Use Empathy to Defuse Unhappy Customers

Howard Scott |

PEMBROKE, Mass. — You always tell your counter staffers to be nice to customers. Sometimes they listen, sometimes they don’t. Try another tact: tell them to be empathetic.

Empathy is defined as “identification with an understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives.” So, empathy goes beyond being nice to customers. It asks one to try to step into their shoes, and understand their behavior from their point of view.

You might instruct your counter staff in this way: “Look, we have good customers and bad customers. Plus, all customers have good days and bad days. Not every encounter is perfectly smooth, perfectly pleasant. But I urge you to react to the customer from the point of view of why she’s acting the way she is.

“Maybe her husband yelled at her this morning for spending so much on household goods and she’s taking it out on you. It’s possible she has just had a bad encounter with another merchant, and she’s frustrated. Perhaps she has a job deadline and is distracted. Or maybe she’s feeling glum because it’s a dark, rainy day.

“When a customer starts to give you a tough time, take a breath, and say to yourself: ‘I wonder what happened with her day for her to be so unpleasant.’ This pause will help you strategize an approach to create a better outcome and to make that bad taste in your mouth disappear.”

With an empathetic outlook, a counter staffer will strive to guess what’s underneath the anger and seek to alter the attitude, or at least they will be more tolerant. Maybe being sympathetic will work. Possibly pointing up some fact will do it.

Another solution is being quite emotive. Humor might win over the day.

Let’s see how an empathic instinct might work in different situations.

  • The customer is amazed at the price of cleaning a comforter. “That’s highway robbery!” she exclaims. “I think your store is overpriced.” The typical response might be, “Let me check the price. No, that is our correct price.”

The customer begins to walk out angry. Remembering the lecture on empathy, the counter staffer, who has seen the customer getting out of her expensive car, thinks to herself that all expenses are relative. It depends on what you’re getting, just like that $40,000 vehicle is the woman’s preference. The staffer offers, “You’re right, Mrs. Malone. That is a lot of money for one piece. But, you know, it reflects our high quality on everything we do.

“We don’t take short cuts. We use the finest cleaning agents. Our people are well-trained. All that costs money, just like the workmanship in your car. I am sorry you are upset, but realize that you are getting the best for your money, and hopefully, you’ll understand.” The second response is surely better than the first. It will go a long way toward appeasing the customer.

  • The customer had to wait for two slow customers to finish. By the time she is at the register, she is annoyed and surly. Under usual procedures, the counter staffer would process the order and the person would walk out annoyed.

By being empathetic, the counter staffer realizes the customer’s frustration and says, “I’m sorry you had to wait so long, Ms. Manfriedi. This is our busiest pickup time. If you had come an hour earlier, there wouldn’t have been any line, and you would have gotten right in and out. If you’re able, consider avoiding the noon hour. Again, I’m sorry for your delay. I can imagine how annoying it is.” The customer leaves, feeling some consolation.

  • The customer finds a stain on her dress. She accuses the dry cleaner of causing it. She says, “It’s probably grease from one of your machines.” As it happens, the counter staffer has had a bad day. Several people have yelled at her, and she is about to snap at the next customer who gives her trouble. So she says, “I’m sure it wasn’t from our plant. But we’ll take it back and get out the stain.”

With empathy in mind, the staffer remembers how annoyed she was when she discovered a stain on one of her favorite garments, so she decides to take a personal approach. “Mrs. Kleinrath, I know how bad you feel. I just discovered a stain on one of my favorite outfits; I thought I would die. But I brought it in the next day and they removed the stain completely. I’m sure we will do the same with your garment. Just leave it here. I’ll call you when it’s ready. In fact, to save you another trip, my driver will drop it off at your house. Just tell me where he should leave it.” The customer can’t help from being at least somewhat mollified.

  • The customer is a grump. Ordinarily, the counter staffer would process the order without saying anything. Her goal would be to get rid of the unpleasant guy.

But, instead, she decides to try humor. “Mr. Anderson, surely you can smile today. It’s such a beautiful morning. We’re alive, standing above ground, healthy. That’s reason enough to be appreciative. Plus, I enjoy your patronage. That’s worth the price of admission, isn’t it? So, have a great day, Mr. Anderson.” Presented with such enthusiasm, Mr. Anderson walks out in a better mood than when he came in.

  • The customer is annoyed that the crew can’t find a garment. The counter staffer responds, “Mrs. Wilson, we’ll locate it and call you. Just give us a day.” The customer is left quite angry.

Being empathetic, the counter staffer realizes how annoying this situation is. She knows the customer fears the worst, that the garment is lost. So the staffer says, “I sincerely apologize. I know you’re annoyed, but try not to be upset, Mrs. Wilson. It has to be here, and we’ll find it. We had a large shipment of commercial work dropped off this morning, and things are extra busy. When we do find your jacket, I’ll see that it is personally delivered to your house.”

Sometimes shifting the emphasis makes a transaction go more smoothly. Try preaching empathy to your counter people and see how much better they get at responding to less-than-pleasant customers.

About the author

Howard Scott

Industry Writer and Drycleaning Consultant

Howard Scott is a former business owner, longtime industry writer and drycleaning consultant. He welcomes questions and comments and can be reached by writing Howard Scott, Dancing Hill, Pembroke, MA 02359; by calling 781-293-9027; or via e-mail at [email protected].


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