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Emotional Hijacking: Why Logic Doesn't Work With Angry Customers

Emotional Hijacking: Why Logic Doesn't Work With Angry Customers

by John Timmerman

We've all seen it, and it's never pretty. A customer doesn't get what he feels entitled to, management doesn't fix it, the customer goes from annoyed to angry, and the situation heats to the boiling point. Most of us wouldn't let a customer service problem get so far out of hand, but sometimes such issues cause an extremely negative, hard to control, and irrational reaction: an emotional hijacking. By the time the screaming customer leaves (or is ejected), the rest of us want to leave, too. It's an ugly thing to witness, and it's bad for business.

But many companies' policies deliberately put customers in that situation, making embarrassing meltdowns almost inevitable. Here are two system flaws that contribute to the problem:

1. Many businesses are more concerned with avoiding loss than attaining gain. At its worst, this attitude causes businesses to suspect every customer complaint as a scam, and view an enraged customer as a potential threat, not a victim of emotional hijacking. Ultimately, this creates a Fort Knox of policy to prevent customer fraud. It's my observation that less than 1% of customers are trying to game the system. The real bad guys are managers who handcuff their employees, preventing them from helping 99% of the customers because of the 1% risk factor.

2. Management often sends all front-line staff and call center employees to customer complaint training and expects them to come back with everything they need. I have made that error myself. I had a department of employees who were highly talented problem solvers, and I channeled every customer complaint to them. This seemed like a brilliant idea, because the department was very efficient and we were rapidly closing all the open incidents. The feeling of brilliance quickly vanished when I discovered that the customers did not feel better after their complaints were resolved. It appeared my very capable department lacked the ability to display empathy and make an interpersonal connection. This department was perfect for fixing process issues, but not people problems.

Six Rules to Prevent Emotional Hijacking

Gallup research shows that the best customers are the emotionally engaged ones. They add 23% profit over the average (disengaged ones cost a business 13% profit), are much more loyal, and enjoy praising the companies they're engaged with. When an emotionally hijacked customer is shrieking at one of your employees, you may think his engagement is a lost cause. But Gallup's science indicates that engaged customers tend to become more engaged when a company messes up -- if the company fixes the problem properly. And by "properly," I mean the following six things:

1. The first rule for resolving an ugly scene is to prevent one. Policies should be biased toward giving the customer the benefit of the doubt. Very, very few people are going to have a screaming fit to get a free order of fries. Most angry customers have a legitimate reason to be angry, and front-line employees should be coached to hear them out -- and empowered to help the customer. If the problem reaches a manager, it's gone too far.

2. Hire employees with a predisposition for customer service. Employees who are predisposed to help customers are best equipped to deal with highly charged emotional situations. I've noticed they often have the talent themes of Empathy and Woo, which the Clifton StrengthsFinder indicates allow them to create connections with customers. Those who are best at solving customer problems are often a little assertive and analytical as well -- to solve a problem, after all, one has to be able to cut to the chase and find a solution. Employees who don't have these qualities need to have a colleague who does, as well as air cover from senior management to override policy and solve customer problems. And to keep an emotionally hijacked customer from screaming and flailing on the ground, these employees have to work fast.

3. Don't hand off problems from one customer service representative to another. The customer is suffering and has little energy to cope with multiple people. A Gallup survey of one company's hotel guests showed that passing the customer from one employee to another significantly increases his perceived severity of the problem -- by 20% with just one hand-off on up to 132% when four or more people are involved -- and when it takes a hand-off to solve a problem, customer satisfaction with problem resolution will drop by 60%.

4. Agree that the customer has reason to be annoyed. Emotionally hijacked customers will settle down if they feel they're dealing with an honest person who acknowledges that there's a real problem. The emotionally hijacked customer strongly needs to be validated.

5. It's not just what you say, but what you do. No amount of soothing words will do any good if company policy prevents the solution from happening. There needs to be alignment among front-line staff, what they say, what they're permitted to do, and leadership's willingness to rectify company errors.

6. Be transparent and straightforward. People who aren't thinking clearly can't understand a lot of complexity. It may even make them angrier. Explain what you're doing and what will happen next as simply as you can.

Make sure the employees you put in front of the emotionally hijacked customers have the talent and leverage to fix customer complaints. Problem solving training won't give you much ROI, unless these tools are in the hands of employees who have the natural ability to build a relationship, find a solution, and leave a lasting positive impression.

Regardless, you can be sure that a lasting impression will be made. Customers who witness -- or have -- an angry outburst will associate your company with either the memory of an ugly scene or the recollection of a calm, empowered employee fixing a problem. Which impression your company makes is up to you.

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