How to manage difficult customer conversations this holiday season: 3 examples + tips

Person talks on phone in snowy outdoor environment

When I’m going through a stressful period in my life, I try to remind myself to take it one day at a time. By choosing not to think too hard about the future, I can focus on what’s in front of me—what needs to happen right now. Soon, I get something done, then another thing. Before long, my list of worries begins to shrink. What once felt overwhelming starts to feel doable.

I’m thinking “take it one day at a time” might be particularly good advice this holiday season. People and businesses are facing shortages, delays, and disruptions of all kinds. Shipments are stuck in transit. Prices are inflated and rising higher. Companies of all sizes are struggling to meet the demands of their customers and clients. And that’s on top of the usual holiday anxieties.

It’s all set against the backdrop of a pandemic that’s not quite over, creating a general climate of weariness and frustration.

Not exactly the easiest climate for customer service.

That said, it’s still possible to help—and even delight—the people you serve this holiday season. The key is to manage their expectations.

In our last article, we laid out a few customer communication strategies for doing exactly that. In this installment, let’s go further and explore the psychology of distressed customers and clients, and how to respond thoughtfully and helpfully when people contact your business with heightened emotions. We’ll also explore some practical ways you can carve out quality time for yourself during the holiday season.

How the holidays influence customer psychology

For many businesses, the holidays are—how should I put this?—intense.

Ever watched footage of a big-box store opening on Black Friday? (I’ll be honest: I thought about linking a YouTube video here, but frankly, I didn’t feel comfortable sharing anything I found. The crowding and pushing make me wince. I feel awful for the unprepared shoppers losing their footing in the swarm, and for the employees trying to control the chaos.)

It’s not just the retail industry that endures extraordinary pressure and stress around this time of year. Accidents, home emergencies, family disputes, and crises of various kinds increase during the holiday season. As a result, many service businesses receive more calls than usual, with callers frequently bringing urgent needs and experiencing difficult emotions.

If you run, say, a legal practice or a plumbing business, these sorts of conversations might not seem unusual. But the holidays have a way of ramping up already-sensitive exchanges with callers. Consider a few reasons why a caller might be especially distressed right now, as well as what you can do to respond as supportively as possible:

1. The caller might be juggling multiple priorities on a tight deadline.

Emergencies such as a burst pipe or a pet who needs sudden medical attention are stressful as it is. When those emergencies occur right before travel or in the middle of holiday plans, extreme emotions are a natural human response. Callers might be distraught, agitated, distracted, impatient, or experiencing any number or combination of feelings.

What you can do: Remain calm. While it’s important to empathize with your caller, try not to let yourself become engrossed in their situation. Instead, focus on what you can do to make their life easier. If you can’t offer immediate help, you can always listen, and you may be able to provide them with useful information.

2. The caller might be uninformed or running behind.

Despite our best judgment, many of us wait until the week before the holidays to get our shopping and errands done. In fact, surveys indicate that over half of all Americans who celebrate Christmas wait until the day before to buy presents.

Regardless of whether your business sells anything that could be considered a gift, a caller may have a last-minute mindset: they’re hoping what they need somehow comes together in time. On top of that, perhaps they’re not up to date on the global supply chain and labor issues creating delays and shortages.

What you can do: The right response here can be a little tricky. Let’s break it down into four steps:

  1. Meet them where they are. Put yourself in the caller’s position and consider what their expectations may be, how they arrived at those expectations, and how they’re feeling at the moment.
  2. Explain your situation transparently and politely. Be honest with them about what you can and cannot do for them, and why.
  3. Offer them another option, if possible. Maybe you can’t meet their exact demand right now, but they’d be willing to wait a little longer or accept a substitute. If you can’t deliver what the caller is looking for, that’s okay—maybe you know of another business that can.
  4. Don’t overpromise. Some demands can’t be met. While “no” can be hard to say—and might be disappointing for a caller to hear—it’s better for both of you in the long run than a misleading “yes.”

3. The caller may need to vent.

For all the reasons above—and about 100,001 more—a caller may not feel they have enough control over their life at the moment. That can lead to significant frustration, which the caller may decide to take out on you or a member of your team.

What you can do: Let them vent. Think of the conversation as an outlet for them, and take quiet pride in your ability to provide it. In a way, you’re offering a helpful service—even if the person on the other end of the line doesn’t realize it. Keep your cool and stay positive, and eventually, the caller may regain their composure and apologize.

That said, be aware of your own feelings and boundaries. If you can’t help your caller and they’re subjecting you to more aggression than you feel comfortable with, it may be time to end the conversation.

Remember to take care of yourself and your team.

‘Tis the season of giving. And one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself and your business is the gift of self-care.

I know what you’re thinking: “This is the most stressful time of year and you’re telling me I should curl up by the fire with a cup of tea?”

Yes. Yes, I am. Taking care of yourself is not optional. You need to do it to sustain yourself and your business, especially right now.

Put down the phone. Turn off the computer. Go for a run, or play in the snow, or sit down with that movie/book/TV show/video game/puzzle you’ve been meaning to dig into. Take a break—take a whole vacation, if you can. You deserve it. And when you return to your business, you’ll return stronger, well-rested, and better able to help the people you serve.

Check out 10 easy and fun ways to practice self-care.

If you’re stretched thin, here’s another gift you can give your business, yourself, and the people you serve this holiday season: outsourced customer communication. Ruby’s highly trained, professional virtual receptionists are available right now to relieve the pressure of this challenging time for your business.

Instead of taking this holiday season a day at a time, you can take it off. We’ve got your phones and website chat covered.