I have a vivid memory of my mother making a customer service call when I was a kid. A shocking new channel called MTV had suddenly appeared on our television. It was NOT appropriate viewing for her four children and needed to be removed from our channel lineup immediately.
She determinedly dialed up the cable company and was put on hold. She remained on the phone with the cable company all afternoon, through dinner and until we went to bed. Needless to say, the issue never was resolved to my mother’s satisfaction and MTV was entrenched as part of our channel lineup, much to the enjoyment of us children.
That was customer service in the 1980s. The Age of Exasperation.
With the rise of social media, unhappy customers began to take to social channels with their complaints. Brands responded by staffing customer service teams to manage the expansion of ways that complaints were shared, received and resolved.
In the early days of this new paradigm, there was surprise and delight associated with the speed and sincerity of brand responsiveness. Companies like Hilton, Best Buy and Comcast were lauded for their innovative, service-centric social media strategies. In fact, Bill Gerth, former Comcast Customer Service Director, was quoted as saying, “Customers come to Twitter willing to have a conversation, instead of being pissed off.”
This was the Age of Expectation. Customers expected they would be heard and responded to quickly, with sincere intention to reasonably resolve the issue (this is now known as the good ol’ days.)
Today I spent time talking through an issue with a client in which a disgruntled customer was demanding that an employee be fired. Her accusations were vague, unsubstantiated and inconsistent with the employee’s excellent track record. The company suggested a number of options for resolution – HR would speak directly with the employee about the incident and conduct additional training, the services provided would be upgraded at no cost, and future services would be offered at a substantial discount.
All of that was accepted by the customer, and yet did not resolve the issue. Only termination of the employee would be sufficient to avoid the social media hellfire being threatened.
Welcome to the Age of Entitlement.
We have entered a period in which more and more dissatisfied customers feel entitled to dictate the terms by which their issues will be resolved and expect brands to honor those terms, regardless of how outrageous, unfair or impossible they may be. The penalty for not doing so? Social media activism in the form of outraged posts and negative reviews that skewer the brand, its services and its leadership.
Yet, brands don’t have to roll over and meet the demands of the entitled customer when they are truly beyond the norm. Following are six tips companies should consider when responding to an entitled customer service issue.
Tip #1: Sympathize with the customer
Sometimes, people just want you to feel sorry for them. That’s okay. It’s perfectly acceptable to have a human response to an outrageous request.
Express regret that expectations were not met and apologize for any disappointment that the customer may have felt. Let them know you hear them and acknowledge the way they are feeling.
Tip #2: Treat the complaint seriously and the customer with respect
Even if the complaint seems outrageous or unlikely, it should be treated seriously and thoroughly investigated. There may be some truth to the issue that needs to be addressed.
At the same time, the customer – regardless of their own behavior – should be treated with respect at every step along the way. Determined customers can wage complaint campaigns that last weeks or months and involve everyone from front line staff to executive leadership. An attitude of respect must be consistent across every interaction.
Tip #3: Treat everyone equally
Brands are used to making exceptions in certain cases and that’s fine. But the best way to deal with an entitled complainer is to starve the interaction. Don’t bend the rules for a person making threats if you wouldn’t do the same for a person who asks politely.
And don’t treat someone differently because you’re afraid of their response. Making exceptions reinforces bad behavior. Stick to the policies in place, and make sure those policies put the customer first.
Tip #4: Pick up the phone
Even today’s sophisticated customer service systems sometimes fail. Customers can get caught in service loops that don’t advance their issues or interact with representatives unable to articulate the situation clearly.
It never hurts to have someone in a position of authority pick up the phone, listen to the customer, and calmly explain what the company will and will not do. We’ve seen some of the most vehemently entitled customers turn completely around after a brief but well-handled phone call.
Tip #5: Move fast and decisively
An issue that starts as a minor customer complaint can escalate to one of entitlement if the customer response is slow or wobbly. The faster issues are dealt with – and the more clearly the response is communicated – the less likely it is to become a major issue.
Tip #6: Be fearless
You know when a customer request is way off base or outsized to the issue. Do what is right and move on. While reviews matter, customers are also sophisticated enough to recognize when someone else is behaving in an entitled way.
Respond appropriately to any negative posts on social media but don’t let the threats drive your decision-making. Double down on excellent customer service across the board and let the outliers be just that – exceptions to your loyal base of customers.