Conflict management at events: Dealing with difficult customers
In the hectic event, trade fair and congress business, the pressure is on and can sometimes get emotional. How should event managers best deal with upset customers?
Whether justified or not, those of us who work in the service provision sector will have to deal with difficult or upset customers at one point or another. This is particularly true of the sometimes-stressful trade fair, congress and events world.
It could be an exhibitor whose internet connection doesn’t work, it could be a conference visitor that had to wait too long at the registration desk, it could be a visitor who would like a refund of his entry fee – everything can and has happened!
It often makes no difference whether the customer is rightly angry, nor if you as the event manager can do anything about it!
Sometimes there are very different reasons that lead to a customer having to let off some steam. Sigmund Freud is indeed right with his iceberg theory: only a fraction of feelings, motivations and decisions are made consciously, a large part has to do with the unconscious.
For those of you have been in the events business a little longer, you of course know the situation when a peeved customer is standing in front of you with a crimson red face, ready to explode. Newcomers to the event manager role are often overwhelmed by such challenges, take critique personally, or react emotionally, which of course only makes the situation worse.
In the fast-paced social media world, a furious customer can very quickly become a negative multiplier. Particularly when other customers experience their reaction, or when unsatisfied customers spread their discontent via social channels.
Which tips can we give particularly operationally younger colleagues on how to better deal with upset event customers?
First, stay calm
Of course, the first reflex if someone is attacked personally, is to want to justify oneself.
This behavior can however only lead to failure. The first rule is then definitely to stay calm, even when you would like to shout back.
Whatever you do, don’t take it personally.
That is of course the hardest thing to do. We tend to take things from our working lives to heart. Often, however, they are not meant like that, as the upset customer is unsatisfied with the congress, trade fair, service or something completely different, but not with you as a person.
Try to see 100% of your role as a service provider: Your customer has a problem and it’s your job to solve this problem. Thoughts like “the customer has made a mistake” or “this isn’t fair!” have no part to play here.
The first step of the solution is to listen to the customer properly. Try not to rush to conclusions or stifle the customer along the lines of “I know exactly what your problem is”. The customer definitely wants first to offload why he or she is angry.
Ask the customer to signpost his/her problems and concentrate on what he/she says. Ask if you are not certain you have understood correctly. Don’t let yourself get distracted, rather give the customer your undivided attention.
Show the customer understanding and apologise
After your customer has signaled his/her problem, first show understanding for his/her situation: “I understand that you are annoyed, I would be too”, “I’m sorry that you have made this experience”, “I understand that you are angry that your internet connection still isn’t working”.
By doing so, you signal to the customer that you are on his/her side, which will take a fair amount of wind out of his/her sails. Pay attention to your open, customer-directed body language – crossed arms won’t aid your picture of understanding towards the customer…
Find a solution or compromise
Now it is of course time to offer a solution. Ask the customer what should be done in his/her opinion to satisfy him/her, or offer a solution yourself.
Explain to the customer what exactly you are going to do to solve the problem and be binding: “I’ll tell our exhibitor service now personally and the technician, Mr. Smith, will be with you at your stand within the next half hour”.
Tell the customer your name too and give him/her your contact details if he/she speaks to you at an event; ideally give him/her your business card.
This can succeed in the customer getting to know you personally as an efficient service provider and you thereby shape his/her opinion about your event and services positively.
Calm down again
Such a stressful situation demands your full concentration. Even if you managed to stay calm, dealt with the customer professionally and found a solution, it was still a stressful experience for you.
If possible, take a bit of time for yourself to recuperate so that you are 100% ready for the next customer.
Evaluate if it is a flaw in the system or the processes
Each customer feedback is helpful if it uncovers deficits in your service or processes. Perhaps it might be the case that everything works from your perspective, however customers have an issue at one point or another that you didn’t expect at all.
This is ‘Customer Experience’ and this makes or breaks the long-term success of your event. Address such incidents at the debriefing session and think about how you can reshape your event planning in the future to better meet the needs of your customers.
Even though we don’t wish it on any of you, stressful situations in dealing with customers can’t be avoided. Don’t let yourself get irritated and see such situations as a chance to prove yourself as a professional service provider and further improve your customer service.