The Customer Service Survival Kit: What to Say to Defuse Even the Worst Customer Situations

The Customer Service Survival Kit: What to Say to Defuse Even the Worst Customer Situations


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The Customer Service Survival Kit: What to Say to Defuse Even the Worst Customer Situations by Richard Gallagher

The worst customer situations demand more of front-line employees than good intentions and the right attitude. These kinds of issues can send seasoned service professionals into red alert, and require the communication skills of a crisis counselor. The Customer Service Survival Kit explains how to use the right words to turn volatile scenarios into calm and productive customer encounters. Anyone can learn this delicate art with the book's blend of clear techniques, lessons from behavioral science, case studies, situation-specific advice, and practice exercises. Readers will discover: * The power of leaning into criticism * Trigger phrases that can make bad situations worse * The secret to helping people feel deeply heard in a crisis * How to use the divide-and-conquer approach to safely deliver bad news * Indispensable problem-solving tools * How to become immune to intimidation * How to wrap up transactions so that customers are happy * And more! Best yet, learning to handle worst-case scenarios has the spillover effect of boosting the skills and confidence needed to deal effectively with ANY customer-the key to radical improvements in every organization.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780814431832
Publisher: AMACOM
Publication date: 03/20/2013
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 494,696
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

RICHARD S. GALLAGHER is a former customer support executive, practicing psychotherapist, and author of several books on customer service and communications skills.

Read an Excerpt

THE Customer Service Survival Kit

What to Say to Defuse Even the Worst Customer Situations
By Richard S. Gallagher


Copyright © 2013 Richard S. Gallagher
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8144-3183-2

Chapter One

Understanding the "Uh-Oh" Moment

I AM STANDING IN FRONT of hundreds of people, microphone in hand, on the stage of an auditorium. I ask the audience a simple question, one of many I will ask that morning. But this is the only one that instantly causes nearly every single one of hundreds of hands to shoot into the air:

"Have you ever had a customer situation that went really, really wrong?"

When you scratch the surface of any group of people who work with the public, you will hear a truly amazing litany of war stories. Physical and verbal intimidation. Outrageous demands. Letters telling your boss how horrible you are. Threats of lawsuits. Or perhaps the thing many of us fear the most: devastating consequences for a customer that were your fault.

These are what I call the "uh-oh" moments: unplanned, unscripted, and often extreme situations. Moments where good intentions are not enough, and human nature fails us. It is in these moments that the sunshine-and-smile training school of customer service collides with the real world. They do not happen very often. Hopefully they are just a small fraction of the situations you deal with across your career. But if you work with customers long enough, like nearly half of all people working today, they will eventually happen to you.

That is where this book comes in. It will not teach you how to be "nice." It will not help you have a good attitude. And it will not discuss basic customer relationship skills that your mother probably taught you when you were six. Instead, in this book we are going to arm you with tools to handle your very worst customer situations—tools that people like crisis counselors, hostage negotiators, psychotherapists, and others use to gain control of these situations. In the process, you will discover how to become supremely confident in any customer situation, and fundamentally change the way you deal with the public.

Why Worst-Case Scenarios Are Important

Worst-case scenarios can be frightening and challenging. Yet at the same time, they happen pretty infrequently for most people; I would say no more than a fraction of a percent of our overall transactions, based on my informal surveys of speaking audiences. So if this is the case, why should we bother learning to handle them? Can't we just call in our boss, or suffer through them when they happen?

I have a different view. I personally believe that learning how to handle your worst customer situations is the single most important skill you can learn in your career, and that teaching your team these skills is the surest way to succeed as a leader. Here are three reasons why:

1. These are all teachable skills, and most people do not know them until they are taught them. For example, years ago I had no idea what I might say to someone threatening suicide. Now I do know because of the skills I was taught when I worked on a crisis line. Once you have learned how to manage crisis and conflict, these skills stick with you for the rest of your life.

2. Learning to handle your worst situations is the key to delivering excellent service all of the time. It is the secret weapon that most smile-training books never talk about. Wherever I worked, it was our single biggest tool in changing the way we dealt with customers.

3. These skills change you. Shakespeare wrote, "Cowards die many times before their deaths, / The valiant never taste of death but once." When you feel supremely confident walking into any customer situation, your view of your job—and life itself—changes dramatically.

Do you ever wonder why so many employees act rude, snippy, and disengaged? Why companies that seemingly want your business employ people who act like they are off in another zip code somewhere? Why entire companies sometimes fail to do the right thing?

It isn't because these people's shorts are all too tight. More often than you think, it is because they constantly operate from a defensive posture, driven by a fear of what might go wrong. They constantly have their shields up and their swords drawn, even in the most innocent encounters, which is why pushing them to be nicer never works: You haven't taken that core fear away.

This is why customer-contact teams I managed did so incredibly well after they learned how to manage crisis situations. I didn't ask them to smile more often, change their personalities, or work harder. Instead, I simply taught them how to execute in the worst situations they could imagine. Then these people, who had just about every personality on the face of the earth, had the skills and confidence to make each customer feel fantastic, no matter what the situation. And yes, they also shone in a crisis.

Nowadays I speak to thousands of people a year all over North America, helping them understand and manage their worst customer situations. Wherever I go, I see the same thing. Nearly everyone, from entry-level employees to senior executives, handles serious conflict the same way—like deer frozen in the headlights—until they are taught what to say and do. Then magic starts to happen. So now, let's look at a sample of this magic in action.

Now, how would you like to have been the lucky employee who had to respond to my friend Julie?

A manager from this retailer did, in fact, call her back, and according to Julie, she nailed it perfectly. (So well, in fact, that Julie's assistant later wondered why she didn't hear any yelling or arguing after putting the call through.) These were the first words out of this manager's mouth:

"I read your letter, Julie. After everything we have put you through, I can't believe that you are still giving us an opportunity to make things right. I want to learn more about what happened, and see what we can do to repair the damage we have done here."

There is a great deal of psychology going on in an opening like this. Here are some of the things that this manager accomplished with this opening statement:

* She let Julie know that she had read her complaint, and then demonstrated it by sharing her disgust at the situation.

* She used Julie's name.

* She preemptively matched Julie's level of emotion.

* She framed Julie's response—which, remember, had consisted of angrily faxing a long letter over and over—as that of a reasonable person.

* She took a posture of serving Julie rather than defending herself.

Then, as Julie recounted her grievances, this manager clearly acknowledged and restated each of them in turn. Whether she had unusually good intuition or had been well trained (I suspect both), she succeeded in turning a potentially explosive encounter into a rational discussion.

To its credit, the store did a good job of service recovery. It refunded all of my friend's money, told her to keep the clothes for free as a gesture of apology, and promised to investigate what happened. But before any of this could happen, the road to recovery was paved by saying the right thing when the situation demanded it.

Good Intentions Are Not Enough

You may be thinking to yourself, "I am a pretty smart person. I am also a very nice person. I am good with people. And I can think on my feet. Those skills should get me through most difficult customer situations, right?"


As much as I deeply respect nice people, being nice is not the same as knowing the right words to say in a crisis. In fact, my experience with employees is that these skills have much less to do with whether you are a "people person" and much more to do with how well you have been trained and coached.

Here is a pop quiz to show you what I mean. Let's say that a customer is furious because she was not allowed in to see a major concert the night before because of a misunderstanding over whether her ticket was valid. Take a moment to write down what you would first say to her.

_____________________________________________________________________ _____________________________________________________________________ _____________________________________________________________________

Now, answer the following questions:

* Did you use the phrase "I understand" in your response? As you will learn, this is a dated catchphrase that is as likely to enrage your customer as soothe her.

* Did you try, even a tiny bit, to explain what might have happened? For many people, this is the first club out of their bag. But you will learn that explaining things too soon serves no purpose and only makes the other person more upset.

* Did you start by offering to do something to make up for this? That may seem like a good response, but if it was the first thing out of your mouth—without first making sure she feels acknowledged and asking good questions—you may actually be setting her up to escalate her demands further.

Chapter 13 presents a case study that explains how to handle this situation. For now, here is a quick summary: Mirror the gravity of her complaint, ask questions to learn what happened, and validate her statements every time she speaks. Then explore what she feels needs to be done to make this situation right and negotiate an appropriate level of service recovery.

Some of you reading this may have responded the same way. Good for you! But many of you, no matter how nice you are, will have said things that were ineffective or even harmful. And some of you might have struggled with what to say at all.

This is the heart of the "uh-oh" moment: When we most need to be present in a customer's situation, the majority of us say the wrong things or turn into a block of ice. That's because we are uncomfortable and often frightened. And more to the point, because we really don't know what to say. A lot of bad service, especially in a crisis, happens because we simply haven't been taught the right words to say in critical situations. Even some of the world's biggest companies say the wrong things in a crisis, with examples as close as your nightly news.

One of the best analogies I can think of to this situation is acting. Most of us think we can do it. It looks natural when we see it. But when you observe professional actors carrying out a scene more closely, they aren't up there being themselves: They are executing a series of well-rehearsed individual steps. They are positioning themselves at specific chalk lines on the stage, waiting for precise moments to deliver a line, and timing their moves. If you or I took the stage and tried to repeat their scenes, we would appear clumsy and amateurish—just like most of us do in critical customer service situations.

Perhaps an even better comparison is police work. When officers receive a call about a burglary in progress, the police I know don't clasp their heads in their hands and moan, "Oh, my goodness, someone is stealing something!" Instead, they hop into their patrol car and do what they have been trained over and over to do. These officers are masterful at defusing a crisis because they have been taught to do so. And with the right training, you can learn to defuse your crises with customers as well.

This is the heart and soul of how to handle a crisis with a customer: Be trained, be prepared, and then know how to execute when a crisis happens. When you become good at it, you still care very much about your customers, but the mechanics of what to do become, in a sense, another day at the office.

The rest of this book explores specific skills you can use in a customer crisis, followed by chapters with detailed case studies on how to handle some of the worst situations you can imagine. Each skills chapter has questions and exercises you can use by yourself, or (better yet) together as a team. And finally, we look at important issues such as keeping yourself safe and knowing your limits. Let's get started.

Chapter Two

Leaning Into Criticism

HOW WOULD YOU LIKE TO LEARN an incredibly powerful technique that will stop most angry people in their tracks? It is proven, effective, and has good research behind it. And yet you probably never use it. Why? Because for most people, it feels like bungee jumping off a steep cliff. But once you take that leap, everything will change.

This technique is deceptively simple: Lean into what someone else is saying, and embrace that person's criticism—with gusto—every time he or she speaks. In other words, when flames are coming at you, walk right into them and crank the heat up even higher.

Picture this: You just flew into town for Aunt Matilda's wedding. It was great, according to everyone who went. And you have to take their word for it, because your rental car from Bonzo Rent-a-Car broke down somewhere between the airport and East Tumbleweed, and you spent the whole afternoon waiting for someone to mosey on over and fix the radiator. Now you are back at the rental-car counter. Compare these two exchanges:

You: Your rental car broke down and made me miss my family wedding, and I am furious!

Bonzo Rent-a-Car: I'm sorry, Ma'am, but unfortunately we aren't responsible for any consequential damages.

You: Your rental car broke down and made me miss my family wedding, and I am furious!

Bonzo Rent-a-Car: Of course you're furious! My goodness, this made you miss a wedding! Please tell me what happened here.

Which of these two openings is more effective? You know which one. I do not have to tell you. But you also know how most people react when a customer lights into them: They stand there with no idea what to say next, until they finally stammer something defensive that makes things even worse. Perhaps you do this yourself? (Be honest.)

Let's break this situation down. You probably feel you have two choices: (1) defend yourself or (2) respond to the complaint. (Many of us also consider a third option: run!) Most of us instinctively choose the option that is virtually guaranteed not to work, namely the first one. Customers tell us how horrible we are, human nature takes over, and we try to explain that we aren't really that horrible. Or we try to "educate" them about our policies and procedures. Or we try to tell them that we usually are much better than we were in the situation that ticked them off.

What then follows isn't a matter of attitude. It is a matter of physics. You have done the equivalent of dropping a Mentos into a bottle of cola, causing a violent eruption. The customer feels unheard, and responds the way unheard customers usually do—which is not pleasant.

This leaves us with the other option: Respond to the complaint. This works better than defending yourself, but even this doesn't always work well. Have you ever been in a situation where you felt you tried to address a customer's complaint, but the customer still got angrier and angrier?

When someone is unhappy—especially if he is really unhappy —we tend to lean away from his complaints, emotionally and sometimes physically. We give bland acknowledgments, try to minimize the problem, and make excuses. Or worse, we say nothing at all. Even our body language gives us away: We tend to back off, make less eye contact, and close up our stance.

I propose doing something very different: Throw yourself headlong into the person's grievances. Be right there with every bit of anger and indignation he is feeling. And then watch what happens. More often than not, the tension drains away, and you are suddenly in a rational conversation with Mr. Angry. That's because he now realizes that you "get" him, and all that negative energy he was going to invest in fighting you has harmlessly vaporized.

Of course, there is much more to defusing a customer crisis than leaning into the other person's emotions. At some point, you have to shift gears into problem solving. (We will talk about that a little later in this book in Chapter 6, particularly on focusing on what you can do.) But you will never get there unless you can show customers that you hear them, and get them on your side. In this chapter, we show you how leaning in can work effectively with a four-step process.

Step 1: Hand Their Complaints Back to Them

Imagine you are standing behind the front desk of a large hotel with a tired and angry guest in front of you. The air-conditioning didn't work in her room last night, the front desk couldn't or wouldn't do anything about it then, and now the guest is telling you what a horrible night she had. What do you say first?

This part is easy, because the customer just handed you the words. Put them in your own words, and hand them right back to her. For example, "That's terrible! It sounds like you hardly slept a wink last night." Try these other examples on for size:

Customer: You did a horrible job of painting my kitchen! I can't stand to even look at it now.

You: Yikes! It sounds like this paint job didn't work for you at all. Please tell me more about what went wrong.

Customer: Your stupid product messed up my engine.

You: Wow, so this product actually caused engine trouble—in a new car, no less! That's really scary.

Customer: What you just said to me sounded patronizing.

You: My apologies, I obviously hurt your feelings! Please tell me what bothered you about it.


Excerpted from THE Customer Service Survival Kit by Richard S. Gallagher Copyright © 2013 by Richard S. Gallagher. Excerpted by permission of AMACOM. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Foreword by Carol Roth xiii

Acknowledgments xv

Introduction 1


Chapter 1 Understanding the ‘‘Uh-Oh’’ Moment 7

Why Worst-Case Scenarios Are Important 8

Good Intentions Are Not Enough 11


Chapter 2 Leaning Into Criticism 17

Step 1: Hand Their Complaints Back to Them 19

Step 2: Use ‘‘Wow’’ Words 20

Step 3: Steal All Their Good Lines 22

Step 4: Never Defend Yourself First 23

Why Leaning In Is So Hard 25

Putting Learning into Practice 27

Chapter 3 Achieving Deep Acknowledgment 28

Why We Don’t Acknowledge Demanding Customers 29

The Four Powerful Levels of Response 30

Acknowledgment: Your Key to Handling Any Situation 37

Putting Learning into Practice 38

Chapter 4 Avoiding Trigger Phrases 40

The Other Golden Rule 41

Trigger Phrases and How You Can Avoid Them 42

Less Is Often More 48

Putting Learning into Practice 49

Chapter 5 Divide and Conquer: The Safe Way to Deliver Bad News 51

Step 1: A Good Introduction That Prepares the Customer 52

Step 2: A Proactive Summary That Moves the Customer Toward a Solution 55

Step 3: An Empathetic Response to the Customer’s Reactions 57

Putting Learning into Practice 60

Chapter 6 Powerful Problem Solving: Beyond ‘‘Yes We Can’’ and ‘‘No We Can’t’’ 62

Step 1: Clarify the Other Person’s Needs 63

Step 2: Frame Your Response 64

Step 3: Create Incentives 67

Step 4: Respond to Objections 68

A New Way to Solve Problems 69

Putting Learning into Practice 70

Chapter 7 Reframing Your Message 72

How Reframing Works 72

When Reframing Is a Bad Idea 76

A New Perspective 78

Putting Learning into Practice 79

Chapter 8 Grounding an Angry Outburst 81

Understanding Customer Anger 81

Step 1: Use the Highest Acknowledgment Level Possible 83

Step 2: Ask Assessment Questions 86

Step 3: Shift the Discussion 88

Working in the Red Zone 92

Putting Learning into Practice 93

Chapter 9 Becoming Immune to Intimidation 94

Angry Customers vs. Toxic Entitlement 95

The Basics of Nonreactivity 97

Putting Nonreactivity to Work 101

Can Entitled Customers Change? 102

Putting Learning into Practice 103

Chapter 10 The Wrap-Up 105

Understanding Good Closings 105

The Right Ending: A Good Beginning 110

Putting Learning into Practice 110


Chapter 11 You’re the Boss 115

Lean Into the Customer’s Biggest Concerns 116

Ask Good Questions 117

Respond to Threats with ‘‘Can-Do’’ Language 119

The Law of Reciprocity 120

Chapter 12 Don’t You Know Who I Am? 121

Mirror the Customer’s Emotions 121

Explore the Options 122

Use the LPFSA 124

Show a Personal Interest 124

Chapter 13 The Concert That Never Was 125

Talk with the Customer First 126

Practice Creative Service Recovery 127

Respond to the Public 129

Chapter 14 I’ll Be Suing You 131

Do Not—Repeat, Do Not—Defend Yourself First 132

Explore Solutions 133

Frame the Benefits 133

Chapter 15 Quelling a Social Media Firestorm 135

Be Real 136

Be Quick 136

Reach Out to the Person Behind the Keyboard 137

Trust the Will of the Crowd 137

Chapter 16 Just Plane Terrible 139

Be Present 140

Deliver the Bad News in Stages 141

Reframe the Situation 142

Don’t Take It Personally 143

Chapter 17 Anger Management 145

Frame the Situation 145

Acknowledge Bruno 146

Frame Your Response 148

Execute the Endgame 149

Relationship Building 150

Chapter 18 Not So Smart 151

Meet the Customer Where He Is 151

Explore the Deeper Question 152

Make the Customer Feel Good 153


Chapter 19 When Talking Isn’t Enough: Keeping Yourself and Your Customer Safe 157

Situational Awareness: Trusting Your Gut 158

Reacting to Risk 160

Don’t Go It Alone: Have a Safety Plan 162

Chapter 20 From Customer Crisis to Excellent Service: Lessons for the Whole Organization 164

Creating a Service Culture 164

Managing Internal Conflict 166

Personal Growth 167

Communicating as an Organization 168

The Bottom Line 169

Appendix Solutions to Putting Learning into Practice Exercises 171

References 179

Index 183

About the Author 189

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The Customer Service Survival Kit: What to Say to Defuse Even the Worst Customer Situations 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Goddmodders/Imposters, and forcematers close behind.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Forcematers are bad, but do make things interesting, with kits and whatnot. So its godmders
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In your opinion, which of the following is worse: <br> <p> 1: Forcematers. <br> <p> 2: Godmodders. <br> <p> 3: Imposters. <br> <p> 4: Newbs. <br> <p> 5: People with horrible spelling.