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Working with Upset Customers? Turn down the H.E.A.T.

“When I have an angry customer, I just put the phone down on my desk and walk away. By the time I get back, they are either calm, or they hung up. Problem Solved.”

I really did have a student in one of my classes make that statement. I’ve heard a lot of odd perceptions of what people feel is their responsibility toward providing customer service.

Public servants often do interact with difficult customers, customers in distress, or customers in difficult situations. All these scenarios have one thing in common – lots of emotion of the part of the customer. Anyone who’s ever had a difficult conversation knows you may not be able to control someone else’s reaction, but you can control your own.

Next time you are faced with a difficult situation, first and foremost, keep your cool. Do not react to what the person is saying. Take it professionally, not personally – it’s likely not about you at all but about the situation. From this mind-set, you can turn down the H.E.A.T.

H. Hear them out. Really listen. A person yells and is loud because they feel they are not being listened to. They will start to calm down if they feel you are listening. So pay attention. Listen actively – take notes. Nod your head. Look at the person and pay attention. Say “Uh huh” , “Oh, I see”, “Yes, I understand”, etc.

E. Empathize – it’s not our jobs to be judgey about whether or not this person deserves to be mad. They are upset, and we have to help them through it. Using statements like “That would be a difficult situation” and focusing on using a caring tone of voice will help a lot.

A. Ask Questions – our customers don’t know our buzz-words, jargon or processes. Make sure you clarify exactly what the problem is so you can work towards fixing it.

T. Take Responsibility – our customers look at government like a huge big black hole. It’s mysterious to most and downright scary to some. If you build a bridge to an upset customer they will calm down. Saying something like “I understand your concerns. My name is Wendi (use your own name). I’ve helped people in this situation before. Don’t worry, we’ll get through this together” will help set a customer’s mind at ease.

So next time your in a difficult situation, be confident! If you can turn down the HEAT, you’ll be successful every time.

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Profile Photo Steve Ressler

Good advice – I actually get an irate email against GovLoop occasionally (usually weirdos) and I generally try to follow this advice. Usually I defuse them by being really cheerful back at them and helpful

Profile Photo Christopher Whitaker

Dealing with angry claimants is more of an art than anything else. My office has them inside the office and so walking away is not an option. Somebody has to stay with the claimant. HEATs a good method for resolving issues.

The real difficult part is when you can’t give the claimant what they want – when they’ve been denied benefits or when they’ve exhausted them. There’s nothing you can do to help them, but you still have provide service to the claimant.

Profile Photo John Evans

IRS has many of the same issues-angry people in the office, can’t walk away. Our situation is somewhat different-filing of timely and accurate returns is required by law, as is full payment of any balance due. There is no option on our part as far as what can and can’t be done for them-the law dictates the process. Frequently people will want us to do things that simply aren’t possible. The real challenging part is how to get them to understand that they must take responsibility for their actions or inaction, and there are limits on what we can do for them.

Profile Photo Allen Sheaprd

Very good advice – also know the departments around you. Because I work in one building I get asked for directions all the time. Most of the offices are ones that mean nothing to me.

Irate emails against GovLoop? I believe you but – its hard to see. Just listen and let it go.

Profile Photo Jeff Ribeira

Great thoughts. Having worked in customer service, I’ve seen all kinds of attempts to deal with angry customers, many of them terrible. I like the HEAT acronym, and I also like the idea of diffusing angry customers with cheerfulness. I’ve tried that a few times, and it always catches them off guard. Confidence is key as well.

Profile Photo Josh Folk

Organizations must realize that an upset customer is likely the same customer your organization has been working with in the past months/years. So what are you doing to build on that relationship before a problem arises? Establishing credibility with customers from day one is critical to getting through customer service issues, especially when nothing can be done. Welcome the customer, send information that can make their lives/jobs easier, thank them from time to time, and warn them in advance of decisions that could lead to unfavorable results (ex: “I want to let you know that I have had things go wrong for customers in this area…IF this was to happen to you then this is how we’ll work with you to fix it”.) Doing these things will give the customer more reason to address you reasonably when issues do arise.

Profile Photo Jay Johnson

Well put! We all have ‘customers’ no matter what our job entails. Not only that, but you can think about this the next time you’re fighting with your spouse, parents, kids. etc.

Profile Photo David Kuehn

Good advice. I would add that people who are upset or frustrated may be reflecting other events that are taking place in their life. It can be important to be aware that you may not be able to “solve” the problem or respond to the person’s need regardless of what you offer. In this case the tone of the response is more important than the substance.