How To Deal With Abusive Customers
If you weren’t so abrasive and rude, I would’ve refunded your money – even though we are under *no* legal obligation to do so.
I am now marking your email address as spam and your communication will no longer get through. If you don’t want to use our service any more, please cancel your account.
I have taken this conversation completely out of context because context doesn’t matter in customer service (the bold bits are mine, too). The only thing that matters is you keeping your cool, and this can frequently require having the patience of Job and less ego than a blade of grass. The above conversation is not one I would consider a good example of conflict resolution on the part of the representative who sent it. That was Ryan Carson of Dropsend, incidentally, and you can read the context on his blog post about it. Ryan asked publicly how other folks would have answered. Here is my response, and the rationale.
The initial stimulus:
Refund me the 5 dollars ASAP
This would set me looking in my transaction records, where I would find that the customer has just done an instantaneously upgrade/downgrade for a subscription service and been charged a pro-rated amount to the end of the month. Here is my response.
Thank you for using Dropsend [the name of the application at issue]. I received your message asking for a refund of $5, and have instructed our credit card processor to refund you. Is there anything else I can help you with?
What did that cost me? $5, thirty seconds of research time, and counting to five before allowing someone’s lack of civility to ruffle me. The $5 I will get back from this customer next month, and even if I don’t its $5 and that is below my care threshold as a business owner (or as anything, really). The research time was a sunk cost the moment he said “refund” because I have to check that he is a customer to be physically able to process a payment. The five seconds is the expensive bit for most people, because that requires suppressing your ego, and that can be irksome. Regardless, this response a) totally resolves the problem for the customer and b) keeps them happy and ready to pay me next month. As an actual bonus if the customer is having some support related issue they might email me back and allow me to fix it, improving the quality of my service for the thousands of customers I have who are not in on this email exchange. If they don’t mail me back, thats OK too — I’m doing things that matter for the business and not swapping a series of hostile emails with someone which will gain me nothing.
Oh, sure, you can go searching for a rationale on why allowing yourself an ego (I’m using this in the non-pejorative sense of the word) is a good idea. “They’ll walk all over me”. “We have a policy against this.” “If I do it for him I’ll have to do it for everybody”. Hogwash, irrelevent, and don’t care. The overwhelming majority of your customers in the software business will never ask for a refund or contact support (I’m talking about packaged software or services here which are substantially identical for all customers). Suppose some fraction of your support requests walk over you — so what? Support requesters make up a tiny fraction of your turnover every month, and a tiny fraction times a tiny fraction equals a “cost of doing business”. Your blood pressure is more important than that .1% of customers who want to wheedle over $5.
Another reason to kill this exchange after the first email is that it prevents escalation. Escalation is what takes you from “My, didn’t this chap’s mother ever teach him manners?” to “FINE! I DIDN’T WANT YOUR MONEY ANYWAY!” Its easy to see it in hindsight but, in the heat of the moment, most people don’t recognize they are doing it. As a result, you want to practice what the IR/polisci buffs call a commitment strategy — basically, you decide beforehand that if someone has an issue you are going to be obsequious about it. Obsequious. What a lovely word — did you know that there are several ways to say it in Japanese and that not all of them are considered negative? I often wish English had a word for when you need to be a spineless craven lickspittle in a good way. Learn from the Japanese, they have the “I can put a polite reserved face on this for the sake of our continued relationship even though I’m absolutely fuming on the inside” down to an art form. (That face is called tatemae, the feeling on the inside is called honne. There, you learned your bit of linguistic trivia for the day.)
See, if you start escalating, you will allow yourself to be drawn into an argument with your customer. You can win an argument with your boss. You can win an argument with your wife. You can even win an argument with God. But you will never win an argument with your customer. You might get the last word in, and puff out your chest, and then find that they cancel their subscription and/or chargeback you. And in the pursuit of a lousy five stinking bucks you’ve just lost a $50 revenue stream over the next year, which is almost pure profit because you are selling a software service which requires no marginal work, you’ve risked getting bitten for $15 by Visa when they chargeback and having to waste an hour of your life repeating the argument to a series of bored Visa representatives who are all thinking “Why did I sign up to do this job? Everyone acts like children” (you’ll lose the chargeback, by the way), and worst of all you’re stressed.
You might think you would be stressed if you suppressed your ego. True, for the first two weeks or so. After that it just becomes a habit. You learn to mentally shut out the torrent of abuse in your ear and skip over the written invective, and when you get a word in edgewise say “OK, what can I do to help?” Trust me, I worked in a call center — if you learn how to do this, you can work in a call center for your entire life and not get tired. If you don’t, you will burn out in a matter of months. Just pretend you’re like that character from Firefly who, when faced with a stressful situation, repeats a mantra: “I am a leaf on the wind. Watch me soar.” And, well, ignore the fact that those were his last words.
Ah, the company has a policy against refunds. Here is the great thing about running your own business: you are the boss. If your company has a policy against refunds, you can break it at will. Call it an exception, call it a special accomodation, call it a goodwill expenditure, call it whatever the heck you want — the policy is a few bits on a server somewhere. If you refund this customer, who will fault you for it? Certainly not your boss — you are the boss! And, as long as you’re the boss, why don’t you rewrite your policy against refunds saying that you’ll gladly give out refunds. Its the key to getting your fantastic customer service to scale. This chap you’re giving the refund to might tell a friend or write a blog post… of course, he’ll probably tell no one. However, a nice prominent guarantee like “We’ll refund your last payment anytime, for any reason.” gets seen by every prospect who is worried “Hmm, what if I’m not happy?”
Even if you have some darn good reason to be a Scrooge in print in your policy, don’t get trapped into the “If I make an exception once I’ll have to make an exception for everyone”. Says who? Your boss? You are the boss. Boolean propositional logic? You’re a businessman, not a computer programmer. If the accomodation advances your business goals make it, end of discussion. Your customers are an incestuous bunch but they mostly don’t talk about how easy it is to screw you over (mostly: in some markets they might. I hope you’re not doing business in those markets). Instead, they typically talk in terms of ecstatic, happy, and furious. If they never have a problem, they’re happy. If the last time they had a problem, you bent over backwards, they won’t think “This guy is a pushover!” (even though you are! And good for you!) but they’ll think “Wow, the service here is amazing!” And if you have a two year long relationship with a customer, without any previous bad incident, and then you send them one teensy-tinesy email saying “I would have refunded your money, but decided to keep it. Nyaa nyaa.”, now they’re furious. And they will never ever again be anything but furious.customer service