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The aggressive question you can ask that instantly calms a customer down

by | Jun 1, 2023

If you write service or sell parts, angry customers on the other side of the counter are an occasional part of the job. Maybe it’s someone picking up a car who is facing a bill that’s vastly different than the estimate. Or maybe in the parts store it’s a customer with a third bad part (which is always the fault of the person who sold it). In these scenarios, I’d lead with the verbal equivalent of a punch: “What do YOU want?”

Some folks would get instantly quiet. Others would assume I was picking a fight. Many would just get confused and say, “What?” And that’s the intent. I’d throw it out there and then build upon it. “What do you want? Maybe you have a solution in mind and I can just wave my customer service wand and make it happen.” It helped to reframe the interaction not as two people butting heads, but as one trying to find out what solution would unruffle feathers.

Usually, people would laugh at that point, we’d take a breath, and the interaction would get instantly smoother—especially if they wanted something I could just do. That’s key. If someone asks for something reasonable, you gotta set aside your urge to “win” and realize that winning in this scenario is getting paid and getting on with running the business. Giving a ten percent discount or a replacement part that should be out of warranty to someone who’s being a turd feels like you’ve somehow “lost,” I know. But it’s a lot better than someone forcing you to place a lien on his car to settle the bill or throwing a starter at your head. (I’ve experienced both. Neither was great.)

It is worth mentioning you have to actually want to help here. It’s not hard to get fixated on your business’ process and forget there’s a customer with a problem to solve. For example, even if you have a sign that says “No returns on electrical parts,” you might look for witness marks on terminals and make a call that you will take a genuinely mis-ordered part on the parts counter. On the service side of things, your customer darn well might have signed an RO that indicated that the OWL tires he bought should be mounted with the letters facing in, but he wants the world to see them when he picks up his truck.

What do you want? Maybe you have a solution in mind and I can just wave my customer service wand and make it happen.

Both of those are easy, low-cost fixes for your parts store or service center, respectively, but to a customer, those are insurmountable problems—that’s why they came to you. Asking someone, “Whaddya want, bub?” doesn’t work if you don’t possess the ability and drive to keep a customer happy without a major financial penalty to your employer.

Allow me to take a brief aside to the shop owners and parts store managers. Now might be a good time to think about huddling up and communicating this ability explicitly to your staff if you haven’t in the past. “If a customer is getting worked up and making things right for them costs less than X or labor hours come to less than Y, you’re cleared to make it happen.” Having that ability will help workers be confident that fixing a problem for a customer is the thing to do—and reminds them to think of the bottom line.

There will be customers who are not mollified at this stage. They’re still angry, and often they’re not being reasonable people.  It was clear some people just wanted to be ornery and yell and make a fuss, and you know what I’d do?

I’d offer that as an alternative.

“Look, I get it, this isn’t a great situation, and you haven’t given me a reasonable solution we can both live with. I can see you’re angry, and that’s OK. Maybe you just want to yell at me for a while. I know that can feel better, and you know what? Part of my paycheck covers getting yelled at, so if you want to unload on me for a spell, that’s fine. I’m still gonna try and help you when you’re done.”

It takes a real sociopath to keep going for very long after that. The concentration of actual nutjobs like that is low. Odds are excellent if you get someone to this point, they step back for a second, smile or laugh, and reapproach you, often with a more cooperative spirit. I feel as though at this juncture I need to warn you that this, too, is not foolproof. If you offer to let someone yell at you, every now and again you are gonna have to stand there while someone hollers at you.

It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. I felt—and still do—it’s a pretty safe gamble to make because the strategy of simply asking what someone wants works so well most of the time. Give it a try some time. It’s kind of a fun little sociological experiment you can perform right at the counter.

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