Given the often-hectic nature of call-based customer support, it is not at all uncommon for conflicts to arise with confused or otherwise frustrated customers. Companies that have effective strategies for handling these situations and skilled customer service agents capable of diffusing tension-filled interactions can turn difficult customer interactions into opportunities to exceed expectations, influence the customer’s perception of their business, and improve the customer experience to boost customer retention.
The most successful companies have solutions in place for monitoring customer interactions and analyzing customer sentiment. By measuring results and identifying the tactics that work to achieve positive outcomes from difficult customer situations, businesses can fine-tune their approach to conflict resolution to increase the odds of turning negatives into positives with each difficult situation.
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Customer service agents looking to amicably resolve issues that spring up with difficult customers need to pull from time-tested conflict-resolution techniques on the fly. The best agents are able to keep their own emotions under control while effectively dissolving tension between themselves and upset customers, but even the best perform better with clear strategies they can leverage.
Read on to learn some of the best conflict resolution strategies and ideas that agents can implement on the job:
Conflict Resolution Strategies for Customer Service
1. Reassure frustrated customers that they are fully understood.
“Whether or not you agree with an agitated customer isn’t really important. To de-escalate someone who’s ineffectively expressing anger, you’ll need to be kind and respectful to them. Tell them you hear what they’re saying, even if it doesn’t really make sense to you. Remember, if they are emotional they are probably not being totally logical at that moment.” – Vanessa Rose, Customer Service Conflict Resolution: A Step-by-Step Guide, Pollack Peacebuilding Systems; Facebook: @pollackpeacebuilding
2. Be sure to apologize.
“Even if you were not at fault, after empathizing with the customer, you should be able to sincerely apologize. Nobody likes being inconvenienced; you should understand that. It’s like replying to a negative review IRL.” – Customer Service Roleplaying Scenarios, Broadly; Twitter: @getbroadly
3. Practice intent listening when interacting with customers.
“When customers talk, listen to them carefully rather than interrupting. Summarize the main point, once your customer has stopped talking. This will help both of you to work together on a solution. Set time limit and end the interaction, when the customer refuses to act constructively. Listen for understanding, as irate callers just want someone to listen to their story, even if you are unable to help them.” – Megha Jadhav, Top 7 conflict resolution tips for great customer service, Vision; Twitter: @visionhelpdesk
4. Ask questions as much as possible.
“Communication is integral to everything you do in a successful customer relationship. It’s the mark of a mature company – one that, regardless of its experience, countless interactions with customers just like this one, and general expertise – to ask questions.” – Madeleine LaPlante-Dube, 6 Conflict Resolution Tips to Foster Better Customer Relationships, HubSpot; Twitter: @HubSpot
5. Practice optimism and positivity in communicating with customers.
“A positive attitude goes a long way in customer service. Make sure you know all of the benefits of the products or services your company provides and convey them to your customers. If customers have a problem with a product or service, focus on what you can do to help them. While you don’t want to seem overly happy when a customer is upset, being proactive and optimistic can help a customer stay positive too.” – Alison Doyle, Top 10 Soft Skills for Customer Service Jobs, The Balance; Twitter: @thebalance
6. Clarify comprehension of the problem by repeating it to the customer.
“Once he’s had time to explain why he’s upset, repeat his concerns so you’re sure that you’re addressing the right issue. If you need to, ask questions to make sure that you’ve identified the problem correctly. Use calm, objective wording.” – Dealing With Unhappy Customers, MindTools; Twitter: @Mind_Tools
7. Show customers your appreciation.
“Once everything is hammered out, make sure you take a second to thank the customer for bringing this problem to your attention. It shows that you value their opinion and their business. This also ends the confrontation on a good note and leaves the customer feeling appreciated and heard.” – Andrea Hewitt, 6 Steps to Resolve Customer Conflict, storEDGE; Twitter: @storEDGE
8. Address customer concerns quickly.
“To effectively manage client conflict, you need to handle it quickly. I know that having tough conversations with unhappy clients is never enjoyable, but the faster you can tackle the issue, the better. The longer it takes to address the problem, the bigger the hurdle will be to find a positive solution and make the client happy. Plus, by responding and acting quickly, you’re demonstrating to your client that you care about the client and take the situation seriously.” – Jennifer Bourn, Managing Client Conflicts, Liquid Web; Twitter: @liquidweb
9. Avoid jumping to conclusions about the customer’s problem.
“Above all, don’t assume you know what went wrong, even if you’ve heard similar stories before. Customers don’t like to be treated like they’re one of the anonymous herd. Find out what’s unique to their situation.” – Sterling Newberry, Customer Complaints: Five Easy Steps To Turn Conflict Into A Competitive Edge, Mediate.com; Twitter: @mediatecom
10. Reassure customers about necessary transfers.
“Few customers will jump for joy because of a transferred call no matter how you handle it, but it’s better to assure them that the action was taken in their favor in order to solve their current problem.” – Gregory Ciotti, Go-To Scripts for Handling 10 Tricky Customer Service Scenarios, Help Scout; Twitter: @helpscout
11. Look for additional insights as you work towards a resolution.
“Conflict, when approached in a mutual respective atmosphere, can bring better insights about your team or client’s expectations, communication styles, which can arm you with the best information to find a resolution that’s best for the client, the team, and the project.” – Jayna Fey, Resolve Conflicts In The Workplace With These 12 Techniques, DPM; Twitter: @thedigitalpm
12. Avoid interrupting customers while they explain their problems.
“Notice that acknowledgement is not the same as agreement. When you truly understand your client’s viewpoint, your own becomes clear. If you cut off the customer before you fully hear their side of the story, that interruption can have disastrous consequences.” – Chris Westfall, Five Negotiation Strategies When Traditional Customer Service Fails, Forbes; Twitter: @forbes
13. Actively brainstorm on potential solutions to your customer’s problems.
“When customers are upset, they want to know how you are going to handle the problem and fix it. Brainstorming and coming up with viable solutions is an important aspect of customer conflict resolution.
“Tailor solutions to the customer and their specific problem. Don’t offer a universal solution for everyone who has conflict. For example, offering a refund might be necessary, but it shouldn’t be the only customer conflict resolution step you take.” – Rachel Blakely-Gray, How to Pursue Customer Conflict Resolution With a Level Head, Patriot; Twitter: @patriotsoftware
14. Do not forget to follow up post-resolution.
“Once a solution is agreed upon, you execute it. This includes fixing the product or service and providing the additional remedy. Following up is a huge final step. Customers often won’t even complain once, they just disappear. If you do hear of a problem and attempt to fix it, you need to follow-up. This ensures the customer ends up happy and satisfied with the outcome. It also protects against an even more infuriated customer out in the marketplace spreading negative messages.” – Neil Kokemuller, Problem Solving Steps in Customer Service, Chron; Twitter: @houstonchron
15. Account for customers’ biases and try to adapt to their communication style.
“Realize that just like you, other factors may come to play and affect the person’s interaction with you. Assumptions and how the person perceives you may color how he judges the situation and interprets it. We often deduce information we receive based on how we view the person communicating. Stress and other personal challenges contribute to how effectively we communicate and handle conflicts with other people.” – Teju Duru, 14 Basic Tips for Conflict Management via Email, Woculus; Twitter: @ayo_oyedotun
16. Consider escalating issues to superiors when necessary.
“If you can’t resolve an issue on the phone, or if conversations start to go out of your pay grade, don’t be scared to escalate the issue to a superior.” – Dealing with Difficult Customer Calls, SkillsYouNeed.com; Twitter: @skillsyouneed
17. Study the company’s products and services deeply to better accommodate customers.
“Understanding the product being sold is crucial for a good team. Companies forget this sometimes, however, and fail to adequately train representatives. This prevents them from doing their jobs. Working from scripts can be helpful, but isn’t enough to turn a decent employee into a great company advocate.” – Margarita Hakobyan, 6 Customer Service Skills Every Employee Needs, CustomerThink; Twitter: @customerthink
18. Allow customers to vent first, then offer solutions.
“When faced with an angry customer, FIRST focus on acknowledging the feelings and upset of the customer. Once the customer starts to calm down as a result of having his or her feelings recognized, THEN move to solving the problem. You’ll find that this will save you a lot of time and energy.” – Robert Bacal, The #1 Mistake Made Dealing With Angry Customers, Conflict911; Twitter: @rbacal
19. Avoid placing blame on the customer in any way.
“Under no circumstance must the customer feel that they are being told that they are wrong. Doing so will only make them more negative and possibly vengeful and anyone in business knows that even one angry customer out to get you has the potency of a devastating hurricane.” – Emily Newman, Honing Conflict Resolution Skills, Yonyx; Twitter: @yonyxtweets
20. Make important steps in problem resolution explicitly clear.
“Any time there is inadequate communication, the chance for conflict escalates. For example, an angry coworker (Leonard) confides to you that he forgot to tell a customer about limitations on your organization’s return policy. As a result, when the customer brought a product back, another coworker had to deal with a frustrated and angry customer.” – Robert W. Lucas, Responding to Conflict With Customers, SelfGrowth; Twitter: @selfgrowthnow
21. Work out the details in your customer issue-handling protocol.
“Sometimes customers are unfairly labeled ‘difficult people’ due to inadequate, confusing, or poorly thought-out policies and protocol. By setting clear standards regarding the treatment of customers, managers can help employees better manage challenging situations and ensure that all parties are treated with dignity and respect. After clearly defining policies, managers should empower employees to make wise, humane decisions within those boundaries.” – Katie Shonk, How to Deal with Difficult Customers, Harvard Law School; Twitter: @HarvardNegoti8
22. Establish clear, professional communication boundaries to limit abuse from irate customers.
“Make statements that let the customer know that certain words or behaviors are beyond the limits of cooperative or productive business conversation (always use positive, supportive tone of voice).” – 7 Things You Can Do to Diffuse Angry Customers, TrainingCourseMaterial.com; Facebook: @trainingcoursematerial
23. Exercise flexibility where appropriate.
“Sometimes a single irregular customer can put a part of your service policy into question. That’s great if you’re in a position to adjust it. If employees are taught to think for themselves, get a framework of rules as well as the authority to bend the rules when necessary, then a customer who teaches you something new is a stroke of luck.” – Sven, Solving the 7 Hardest Customer Service Scenarios, Userlike; Twitter: @userlike
24. Head off issues preemptively by acting on feedback.
“You also need to be able to identify and anticipate potential issues. Soliciting customer feedback is a smart way to let customers tell you what they’re experiencing says Tommy Walker, Head Editor of the ConversionXL blog. He recommends, ‘Building feedback loops to gather insights at every point in your customer lifecycle.’” – Elliott Brown, 7 essential steps to solving customer service problems with content, SurveyMonkey; Twitter: @SurveyMonkey
25. Identify core concerns if a customer is venting.
An agitated person can jump from subject to subject, and it’s up to the rep to find the specific solution for which the individual is looking. Sometimes, someone is calling just to vent his frustration. In that case, the goal is to lend a sympathetic ear for a sufficient time, enable the caller to blow off some steam, and then end the call by wrapping up the situation.” – Hanife Yeter, The seven essential conflict resolution skills for customer service reps, ROBIN; Twitter: @robin_hq
How are customer conflicts typically resolved in your organization?