I was in a body shop, back in the old days when you didn’t have to stay 6 to 10 feet away from people or wear masks or keep using the word “surreal.”

It was a Monday morning, so everyone was nursing their coffee until an obviously annoyed man crashed into our world. The minute he entered, he was ready for a fight---first the receptionist, then an estimator, followed by the manager, culminating in a heated conversation with the shop’s owner.

He was so loud I imagine they could hear him down the street. His car was supposed to be ready, but it wasn’t, and even though they extended his car rental, he still wanted a pound of flesh.

I bit my tongue and was happy that he wasn’t my problem. He finally left the shop and the rest of us sighed and took a deep breath.

You will always get unhappy customers, especially during these unprecedented times. When people are worrying about paying their bills and keeping their families safe, a car accident is just another pebble in their shoes. And some will deal with it better than others.

If you had a retail job in high school, which most of us did, one of the first things you learned is the customer is always right.

In some cases, it’s true. But, every once in a while, you may encounter a customer who is both irate and wrong. Some people think they can act like bullies because they’re on that side of the counter---I call them “vendor bashers.”

Collision repair is one of the only industries where the customer is either embarrassed, because they caused the accident, or upset because they are the victim of the accident. This means the stress and anxiety are already built-in, so deflating a potential situation is even tougher than in many businesses.

Nancy Friedman, "The Telephone Doctor," a highly-respected and popular customer service keynote speaker, has been hired by more than 30,000 organizations to improve their Customer Satisfaction Scores (CSI) and provide a better customer experience overall.

Friedman says there are two options when a snarky customer comes on your radar. You can either ignore them or inquire gently to find a solution.

In most cases, if the customer sees you’re not affected by their boorish behavior, they will calm down, she said. It’s like a bear. Don’t run because it will chase you, so lie down in a fetal position and stay still.

If you did that with a problem customer, it would be an attention-getter, but you could end up either on YouTube or in a mental health facility as a result. And I’d love to see that Yelp review!

“If we value the customer because they are a long-term client, jump into Plan B immediately,” Friedman said. “Take responsibility, because in these untested times, people have issues that have nothing to do with you or your car.

"We have no idea what each person is going through and probably never will. This may be the best way of handling the situation. Look at it this way---not everyone is nice, polite and caring, but you can be, and that’s what’s important.”

Listening is an art form and words are tools, so tap into your Jedi Knight and be a good listener. Never attempt to argue with the customer and at all costs, do not interrupt them. If you verbally "nod" during the interaction, the customer will feel better understood, according to Freidman.

Most unhappy customers just want someone to listen, and in many cases their stance is based on false information or emotions, Friedman said.

“My father used to say if you talk you teach, but when you listen you learn. Learn as much as you can about your irate customer, while always looking for viable solutions and a fair compromise.”

Try to think like the customer and show empathy.

I came out of a shop one time and my car was hooked up to a tow truck. I messed up and parked in a red zone and begged the meter maid to please let me go (and save $400.)

It didn’t work until I said, “Why can’t you be a human being for just a second?” Her attitude was defused instantly, and without saying another word, she signaled to the tow truck driver and I was off the hook literally.

She frowned at me and said, “Pay it forward.” And I did.

I offered her a chance to show empathy and I’ll never forget it.

Most importantly, don’t let a confrontation escalate.

John Stuef is an automotive collision industry consultant, former regional manager with two large MSOs and a former shop owner, as well as the author of "From Doing to Lending (Your Guide for Inspiring People on the Front Lines)," written with Amy Bradshaw, Ph.D.

He discusses how to calmly take everything down a notch.

“If the customer raises the volume, I tell my service advisors to start slowing down and go with a lower tone,” Stuef said. “I train my people how to be emotional thermostats so that they can gauge the temperature in the room and act accordingly. If a customer can see that you’re in a relaxed mood, the customer will settle down and actually unwind themselves.”

Certain phrases and specific language can also play a major role in dissipating a confrontation with a disgruntled customer, he said.

“If we have bad news to give a customer, we always preface it with ‘I’m sure you understand’ and 95% of the time they respond favorably. People have no way to disagree to that and it changes the mood almost every time,” Stuef said.

It’s important to know when to give in because many people are more into winning than being right. Have you ever been stuck with an argument even though you realized halfway through you’re wrong?

If dealing with a mad customer is going to require too many hours with no end game in sight while risking negative referrals, look for compromise. If people feel like they’re getting something for their trouble, they will likely back off without it interfering with their victory lap.

Remember, it’s just business. If you start taking it personally, you’re failing. Stay on point and never get personal, even if the customer does not adhere to your protocol.

Remember the customer does not know you and is just venting frustration at you as a representative of your shop. Gently guide the conversation back to the issues at hand and how you intend to resolve it, and try to ignore personal comments, although it can be difficult.

If you can use any of the tips I’ve presented here, you should be able to turn a sour situation into a positive experience and defuse an angry customer even during these stressful and uncertain times.

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