How To Successfully Meet with an Angry Customer

You know the drill.  A customer is angry and the problem has been escalated to you.  You have been called in by your company to be called on the carpet by the customer.  You know that the meeting will be unpleasant, and you wouldn’t be human if you weren’t apprehensive as the meeting approaches, if not downright scared.
concept of beating to competition isolated on white background

See that guy in the picture?  Unfortunately, that’s been me a number of times.  The good thing about being on the wrong end of several customer beatings is that along the way I have learned a few things that can make tough meetings more productive.

During a lunch meeting with a friend recently we got to talking about this, and he asked me how I approached these sorts of meetings.  Afterwards he asked me to write down some of the key points for him so he could share them with his team.

The key with emotionally-charged meetings is to listen, acknowledge the emotion, but to still control the meeting.  Here are the key points I sent to my friend after that lunch:

  1. Sit down with the customer and ask them to explain the situation. Demonstrate that you have an understanding of the situation (so that you don’t look like you’re coming in cold), but indicate you are there to get THEIR understanding.
  2. Write down the key points as they speak. Try to get them to explain things in a sequential way, so your notes look like a time-based list.
  3. Speak only to ask clarifying questions. Other than that, you’re listening and writing. Don’t be afraid to ask them to hold for a minute as you work to capture the key points. They need to get the idea that you are there to exhaustively understand their problem.
  4. Be sure to understand what their expectations were, and how those expectations were set. Usually in these situations someone from your company told them something that didn’t happen. That’s ok. You just want the facts.
  5. When they are done, you ask them “is that everything?”, or perhaps review your notes with them, asking them if your notes capture the key points accurately. Wherever the customer corrects something, make a point to adjust your notes.
  6. When the customer indicates they are satisfied you’ve captured the key points, you very visibly draw a solid line under the last note.
  7. You then turn your attention to what happens next. This is a different topic altogether, but the key here is to not blurt something out to make the customer happier. If you make a commitment – and certainly you should at some point – you need to be sure you can meet or exceed that commitment.

At this point, you haven’t solved anything, but you should have established in the customer’s mind that you have the humility to understand their problem, the expertise to suggest a solution, and the authority to get the right resources engaged from your company.

One more thing:  your job is not to toss out a possible solution and hope the customer bites.  Your job is to sell the resolution to the customer.  If you have a solution that you believe will solve their problem and you have confidence that your company can deliver, then sell it.

But selling the solution is for later.  The list above is just a first step, but like many first steps it is often the hardest one to take.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are not constructive, excessively snarky, or off-topic.