November 26, 2014

Small business advice

How to deal with an angry customer

Jerry Osteryoung | 8/19/2012
"Anyone can become angry - that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way; this is not easy." ~Aristotle

Lately, I have been working a lot with medical practices on how they can improve the service they provide their patients. While most of the examples I will share in this column are pulled from this work, the concepts are applicable to each and every business.

Among all these practices, issues with angry patients seem to be a common thread, which is not entirely surprising when you consider that patients come in feeling poorly and it does not take much to set them off. Whether it is too much paperwork or a long wait time, there are a number of factors that can increase a patient’s frustration and incite their anger.

When I first began working with these practices, I had no idea how extensive this problem was but, as I spoke with the frontline staff, they named angry patients as the number one problem they face time and time again.

Whether it is a patient or another kind of customer, the best and most effective tactic for dealing with an angry person is to show empathy for their situation. Saying “These are just the required forms and you need to fill them out in order to see the doctor,” just will not do it. A better approach would be for the receptionist (the “director of first impressions”) to say, “I am so sorry to ask you to fill out this paperwork again, but it will ensure our records are correct so we can get you the best possible care.” The second statement shows empathy and offers a logical explanation for why the data needs to be collected again.

Even though we can empathize with a customer’s frustration, it is never acceptable for them to raise their voice or use profanity. If this should happen, your staff needs to tell the customer that kind of behavior is unacceptable and warn them that if it continues, they will be asked to leave. For obvious reasons, you will also want to steer these angry customers away from your other customers and talk with them one-on-one.

Unmet expectations, in general, are the cause of most angry patient situations. However, a lot of the anger can be mitigated by wording responses in such a way that you communicate warmth and caring.

For example, one of the most common inciters among these medical practices is a co-pay that is higher than the patient expected. In a case like this, the front office personnel could say, “I am so sorry that you were expecting a lower payment. Do you have another means of paying today or would you like for us to bill you? Which would you prefer?” A response like this puts the power back in the patients’ hands.

I would say the best direction you can give your staff about how to deal with an angry customer is to call in the manager and allow them to handle the issue. Front office staff should not be saddled with always having to take the abuse from angry customers. These frequent beatings destroy their morale and their desire to come to work each morning.

As a final caution, avoid arguing with an angry customer at all costs. This just tends to make the person even angrier.

Now go out and make sure your staff is trained in handling angry customers. Frequent and continuous role-playing activities are a good way to ensure they are able to respond appropriately in the moment.

You can do this.

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