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This article first appeared in the PB March 2006 issue of Pro Builder.

Customer service is the cornerstone upon which successful businesses are built — including those in the home building industry. Exemplary service, however, isn't always enough to ward off the bane of many businesses, commonly known as customers from hell.

Encountering one of these overly demanding and often belligerent customers does more than ruin your day — it threatens your business.

Even though it might not seem detrimental to your business to have one or two angry customers, you can see how quickly the damage to your reputation and business can build up.

The things that often anger customers are no fault of your own. When products don't perform up to expectations or you're delivery schedule gets behind because of poor weather, there's little you can do to change the situation. Nevertheless, the home builder is the one who must work hard to calm the customer and patch the injured relationship.

"Looking at it from the customers' standpoint, when you fail to meet customer expectations and they're left disappointed, psychologically and emotionally you're looking at betrayal," says Chip Bell, co-author of Knock Your Socks Off Service Recovery.

According to Bell, customers come to you and buy with certain expectations in mind. When those expectations aren't met, the customer feels betrayed. "This makes the encounter, by definition, emotional — a betrayal of the heart," he says. To regain the customer's confidence, you need to communicate in a way that renews his or her faith in the relationship. Such communication usually begins with an genuine apology.

Saying 'I'm Sorry'

A sincere apology is one of the easiest ways to calm an irate customer. Many home builders are reluctant to apologize for fear that they will be admitting to some liability or expressing weakness to the buyer that makes things worse. But saying "I'm sorry that happened to you" or better yet "I take responsibility for what happened and will make things right" is a very powerful statement to the buyer. The key is whether you can express genuine caring and re-establish trust.

That said, there is an art to apologizing successfully. When an angry customer confronts your frontline people, he or she is looking for an authentic demonstration of humility or humbleness. That's where a sincere apology is invaluable.

Unfortunately, few businesses take the process of apologizing seriously — even though it's the easiest way to deal with irate customers and gain advantage over the competition.

No one relishes the opportunity to come face to face with an angry homebuyer. However, you need to set aside your own anxieties and consider the value this homebuyer has to you, your company and your reputation.

Customers from hell rarely go away by themselves. So it is up to you and your team to do the job yourself — without calling in an exorcist. Here's how:

  • Acknowledge their anger. Nothing enrages a customer more than feeling ignored or trivialized. The faster you genuinely acknowledge his or her anger, the easier the situation will be to resolve.
  • Listen carefully. While hearing complaints, take notes to show you care and are taking the matter seriously. Don't try to rush customers; instead, give them time to vent and say everything they want to. Don't interrupt. Customers will often cool off, realize that he blew things out of proportion, and accept whatever solution you propose.
  • Keep your cool. Angry people often utter things they don't really mean. Don't take them personally. Always respond in a calm manner, and stay focused on the issue at hand.
  • Probe. Ask questions to make sure you understand the real problem and source of the anger. Through careful questioning, you will be better prepared to offer meaningful solutions.
  • Be empathetic. Along with a humble apology, you must be able to empathize with your customers. To be empathetic means that you can identify with your customer's plight. It doesn't mean you can feel his or her pain, it simply means you can appreciate the inconvenience, trouble, stress, etc. that the problem has caused this person. An angry or upset customer wants to know two things — that you care about him or her personally and that you're going to do something to remedy the situation.
  • Seek their solutions. Assuming the homebuyer is calmed down by now, ask him what it is exactly he'd like you to do. If the person is reasonable, the solution offered might cost you less than what you would have proposed, and the client walks away feeling like he got everything he asked for. If the demand is unacceptable, ask the homebuyer to explain his rationale. If there's a clear misunderstanding about a product or service, the benefit of the doubt should always go to the homebuyer. If you've tried to be receptive and the client is still irate, explain that you'd like some time to work on a solution, and schedule another meeting. By then the customer should be calmed down.
  • Take action. Propose a specific and quick solution that both parties can agree on, and put it in writing. While you're at it, agree on a specific timeframe for accomplishing what you say you'll do. Then do it. During this period, keep the customer informed of what you are doing and the progress being made. If you run into a snag and need to alter your agreement, be open and honest about it and consult with the homebuyer right away.
  • Service recovery. A customer who feels betrayed will be looking for some gesture of atonement or compensation. This is called service recovery. To be effective, service recovery should be specific to the situation and personal so it doesn't appear like you're doing something just to get rid of an angry customer.
  • Follow up. Check in to make sure things are going well. This is a good time to let them know that they were instrumental in bringing about changes that will help other customers. If that's not true, you might say, "We still haven't solved the problem that caused your situation, but we're working on it." That shows that you're still sincerely concerned about what happened to them.

Customers who have their complaints successfully resolved often become more loyal customers and at the very least stay above becoming a hostile customer. From their perspective, they've seen you screw up and they've seen how you sincerely care about them and want to resolve the situation.

Once you've resolved the situation satisfactorily, you'll have earned another opportunity to serve them in the future — and of those they'll tell how well you handled it. After all, in most cases these clients aren't customers from hell — they've just been through a hellacious experience we created.

Author Information
Paul Cardis is CEO of NRS Corporation, a leading research and consulting firm specializing in customer satisfaction for the home building industry. He can be reached at