Small Business

Three Steps to Calming Angry Customers


Our communications columnist looks at a new process at JFK Airport that you can adapt to cool down steamed customers—and build their loyalty

Niceness is now arriving at major airports. At John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, 500 employees are being taught to be, well, pleasant. It's easier said than done when faced with frustrated passengers hurling abuse two inches from your face. Frustration continues to grow as airlines offer fewer flights, higher fares, and new fees (BusinessWeek.com, 5/28/08) such as United Airlines' (UAUA) and American Airlines' (AMR) $15 charge for the first checked bag (BusinessWeek.com, 6/12/08).

Keeping your cool is one thing, but how do you calm down an angry customer while building the customer's loyalty to the airline? Tom Murphy, director of the Human Resiliency Institute at Fordham University, has created a three-step process with this challenge in mind. We recently talked about how his approach works in almost any industry. Just substitute the name of your company or industry for "airline" or "airport." Here are Murphy's three steps:

1. Turn down the volume. When a customer's voice rises, Murphy recommends you lower yours. He explains this sends a signal to the brain that helps reduce anxiety for both your customer and you. At the same time, you must remain calm. Make eye contact to engage your customer. Demonstrate that you are actively listening by nodding your head and not interrupting. This demonstrates a commitment to resolving the problem.

2. Offer information. According to Murphy, people under stress hate to be left in the dark. They want to feel as if you are focused on their problem, not on something else. You must give them the facts and be specific. For example, instead of announcing a delay with no explanation, an airport employee is told to say, "I'm sorry, your plane cannot leave because of an air traffic control glitch." But don't stop there. If you do, says Murphy, it's like striking a match to gasoline. In fact, stopping at Step Two will only make the problem worse. Step Three is critical.

3. Brainstorm options. In Step Three, an airport employee is told to brainstorm alternatives with the passenger to meet his needs. Think about it. A passenger isn't upset because the plane is delayed; he is upset because he might miss a crucial meeting and lose an account. An effective communicator will brainstorm alternatives with the passenger like helping him find an alternate carrier. It's at this step that the airport employee must own the relationship and find a solution to the problem.

Consider this scenario at JFK to get an idea of how to apply the process. AirTrain is the airport's rail service connecting passengers to subways, buses, and trains in the New York area. At some stations, if a passenger incorrectly swipes a card to pay the $5 fare to enter the turnstile, the machine might double the charge. Angry passengers often rush to AirTrain agents demanding their money back. One employee who tried Murphy's process said it worked.

When an angry customer approached him, he said he remained calm, lowered his voice, and listened to the passenger yelling about losing his money. The employee calmly explained the facts—it wasn't a malfunction but the way the passenger jiggled the card through the turnstile. The employee avoided further angering the passenger by suggesting options they could take together. He told the passenger that he had the option to write a letter when he got home or they could walk together to the nearest customer service window where the passenger could fill out a form to get his money back. The passenger calmed down when he understood that the agent was committed to resolving the problem. If he had failed to take all three steps, the passenger might still be yelling.

Murphy believes that airport workers—from parking attendants to ticket-counter employees—can use his method to take the edge off frustrated travelers, and in doing so, help the airline and airport gain a competitive advantage. Give it a try in your own business and watch the anger fade away.

Carmine Gallo is a communications coach for the world's leading brands. He is a speaker and author of the new book "Fire Them Up"

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