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How to Cope with a Rude Customer

Rude CustomerA reader writes:
I started my morning off with a customer chewing my rear off about a product. We're talking rude, degrading, disrespectful insults flying out of this man's mouth! I put on my best smile and worked to "pop" his balloon. But to no avail. He hung up, probably satisfied that he was superior in the battle. He slammed me, my company, and companies that did business with us. It took every part of me to keep my control and let this guy fume! My question is...are there just some times when all your sales knowledge just doesn't help? And is there ever a time when you can just let loose? Please say yes! I'm still steaming!
Well, the standard answer is that you're never supposed to "let loose." After all, if "the customer is always right," it's your job to stand there, nod, and take it, right?

I don't think so.

If you're in sales, you're a professional. Which means that you have the RIGHT to civility and respect. No exceptions.

Before I go further, though, I need to emphasize that the advice that I'm about to give is for sales professionals, not people working in customer support. Sales professionals can and must interact with customers on a peer-to-peer basis. Customer support personnel are paid to be subservient. Different role, different approach.

So here's my advice for sales professionals. If somebody is being intense with you, then a failure to get intense in return only makes them more intense. If you want to defuse the situation, you need to get in rapport with the customer, which you can't do if you've got "welcome" tattooed on your chest.

When a customer gets rude or loses his temper, the correct response is not to placate (i.e. "put on your best smile"), but to increase your own intensity and then demand civility. Here's how:

  • STEP #1. Raise your own intensity level. Don't become as intense as the customer, but let your voice become firm and authoritative. If you're face-to-face, put on a serious expression, one that expresses clearly that you don't appreciate being yelled at. You're a professional, not a doormat. Act like one.
  • STEP #2. Call the customer's bluff. State clearly that you're willing to help resolve the problem, but you're not going to be yelled at. Don't mince words. Make it clear that your help is dependent upon the customer's ability to behave in a civil manner. In most cases, the customer will BREATH A SIGH OF RELIEF. It's quite noticeable.
  • STEP #3. If the customer doesn't comply, end the conversation. Do this politely but firmly. State that you'll be glad to help once the customer is willing to treat you with the respect that you deserve. You will almost never need to do this, but it sometimes happens.
  • STEP #4: Apologize for the problem. Once you've demanded, and gotten, civil behavior -- then and only then -- you should apologize for the inconvenience that the problem has caused the customer. Explain that you are just as committed as the customer is to resolving the problem.
  • STEP #5: Work on the problem. Now that you've established rapport and the fact that you're a professional, you can go ahead and work the customer's issue.
The reason that sales pros don't insist upon respect is that they're afraid that that the customer will become even more rude. But answering intensity with (appropriate) intensity is giving the customer what he or she really wants, which is a connection. The customer wants to be heard. And nothing is more frustrating to an angry person than getting a "have a nice day" brush-off and nothing fuels a bully more than weak-kneed caving.

There are three advantages to demanding respect, before you work a customer problem:

  1. It's easier on your nerves. No job is worth being abused. If you're a sales professional, you can always get a job elsewhere, anyway, so there's no excuse for putting yourself through this kind of emotional wear and tear.
  2. It establishes your credibility. When you placate, you're just proving to the rude customer that you're not a professional and therefore not reliable as an individual. The customer figures that, if you had something valuable to offer, you wouldn't take the guff.
  3. It prevents future flareups. Once you've laid down the ground rules for interaction, you'll get the respect you deserve. I saw this happen with a boss who yelled at employees until they mustered the courage to yell back. At that point, he was satisfied and never yelled at that person again.
In other words, stop getting "steamed" and start standing up for yourself. You've got nothing to lose... except the aggravation.

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