Donald B. Stephens is a 30-year senior customer service engineer with the Xerox Corporation. In this post, he explains how managers can calm irate customers who feel slighted by bad customer service — without throwing their employees under the bus.

Several years ago I walked into an auto service center to pick up a repaired tire. I’d already paid the bill and just needed to grab the wheel. I saw it as soon as I walked in and, not wishing to be mistaken for a tire thief, I turned to the first (and only) employee I saw in the room. He was wearing a soiled uniform — obviously a repair tech like myself — and flipping through a newspaper.

“Hi, I’m here to…”

That was as far as I got. He looked up from his paper and snarled, “I’ll be with you in a minute,” and then turned the page.

I knew that look. He was on a break from a rotten day. Still, I only needed him to acknowledge that this was indeed my tire that had already been paid for.

“Okay,” I pleaded, “I’ll just take my tire and…”

I said I’d be with you in a minute!he screamed, slamming his paper on the counter.

I didn’t wait a second. I stormed into the manager’s office and told him to hang up the phone. Instead of apologizing for his employee’s behavior, he wanted me to cut the rude serviceman some slack because he’d had a rough day. I took my tire, but found another service station to meet my future auto repair needs. I also told the story to everyone I crossed paths with that day.

Someday, when you least expect it, one of your employees will undoubtedly have a bad day and lose it with a customer — and someone will have the clean up the mess. How a manager responds to customers when they feel slighted can make the difference between keeping a loyal customer and losing their business — forever. But that’s not the biggest problem. Worse still is the damage such an episode can have on your business’s reputation. A satisfied customer might tell one or two people, but an upset customer could complain to a dozen.

Here are three tips I’ve learned from both sides of the coin about how to quell customer service complaints:

Acknowledge The Wrong (and Drop the Excuse)

If the auto store service manager had only replied, “I apologize for my employee’s attitude. I’ll speak to him about it. How can I help you?”, I would have calmed down and remembered my previous good experiences.

Even if the offense seems trivial in everyone except the offended customer’s eyes, do not dismiss it. We’ve all stood in that awkward fast-food line and heard someone complain about the amount of ketchup on their hamburger, and the resulting wrath when the poor kid behind the counter replies, “That’s how much we put on all of them.” Customers just want to hear that you’re sorry and will take care of the problem. Period.

Free Giveaways Solve A Lot of Problems

When a restaurant manager checks in near the end a meal, I’ll be honest when I’ve received poor service. I’m less likely to return if his response is, “I’m sorry to hear that. How was the entrée?” What gets me to return is a response like, “I apologize. Let me cover the cost of your dessert.”

If “I’m sorry” fails to calm the waters, offer a freebie. Avoid something as trite as a free logoed coffee mug or koozie, but the giveaway doesn’t need to be a new car, either. Discounts or credit towards the next invoice work just as well.

Gather All the Facts Before You React

I once had a customer call my manager and make a complaint that was completely fabricated. My manager chewed me out pretty good. Later, when I was able to defend myself and prove that I couldn’t have done what I was accused of doing, my manager apologized and learned that this particular customer was working the system for discounts and credits. Had there been no proof of my innocence, I would have suffered disciplinary action (not to mention a morale hit).

Discipline may be in order, but managers first need to hear both sides. Poor employee morale affects everything they do. Act without collecting the facts and you could compound the situation by turning a loyal employee into someone who merely works for a paycheck.

Make Things Right — by Customers and Techs

There are three important tips to remember when dealing with customer service complaints.

  1. A dissatisfied customer can damage your business.
  2. Acknowledging any perceived shortfall diffuses the tension and gives you leverage to make amends.
  3. Anger clouds your judgment and will likely make a bad situation worse.

Work with your employees to resolve any issue, and use the situation as a teaching opportunity. It will help them deal with problems better the next time, and you will understand employees better in the end. Stress will either fracture your business, or make it stronger. How you handle these types of situations make all the difference in the world.