Handling Irate Customers in the IoT Age

It’s happened to everyone who has ever been in customer service. An issue between customer and provider turns into a screaming match. You did all the right things—empathized, apologized, and tried to find a solution, and you still end up with someone screaming and cussing in your face. When I was a manager in the automotive service industry, I handled this in a very specific way: I refund or comp the service and politely ask the customer to leave my facility and not to return. “I won’t allow you to abuse my employees, and I don’t need you as a customer,” was my line. I still think that’s a reasonable response, but things have changed in the era of the connected customer that makes it much less viable.

The disconnect of being connected

The irate customer is no longer such an outlier. With the protection of physical distance, emotional separation, and level of anonymity the internet provides, people are much more willing to fly off the handle and tear into you, your company, your employees, products, your immediate family, the shirt you were wearing that day—there’s virtually no limit to what people might say. To top it all off, your response to this abusive madness will be out there for the entire world to see. And then people who aren’t even your customer will chime in on your response—it’s like a viral video gathering steam, only you are the person in the video taking a golf club to the crotch.

Breaking up is harder to do

In an IoT connected world, it’s more difficult just to turn your back on a customer and tell them to go away. The maker of an IoT connected garage door opener device did just that—and the backlash has been significant.

Garadget is an internet-connected garage door opener that lets you remotely lock or unlock your garage with an app, or see if it’s open. One of its customers was not happy with the way it functioned and took to the internet with a barrage of obscenity-laced complaints and reviews, allegedly before giving the company a chance to address the issues. In response, Garadget shut off the customer’s service.

The company even announced this in response to the customer’s less than tactful review on Amazon: “Martin, the abusive language here and in your negative Amazon review, submitted minutes after experiencing a technical difficulty, only demonstrates your poor impulse control. I’m happy to provide the technical support to the customers on my Saturday night but I’m not going to tolerate any tantrums. At this time your only option is to return Garadget to Amazon for a refund. Your unit ID 2f0036… will be denied server connection.” Pretty much the old “I don’t need people like you as a customer” technique, except a couple million people were watching. And responding.

A more metered response for the connected world

In the end, the company turned the service back on and provided a non-apology. But not only did the internet at large see this as responding to a tantrum with a tantrum, it had an instant chilling effect. “I don’t own your product, so I can say this without fear of retribution: What a terrible way to do business. I’ll leave an Amazon review, too, just because I can,” one Amazon poster wrote. “P.S. Please don’t change my locks while I’m at work.”

What happens when companies start shutting off connected services for “bad customers” all willy-nilly? Who can do it?  Can your smart home provider turn off all your lights? Shut down your smart oven? Change the code on your front door? Turn off your power? There are real consequences to shutting down service in response to (even irrational) complaints, and there is a precedent to be set. It’s just the wrong thing to do.

In the connected world where customers can and will say nearly anything to you in anger, customer service must have thicker skin. Short of responding to death threats, you just have to respond as quickly as humanly possible, stay cool, and do everything you reasonably can to accommodate the customer, and you’ll probably turn them around.

Knee-jerk reactions are always tempting when dealing with tough customers. Being clever or funny in response is also tempting and can pay dividends, but it’s risky. The best thing to do is kind of the same old thing—empathize, apologize, and provide a solution quickly. If nothing works, the world will see that you did everything in your power to fix the situation, and the person who was complaining is just being an unreasonable jerkface. No matter what, you win.

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