Tough Conversations: With An Angry Customer

Kevin East

The quickest way to a parent's heart is through their kids. There is no way around that. Just like when a momma bear gets aggressive because her cubs are around, most parents jump into a different frame of thinking when it comes to their children.

Each summer, our ministry welcomes around 15,000 youth campers into some type of camp program. As you can imagine, there are times when parents are not happy about some part of their child's experience. In these instances, when a parent either calls, emails or writes a letter, I get the privilege to respond to each of them personally.

After talking to numerous disgruntled people over the years, I have found a good system of communicating with them. This is what I walk through each time, and it seems to be very effective. So, when talking to an angry customer, client, constituent, parent ... here is what I would recommend to keep in mind:

  1. See it as an opportunity -- Above I called it a privilege. I mean that. Look at it this way -- whether you talk to them or not, something has ruffled their feathers. They will talk to someone. Be glad it is you. Better you than many other people out there that don't have the authority to do anything about it.
  2. Pray for wisdom and discernment -- If I have the chance to get ready before I make a phone call or step into a difficult conversation, I always pray. In those moments when I am caught off-guard, I pray while I am listening. It really is amazing to see God honor it, and how he gives wisdom to those who ask. Many times the conversation goes way different than I would have expected it.
  3. Let them dump their trash on you -- Let that metaphor sink in. They need to get it all out. Everything. Whatever it is they are frustrated about, I want to hear every little detail. In stepping in to those tough conversations, ask open-ended questions. Take notes if you have to. Seek to understand. You won't be able to understand until you really grasp what has bothered them.
  4. Sift through the chunks -- At this point, you really want to try to discern what the real issues are. It seems in every scenario, there are multiple side issues. Don't fall for those too quickly. You can spend much energy trying to fix the side issues, and nothing ever gets solved, because you didn't address the larger ones. So at this point, look for the big issues. Those issues that are driving the need for the conversation. Once you have found it, or them, move on to the next step.
  5. Find common ground -- This is where I look to share in their frustration. The temptation when dealing with mad people, who often become irrational, is to try to fight them. This is futile. Both parties leave tired, frustrated, and "bruised." Instead, try to empathize. When someone calls me about an issue with their child, once I understand what the issue is, the conversation changes. I might let them know how I would feel if my child were in the same scenario. You might look at this as a stage when people can "put down the gun," because they have found a friend, not an adversary.
  6. Deal with the main issues -- Problems have to be solved. Answers to tough questions have to be given. At some point, you have to get to this stage. Think and make decisions based on principle, not feeling. If it is some special request they are seeking, either you grant it or you don't. I try to help people see the "grey" here. When people are mad, they think in absolutes. In black or white. I want to help someone find the yet-to-be-seen third alternative. As opposed to just saying "no" to a request, I want to try to meet the request, but in a different way.

Most of all, remember mad people want to know they are being heard, and that action will be taken because of it. If my organization is in the wrong about some issue, I will make sure we make it right. I'll take personal responsibility, and personally make sure we deal with it accordingly.

Our goal in working with an angry constituent should not be to satisfy them, but to make them a raving fan. Believe it or not, I actually look forward to these conversations. People's hearts are tender in midst of their frustration. So meet them there, in that frustration. Surprise them in how you walk through it with them.

Have you had any unsatisfied people that you have had the privilege to work with recently? Did it go well?