Service & Experience with J. N. Halm: Managing anger

The Service Line with J. N. Halm: It’s A Joke...employing Humour at the Front Line
J.N. Halm is a columnist with the B&FT

…What to do when customers lose it

I am sure I have ever written in this column about one of the angriest customer episodes I have ever witnessed. I recall so vividly that incident that occurred during my days at the front desk in one of this country’s banks. This particular customer’s anger stemmed from the delay he had suffered at our hands while we were preparing a bank draft he was to use to go clear his goods from the port. I have never seen someone get so angry. The man was visibly shaking as he went ballistic on all of us within that banking hall. The story however did not end when the man was served and he left.

The real story, for me, happened weeks later. Weeks after his angry outbursts, we were not seeing the man in the banking hall. For someone who was a regular customer, that was quite unusual. One day, I spied him somewhere in town. I approached him to find out why he had stopped coming to do business with us. His response taught me a valuable lesson. He said he felt embarrassed about his behaviour that day. It was that sense of shame that had prevented him from continuing his transactions with us.

This customer was right to be angry, if he felt we were not doing our job well. However, he felt terrible for losing his temper. As a bank, we were in the process of losing a very good customer just because of anger. That story brought home the fact that no one really likes to lose it, especially in public. It just does not look good on a person for the one to lose his or her temper in the full view of others.

The question that arises therefore is that, if people do not like losing their temper, why do they do it in the first place? Answer: Anger is part and parcel of the human experience—and customers are as human as it can get. When things do not go as unexpected—as they occasionally do—anger is just a natural reaction.

As a matter of fact, scientists say that anger is one of the body’s ways of protecting itself. Anger can even help the individual trigger the very important flight or fight response in the face of danger. It has also been said that the function of anger is to protect vulnerability of the individual and to neutralise any threats to the one.

What this effectively means is that every business that is in the business of serving customers must necessarily know how to manage the anger of aggrieved customers. Every business manager, supervisor or customer-facing professional must know what triggers anger in customers and what can be done to reduce or even eliminate any negative consequences. Knowing how to manage anger while attempting to recover the failed service situation is something that must come naturally to every business professional. Attempting to solve a problem on its own can be quite challenging. Having an angry customer to deal with makes the job even more daunting.

A paper submitted to International Services Marketing Conference in July 2002 sought to find what businesses could do when their customers get angry. The paper was titled “Diffusing Customer Anger in Service Recovery: A Conceptual Framework”. To get to their result, one of the useful things the researchers did was to first categorise the various types of customer anger. For instance, a customer’s anger can result from the product or service the customer receives. This can be referred to as an Outcome anger.

Then there is anger that results from the way the product or service got to the customer. This can be referred to as a Process anger. In other words, a product can arrive in the best of shapes but the process it went through before arriving can get a customer angry. A customer at a restaurant can get angry because of the length of time it takes for the food to arrive. The food might have been prepared by a world-class chef with multiple Michelin stars. It would have been the process that got the customer angry and not necessarily the outcome, in this case, the food. With the same example, a customer can get angry because the service might have been excellent but the food might not be the best. That would fall into the Outcome category of anger.

There is another categorisation of anger that is most important in helping businesses manage the anger of their customers. This categorisation is based on the cause of the service failure that leads to the customer’s anger. In the above-mentioned study, service failures were divided into External and Non-External service failures. In simple terms, an externally-caused service failure is the service failure caused by a service provider. For instance, in the restaurant example, if the food comes and it is terrible, that is an external cause of service failure. The restaurant prepared a bad meal and should therefore be blamed for the service failure.

By contrast, non-external cause is the failure caused by the customer, by the situation, or when there is no known cause as to who or what is responsible for the failure. For instance, if the customer put too much sauce on the food and by so doing, changed the taste of the food, it becomes a Non-External service failure.

From the above, it is understandable that a customer who perceives a service failure as being externally caused will direct the anger at the business. Anger always needs to be directed at an object and in the externally-caused service failure, the natural target is the business. However, it is important for businesses to understand that the customer’s anger is also dependent on a number of factors.

One of such factors is the relevance of the incident to the customer’s wellbeing. For instance, if the customer in the restaurant came with a lady he sees a future with and is therefore trying to impress, the poorly-prepared food might cause anger. The anger of that customer might not be as bad if he was alone that time.

Another cause of service failure that can lead to customer anger is when the service or product does not mean the customer’s expectations. If a customer came into the restaurant with an expectation of a certain meal but the customer was told that the restaurant is out of that particular food, disappointment can be a natural reaction. If the customer then goes ahead to make a suggestion that might suffice in place of that particular meal but the chef or waiter says it cannot be done, anger will be the next emotion the customer will display. The disappointed customer will see the chef or waiter as inflexible individuals who do not want to help. It is important for businesses to know that disappointment, if not handled well, can always lead to anger.

Beyond the issues of relevance and incongruence, a third factor that can cause customer anger is when the service failure touches the ego of the customer. A male customer who brings a lady to the restaurant to impress will lose his anger if something embarrassing happens at the restaurant. If the restaurant messes up the customer’s order, that customer might not take it lightly. If the particular order that the restaurant messes up happens to be that of the customer’s companion, then the anger might escalate. The embarrassment will be too much. The situation might even be more critical if the customer happens to be a regular customer of the restaurant.

Because customers react differently depending on the cause of the service failure, it is important for businesses to have good enough knowledge of what causes every single service failure and then to act accordingly. The paper presented at the July 2002 International Services Marketing Conference advised that although there were several ways to recovery service when it goes wrong, there are actually just three main ways to diffuse customer anger.

According to the researchers, the first important way to manage customer anger is always to apologise. An apology is able to compensate for all the three causes of service failure. However, it is most important when the service failure leads to an affront to the customer’s ego.

Another way to handle an angry customer is to allow the customer to vent. A business that refuses to allow an angry customer to voice out his or her anger is setting itself up to losing that customer. Allowing the customer to express his or her disappointment, while really giving the customer a listening ear, helps in managing the anger.

The third way to manage a customer’s anger is to be empathetic. The customer must know that the business is genuinely interested in his or her predicament and thus is genuinely interested in solving the problem at hand. If anger is a normal human emotion, then it makes sense that a business will put effort in knowing how to manage anger when it rears its head.

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