Despite your best customer service efforts, at some point your business will likely encounter an angry or difficult patron.

How you react to that customer will ultimately determine whether he or she continues to do business with you.

In most cases an angry customer isn't looking to terminate the relationship and with the right handling and care can become one of your most loyal advocates, experts say.

"When a customer is complaining, what they're really doing is giving you a gift," explains Randi Busse, president of Workforce Development Group, an Amityville-based customer service/retention coaching and training firm.

Instead of just walking away, they're giving you a chance to fix their problem and/or address their issue, she notes.

Offer thanks

So rather than getting defensive you should thank them, Busse says.

"I would say, 'Thank you for letting us know there was a problem,' " she says. "You need to acknowledge it."

Then listen to the complaint or issue without interruption.

"Let them talk as much as they want," advises Chuck Dennis, an angry-customer strategist and vice president of Knowledgence Associates, a marketing, sales and customer service consultancy in Cambridge, Mass. "Anger is like a fire. If you let it burn, it will ultimately burn itself out."

Oftentimes, all a customer wants is a sympathetic ear and someone to share his frustration with.

"Let them vent and have the floor," says Dennis, who provides more insight at angrycustomers.wordpress.com.

Never debate or argue, but rather offer empathy and try to gather as many facts as you can so you can offer a solution, he notes.

"Be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath," says Dave Anderson, author of "How to Deal with Difficult Customers" (Wiley, $22.95) and president of LearntoLead.com, a sales/leadership training organization in Agoura Hills, Calif.

Teach your employees the soft skills they need to calm, rather than provoke, an angry customer (i.e., guard their tone, focus on the solution, not the blame), Anderson says.

This type of skills training is important, notes Arthur Katz, president of Knockout Pest Control in Uniondale, who has used Busse for customer service training.

"People want to explain to you their problem and their pain," Katz says. "We teach our people to listen to their [customers'] pain."

Ask the right questions

Of course, if a customer's emotion is making it difficult to pinpoint the problem, then it often helps to ask some open-ended questions to get to the root of the issue, suggests Amy Sapodin, co-owner and doctor of audiology at Advanced Hearing Center in Albertson and Floral Park.

This usually works better than asking yes or no questions, says Sapodin, whose staff will repeat back what a patient says is the concern so the patient knows she's being heard and understood.

Oftentimes, it's just a matter of educating the staff on how to recognize a particular issue (for example, if the customer's hearing aid battery runs out).

Other times, a company may have to compensate a customer to rectify a situation.

In either case, you need to empower employees to make decisions that solve customer issues at the lowest possible level within an organization, says Anderson. That's because the more time it takes to resolve a problem, the less likely you are to retain the customer - and the number of others the unhappy customer tells about your company escalates exponentially, Anderson adds.

"If a company handles a complaint well, not only does the customer stay with the business, but they become more loyal to them because they did handle it and take ownership," Busse says.

Learning from complaints

When dealing with angry customers never:

    Argue with them

    Patronize them

    Be sarcastic

    Minimize their problem or situation

    Insinuate they're lying

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