How to Deal With Angry Customers
by Robin Amster

Everyone makes mistakes at work and in business. That’s a given. The question is, how do you respond – especially when your mistakes turn customers into angry customers?

“It’s your ability to recover quickly that makes the difference,” according to communications consultant Bill Rosenthal.

Rosenthal believes angry customers create an opportunity for travel sellers to boost customer loyalty. A properly handled apology, coupled with an effective solution, actually strengthens the relationship and builds trust, said Rosenthal, CEO of the consulting firm Communispond, in East Hampton, N.Y.

Rosenthal talked with Travel Market Report about when and how to respond to angry customers, the language to use and the particular challenges faced by travel agents. He also shared a few experiences from his own travels.

How do you apologize to an angry customer?
Rosenthal: Try to imagine yourself in the customer’s shoes. If you were that customer, what would you want to hear and how would you want to be treated?

Travel agents often know their customers. If they’re dealing with an individual who wants the facts of a situation, then get those facts. If it’s an emotional customer, then say you recognize his or her anger and your goal is to make that disappear.

Other customers want you to call and tell them you’ve already fixed the problem, while some may want you to present them with choices.

Why can apologies be a positive rather than a negative?
Rosenthal: Life has trials and tribulations. People know that problems occur. Knowing that you have the ability to recover – and that you’ll help them recover quickly – has been shown to enhance customer loyalty. The issue is to solve the problem and fix the mistake quickly. Then your customers know they can count on you.

What’s special about the travel industry in terms of dealing with angry customers?
Rosenthal: A lot of people treat customers as if they were commodities, but the minute you introduce a human being into the mix, that’s not true. In a service business like travel, there’s no such thing as a commodity. Take a travel agent with 20 customers. What will work for customer number one won’t work for customer number 23.

What kind of language should be used to say ‘I’m sorry’?
Rosenthal: You don’t want to respond in kind to an angry customer. The worst thing you can do is to pay back disrespect with disrespect.

Maintain your cool and speak calmly and quietly. That forces people to pay more attention to what you’re saying. Listen carefully to the customer’s concerns. Stick to the facts, avoid emotion and try and put yourself in your customer’s shoes.

How important is it to apologize quickly?
Rosenthal: Often a travel agent will know there’s a problem before the customer does. Rather than calling to say there’s a problem, it’s better to call and say you’ve solved the problem or to present possible solutions.

However, if you didn’t know of the problem and you can come up with a legitimate solution quickly, then call the customer right away. Speed is good, but not at the expense of information. If it will take a moment more to find a solution, then take that extra time.

For instance, if a customer’s flight for imminent travel has been cancelled, you’ll want to let him or her know quickly. But if the flight has been cancelled for travel two months on, then wait an hour or so and call that customer with alternatives you’ve found. Calling immediately is not always the best way.

What shouldn’t one do when apologizing?
Rosenthal: Pacifying a customer is not good. Pacification is basically saying anything to a customer to stop them from being angry. That may calm them down, but it won’t solve anything. The issue is to solve the problem.

Does the way we do business today impact how we should apologize?
Rosenthal: In the old world order, power was defined by how you controlled information. Today power is defined by how people share information. The more information you share with people — through the Internet, social media, smart phones — the better off you are.

Don’t, for example, tell a client that departure dates have changed when they haven’t and the agent has just waited too long to make the booking. Don’t think the client can’t go on the Internet and see that that’s not true. In this day and age liars are caught right away.

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