And your momma dresses you funny, too!

In addition to local governments, I also do a bit of work with small businesses helping with their communications and social media outreach.

Just last week, two unrelated businesses dealt with the same issue, the grumpy customer.

  • Business A sells finished industrial products and is in its third generation. They are considered experts in their product field. Last week they received profanity laced e-mails from a customer complaining about service they received over the phone. The customer claimed the person they talked to was rude and didn’t know what they were talking about. The customer had actually spoken to the business owner who told him that they didn’t sell the product he needed. This prompted the customer’s first e-mail. The business responded professionally and suggested the customer try a different store to find his product. This only infuriated the customer who wrote back with another rude, profanity filled reply. He was looking for someone to engage with him, and the business was not interested.
  • Business B makes a consumable product. The business is only a few years old, but their entire product line has won a number of awards for taste and quality. Last week they received an email about their “awful product.” The customer went into depth about how terrible the product was, how he had his wife taste it also, and that she agreed that it was, indeed “awful.” He then suggested that the owner rework the recipe for this product, because he is sure that everyone else hates it as much as he does. The owner replied and offered a refund for the product the customer did not like. (Later, the owner actually received an apology from the customer’s son, saying his father was an “old coot” and favored his own product that he had consumed for years.)

Both of these businesses replied within hours of receiving their respective e-mail messages. Both tried to appease their customers, knowing that neither one would actually have the e-mail writer as a customer again.

How do local governments compare in their customer service? How should they deal with aggressive people (citizens/taxpayers/residents) who just want to argue? What kinds of responses are necessary when a citizen asks questions in an aggressive way?

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Emily Landsman

Thanks for the link, Steve.

I don’t see how either of the businesses told the customers they were wrong, though? Both of the first feedbacks were aggressive. Business A just didn’t sell the product the customer wanted, which is not what he wanted to hear. I don’t think at that point the business owed the customer anything. Business B offered a refund. (They did note in their reply, however, that the product the customer described as “awful” has won several awards and is becoming quite popular.)

Steve Cottle

That’s fair. I think it reminded me of the other post because A simply shut the door on the customer (like was done in the other post when the customer offered feedback), while B acknowledged the customer’s concerns (like advocated in the other post).

Emily Landsman

I’m not sure what you mean. How could A have helped the customer? He suggested another place the customer could find the item. What other obligation did they have at that point?

I agree with “the customer is always right”….to a point. Swearing at a business owner will not get you nowhere. It is not acceptable to speak to anyone like that, and no business needs to take abuse from an angry customer. What A got from the customer was not constructive feedback in any sense. Hey, maybe the guy had a fight with his wife that morning or stepped in gum on the street, but it doesn’t mean the business has to make up for it.

Should I get angry at The Gap because I think they should sell tuxedo shirts because they sell other items of clothing? If they tell me to try a department store to find what I need, should I attempt to fight with them?

Peter Sperry

Agressive customers/constituents/citizens are a fact of life and you cannot satisfy all of them. Make every effort to explain that yes they do have to pay their taxes, no they cannot jump in front of 60 other people at the DMV, the elected official cannot (will not) order a government agency to break the law, the agency who was called by the elected official stupid enough to order them to break the law is not going to follow those instructions, they are only one of several thousand customers/constituents/citizens and sometimes majority rule will impose laws and regulations they do not like or refrain from enacting some they would like to impose on their neighbors. In short, respect them but clarify the limits of what you can do for them.

Then stand back and just let them make an ass of themselves. In most cases, as long as they do not cross the line between verbal and physical, you just have to let them vent. All cases of physical, and some instances of verbal, abuse need to be handled by security and/or law enforcement. I’ve dealt with some very abusive citizens, some of whom were just downright nasty people. But that is the exception. Most of them are just frustrated and once they blow off steam will calm down. I’ve often felt bad that I could not do more for them despite their anger because I understand it. We’ve all been there at one point or another. But government rules are government rules and the warm glow of making one person happy by breaking the rules fades quickly if it costs you your job.