Reconcilable Differences


Everyone Deals With Irate customers sooner or later. They can ruin your day. I still remember the customers who went ballistic on me more than 10 years ago. Back then I didn't do a lot to prevent confrontations from escalating. My ego got in the way of managing them effectively. It's too late for me, but I have some ideas that can help you.

Most confrontations come about because there's a mismatch of expectations — like who pays for what and for how much, who scratched the tank, whether the bike was really fixed right, and when it's supposed to be ready for pickup. Even if you're the perfect proactive service writer, you'll still get into confrontations with customers. Here are some steps to managing confrontations.

First, don't take things personally. You can't manage a situation if your emotions are out of control. Calm yourself by taking several slow, deep breaths. Relax your shoulder muscles as you exhale. Put your mind in a happy place, like a beach, seagulls singing and waves lapping the shore. Sure, the customer is calling you names, but you don't mind because you're at the beach!

Ask customers to talk about their frustrations, but within the following guidelines.

  • Don't encourage irate customers to tell you more, because that can send them over the edge. Venting is for customers who still have control over their emotions.
  • Don't fix the problem too soon. When you try to fix the problem (usually by giving stuff away) before customers are done venting, they won't appreciate your goodwill.
  • If the customer is too upset (swearing, making a scene or threatening physical harm), you have to stop it before it gets worse. Say something like, "I know you're upset and I want to help you. We can work this out if we can talk about it, OK?" If that doesn't work, suggest a 10-minute time-out and promise to meet the customer at a specific time and location to start again. Do as many time-outs as needed.

Empathize to encourage trust. Indicate that you care about customers and want to help. You may not agree with their opinion, but you'll need to acknowledge their feelings to build the trust that's required to manage the confrontation. Apologize only for mistakes you believe you've made.

Listen carefully to learn the real issue by asking questions after customers have vented themselves out. For example, it may not be that the shop is a bunch of a-holes; it's that the bike was filthy after the work was done (which is upsetting), and now the customer doesn't trust that the mechanical work was done correctly.

Consider options and ideas that can make the situation better. Ask the customer, "What would you do about this situation if you owned the dealership?" If you've never tried this approach, you might be surprised. Many times the customer just wants an apology and a promise the problem will never happen again. If the customer suggests something the shop can't do, reply, "That's an interesting idea. What if we (offer your suggestion)." Find a solution that both you and the customer are satisfied with.

Agree to achieve lasting results by committing to the solution. Review what you have agreed to — for example, that the dealership will perform a full detail on the dirty bike, and the work will be guaranteed for 90 days. Tell the customer you value his business and ask whether this solution is satisfactory. Get a confirmation and then follow up with, "Then I'd like to get your promise that you'll continue to do business with us, that we'll see you in here again soon." It sounds funny, but it's important to get the customer to verbalize this commitment.

Finally, manage the aftermath, because upset customers worry how they'll be treated in the future. They need to know that this instance was just a misunderstanding. That these things happen. That there are no hard feelings. That everything will get back to normal if we act normal about it.

It's life. It's not always fun, but in the end, some of the most upset customers we encounter become our very best customers, if we handle the confrontation correctly.

Dave Koshollek teaches sales and service classes for dealers. Contact him at, or via