"The Navigator" News Blog

How To Resolve a Customer Conflict

Recently, customer conflicts have been in the news, thanks to United Airlines.  UA has exhibited some textbook examples of how NOT to handle a customer conflict (including not starting one), but UA, along with all airlines, has one thing going for them that most of us don’t.  Federal law.  It’s actually a federal crime to NOT obey the command of a flight attendant or any other member of a flight crew, so they can pretty much do what they want and the police will enforce their dictates.

The rest of us don’t have that backing us up (although I’m sure many of us wish we did), so we have to resolve customer conflict the old-fashioned way:  through people skills.  With that in mind, let’s look at some ways to handle an upset customer.

Since the customer conflicts on the airlines are a unique situation that, many times, is initiated by the airline itself, let’s put that scenario off to the side and look at the much more common scenario where an upset customer contacts us, either by phone or in person.

  1. Let them vent. This is critical.  The first thing an upset customer wants is to be heard.  Our instinct in these moments is to try to calm the customer down, to interrupt the negativity, to change the direction of the conversation.  That’s the wrong thing.  When you interrupt the person while they are venting, you actually escalate the situation – which means that when you have to work to calm the person down, you actually have more work to do.
  2. Analyze the problem. Once the customer has vented, it’s time to start doing a little digging.  Your customer has likely given you the EFFECT of the problem; i.e. the way that it hurts them.  Your job is to find the CAUSE of the problem.  Do so as best you can without verbally casting blame or doubt on the customer.  Even if the customer is at fault – and they might be – right now is the wrong time to put that blame there.
  3. Fall on your sword. Now is the moment for a big ‘mea culpa.’  What your customer wants to know is that you’re sorry, that you empathize, and that you really do regret that the problem happened.  So do that right now.  Don’t get mealy-mouthed, either, and blame ‘this department’ or ‘that person.’  You are the company, so take the responsibility for the whole company.
  4. Ask for their input. Once you have an idea of the problem and its cause, you probably have a way to solve it.  Your instinct will be to quickly solve the problem as best you can.  Don’t.  Instead, ask the customer what THEY would like to have happen to make things right.  The customer will likely be shocked and pleased to be involved in the solution.  You might be scared that the customer will ask for something unreasonable – and most of the time, you’ll be surprised that customers usually tend to ask for reasonable rectifications.  Sometimes they’ll ask for less than what you might have given.  This step also lets them partner in the process.
  5. Give options if possible. If there’s more than one way to resolve the issue, ask the customer for their preference.  Again, this partners the customer in the process, and helps them to feel empowered.
  6. Do what you tell them you’ll do. This should be obvious, but when you make a promise, you must keep it.
  7. Follow Up. Once you’ve put the resolution into action, it’s time to follow up and make sure that the resolution has satisfied the customer’s issue.

If you execute these steps faithfully, many times, your relationship with the customer can come out stronger than it would have been without the problem happening.  And you probably won’t make national news!