“Welcome to (insert fast food restaurant name here), can I take your order” This was probably the 100th time I said those words that day. I was working drive-thru and it was busy. The lunch rush was in full swing but I remember this specific order.
“Yea, I’ll have a burger with the works, NO mayo. A large fry and a large diet coke.”
He pulled his gold colored sedan around, paid, got his food and drove off. The rush was over and I was looking forward to taking a break. As I cleaned up my area I noticed that the same gold sedan was at my window and from the look on the guy’s face he was not happy. The customer was flailing his mayo covered burger around screaming that we were all idiots and that he wanted a manager. As calmly as possible I opened the window and said, “I am the manager, I apologize, we will make you a new burger”, or something to that effect.
He did not want a new burger. He did not want the burger at all anymore. This became evident as he wound up and flung the sloppy condiment covered burger out of his car and through the drive thru window, clearly aiming at my head. Lucky for me I am short, lucky for me he wasn’t being drafted as a pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers. Unlucky for my tall co-worker standing behind me as he became the unintentional target.
I wasn’t given the opportunity to diffuse the situation. This customer did not want a resolution, they wanted revenge. This probably wasn’t my first upset customer, and it definitely was not my last. Over the next few decades of working in service positions I have picked up the following tactics to deescalate even some of the most explosive situations.
- Let the customer speak: Do not assume that you know the answer or even the problem. Listen not to respond but to actually hear your customers’ concerns. Repeat back a summarized version of what they said. This will let them know you were listening, give them the opportunity to correct or amend anything that was said and allow you time to formulate a response.
- Try and figure out what they want: If all else fails, ask them what resolution is expected. Sometimes a customer just needs to vent and you being there is enough to calm them down. Other times a customer will reach out with demands that are way out of left field. Most times you should be able to decipher what the customer actually needs just by having a conversation. Always tell a customer what you CAN do, not what you can’t do.
- Acknowledge their feelings: Bill, I understand that you are upset due to the delay. Betty, I know that you are disappointed because of the issue. Phil, I hear you and I recognize that you are frustrated that you thought you were receiving a blue transmission, not a silver one. Even when our customers’ responses or grievances are out of whack it is your job to normalize the conversation.
- Pick up the phone: Texts and emails are misread. The context can be mistaken. Tone can not be deciphered. If you are delivering not great news or responding to an upset customer, do it now, and do it in person. No one wants to be dumped over a text message. Man or Woman up and make the call.
- Avoid negative words: Can’t, won’t, unfortunately. These words are perceived as unhelpful. They put the customer on the defense and make them feel as if they must prepare for battle. Instead of saying, “Unfortunately that looks like it will take three weeks to deliver”; try “Great! Looks like we should be able to have that to you before the end of the month. With build and shipping time you should expect it by the 30th”.
- BE THE HERO: Don’t pass the buck. If you have to get approval to go above and beyond for the customer, be the one to call them back. Let them know you fought for them and every concession that is being allowed. You have already done the hard part, enjoy the satisfaction of making a customer’s day.
Some conversations may not start out pleasant but you have the superpower to turn a tragedy into a triumph.