Nuclear Disarmament: How to Avert Customer Service Meltdowns

If you haven’t already seen it, there is a viral video on the Internet of a woman having an atomic meltdown at a McDonald’s after finding out they ran out of chicken nuggets.  It is certainly worth the Google, but it is also worth a second look.  Although this may be the more extreme of consumer blowouts, it highlights a very important fact that we should all come to terms with: there are difficult people all around us, and they aren’t going anywhere any time soon.

So, we must learn to adapt and understand how to finesse, disarm, and diffuse difficult people and situations.  I can talk about the psychological factors which may explain or somewhat justify a person’s anger reflexes, however that would not change the fact that these types of personalities exist and consume in the world around us.  So what do you do when you are confronted with a situation of escalated emotions?  Perhaps you work in a customer service position, or have a combative co-worker; regardless of the scenario, there are a few ways to avert disaster, and save you some premature gray hairs.

First, be sure to remain collected and calm.  Feeding into an emotional wind tunnel only makes the storm stronger and demolishes an otherwise advantageous playing field for the tantrumee.  Yes, the ‘do unto others’ rule actually works, and here is why: like a child learning to self soothe, if you do not overreact, they will feel less compelled to do so as well. Like a train running out of steam, the tantrum thrower will at some point realize that they are alone in their exaggerated distress and feel drained, and sometimes even embarrassed.  Remaining calm and allowing, the person to vent their frustrations may actually give them the peace of mind they were looking for.  After all, don’t we all just want to be heard

Once you have established a moment of quiet to begin your assessment of the situation, remember it is important that in a customer service capacity, your purpose is to provide even the most volatile person with a remedy, or at least an explanation for their frustration.  As bittersweet as it may seem, you must own the issue.  Give them your name, your position, and a way to reach you in case they become disconnected or in case you cannot resolve their issue at the moment.  Knowing they have a reliable person to contend with allows some room for peace of mind.  This is an establishment of implied trust: they are calling you for help, and assume you will do so. 

Some companies require some type of identifying information such as a name, last four of a social security number, or a customer number in order to assist a customer.  It is absolutely imperative that you allow the customer to speak before you ask for this information.  Why?  Because no one wants to be greeted with a dismissive request before the issue is even discussed.  For example, if you require this type of information, allow a natural stopping point in the conversation to ask: “I am happy to assist you with that.  May I have your [information] so I can access your record?  This will help me in following your concerns as I listen, and identify a resolution a bit quicker.”  Some variation of this, both acknowledging your active listening skills and desire to help, is a customer service winner.

What comes next is critical, so if you remember nothing else, remember this: the customer is not always right.  However, there is a delicate way to both alert them to this, and advise that you cannot provide them with the answer they want without re-lighting the fuse.  A wonderful phrase that allows some room to alleviate blame from both parties (in the eye of the customer) that works beautifully is:

“Oh, I see what happened!  Allow me to explain what I have found [Mr./Ms.]….”

What happens when the customer is not able to achieve the result they hoped for in contacting you?  You must learn how to deliver bad news with a smile, both audibly and visually.  Crossing your arms, looking away, or otherwise distracting yourself visibly gives the impression that you do not care about the customer’s concerns, and sends negative nonverbal signals.  Saying “uh-huh” and “mhmm” have the same audible effect.  Instead, try to focus on eye contact, possibly taking notes, and allowing a relaxed tone of voice and facial expression.  If anything, acknowledge them along the way with “I understand.”  Understanding is the second objective, aside from acknowledgement, that many escalated individuals are vying for.

When letting someone down diplomatically, never use the word “unfortunately.”  There is nothing unfortunate about being unable to be a customer service savant, however it is regrettable.  Using “regrettably” in place of unfortunately may seem very insignificant, but it is far more empathetic and releases blame from either party directly.  And finally, you must seal the deal.

“I know this is not the response that you were hoping for, and I regret that I could not be of more help.”

This may not be the end of the conversation, and they may ask for your superior, but at least you are closing the loop professionally and with a personal investment in the situation. Customer service can be a thankless occupation that requires a certain level of resilience, tact, and grace in order to be effective.  If all else fails to reach you on a personal level, just think about if it were you on the other end of the phone, how would you want to be treated?  The golden rule is always the best rule not to break, or else you might end up in a holding cell without your chicken nuggets.







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