company. I would have felt not only satisfied – but impressed.

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