How to Defuse a Complaining Customer

Everyone occasionally gets trapped in a bad mood for one reason or another, and their bad moods can lead to bad actions. Defusing people is all about giving them a dose of something that could alter their mood or their thinking.

A friend told me the story of a man on his airplane flight who was in a miserable, complaining mood. When the flight attendant served him his in-flight meal, the traveler quickly handed it back with a comment about how bad the sandwich was. Without skipping a beat, the flight attendant took the sandwich, shook her finger at it, and declared, “Bad sandwich! Bad sandwich!” I don’t remember my friend saying whether or not the man was defused of his bad mood, but I know it would have defused me.

In business, the best and easiest way to defuse a complaining, irate customer is not to make excuses or to place blame for the circumstances that made the customer upset. Even if there was an excuse, and even if you could place blame, angry customers rarely care about the reasons. The best thing to do is to let them vent and get it all out. Once they’ve done that, you need only say, “I’m so sorry you were inconvenienced. What wonderful thing could I do to make you happy?”

I once had one of those awful flying experiences where flight after flight was delayed, and none of the delays were weather related. What should have been a 3-hour flight turned into a 15-hour, multiple-city, exhausting nightmare, causing me to miss meetings in my intended city. At 3 AM, by the time I was finally within 30 minutes of landing at my destination airport, I suddenly smelled something wonderful: the flight attendants were baking chocolate chip cookies!

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As that sweet, comforting aroma filled the airline cabin, our small group of 20 passengers waited with anticipation for the flight attendants to make their way down the aisle, handing each of us a warm cookie. I instantly abandoned my plans for an enraged letter-writing campaign against the airline and was effortlessly defused of all my anger and exhaustion—all by one soft, freshly baked cookie