6 Verbal Aikido Tactics Everyone Who Handles Difficult Customers Should be Using

Aikido woman

No matter what your product or service is or what business you’re in, your employees will have to deal with difficult customers.

I know that’s an easy question, but here’s the problem:

Very few people in customer service actually get the training they need to get an angry customer to back down, regain control and gracefully respond to the customer who demands to speak to a supervisor.

So that’s why I’m sharing these tactics… to show you a fast and easy new way your employees can create calm and regain control with difficult customers.

My Story

I had just joined the company as the new Call Center Manager a few months ago. I was still learning the ropes when I started noticing big changes in the numbers.

Queue times were longer than was acceptable, average talk time was up, file closing time kept getting longer and longer – now taking an average of 22 days instead of the target of 5 days. Not only that, but my agents were overwhelmed. Cassandra, the supervisor who worked with me, spent much of her day returning calls to customers who wanted to speak to a supervisor.

Interestingly, call volume was not up. Email activity was exactly where it had been for months. The call center was fully staffed and there was nothing significant going on with our products or promotions.

So, why the longer talk times, hold queues and case handling time? Why did so many customers escalate to Cassandra, our only supervisor?

One Saturday evening at home, I reviewed a small sample of calls between our agents and customers. After reviewing a couple dozen calls, I called Cassandra. I knew she’d be home on a Saturday evening just like me. When she answered, I got straight to the point with my findings…

“The problem is our agents are spending a lot of their time on calls with difficult customers. They get stuck; don’t know how to wrap up the conversation. They don’t know how de-escalate – they let the caller ramble on and things quickly spiral out of control. Customers get frustrated and feel the only way to get help is to speak to a supervisor.”

Our spike in average call handling time and longer queues for holding customers happened because our agents were stuck in conversations with dis satisfied or difficult customers. Our agents didn’t know how to move the call forward. They didn’t know how to get the angry customer to back down. They didn’t know how to get the rambler or whiner to cut to the chase.

The wasted time our agents spent stuck in conversations with irate customers meant other customers had to hold a long time. Longer wait times made holding customers frustrated and, in turn, more difficult to deal with. It was an endless cycle for us.

Why hasn’t the problem been solved?

I noticed in my call review that our agents had really good product knowledge and they handled routine situations very well. They knew their stuff. Cleary, the training Cassandra had done prepared our employees well for routine situations.

Female customer service representative using headset and laughing

I asked Cassandra what training our employees had had on how to handle difficult customers. I did know that no training had been done in the 5 months I’d been on the job. Cassandra told me, “We don’t specifically train on difficult customers, but we do cover scenarios of the most commonly occurring problems.”untitled-001What if I told you that most of the time, the way employees handle the problem actually is a bigger problem than the problem itself? I may have been wet behind the ears as a call center manager, but I was fresh out of graduate school and I knew how to research.

Studies show that less than 10% of companies have trained customer service employees on how to handle difficult customers. Clearly, our customer service representatives didn’t have proper training on how to handle angry, demanding and unreasonable customers. That’s why calls were so often escalated to Cassandra.

shocked customer service representative

Everybody thinks to train agents on the company’s products and to give them basic phone skills. But very few people in customer service actually get the training they need to get an angry customer to back down, politely control conversations with ramblers and skillfully handle the customer who demands to speak with a supervisor. Everybody, including us.

Imagine your newest and most timid agent’s next call is from an irate customer. The customer is ranting so loudly that the person across from this employee can hear his voice.

Smiling receptionist

But your employee is calm and confident. She’s saying things like,

“Umm…hmm,” “I see….” and “I realize this whole thing has been frustrating for you.”

She’s leaning in toward her computer and listening to the customer. After listening to the customer for several seconds, she says, “We want to fix this just as much as you do.” And then….you hear her typing away while she nods – and within 3 minutes, the customer hangs up happy.

Keep imagining with me for just another minute. Lauren just got a live one. Right out of the gate he’s asked to talk to a supervisor. Here’s how Lauren responds.

Women with headsets working at a call center

“I can certainly let you speak to my supervisor, but you know what Brendan? That’s why I’m here. Why don’t you give me a chance to help you first? If I’m not able to fix this, absolutely, I’ll get you to my supervisor.”

You brace yourself for the transfer to your phone that you know is about to happen… but, the call isn’t transferred. Lauren has convinced Brendan to let her help him!

No, you weren’t imagining perfect agents in the Zappos Call Center. No, these people were 2 of my employees. But they could just as easily be your employees after skill training on how to calm down angry and agitated customers.

Before I started this job as a call center manager, my husband and I started studying Aikido. Specifically, we studied how to use the martial art Aikido verbally – to resolve conflicts, create calm and defuse anger.

I took my work home regularly in those days and my husband knew that the escalated calls, long queues and file turn around time was literally keeping me up at night.

After watching a Steven Segal movie with my husband on a Friday night, Under Siege, where Segal practices Aikido, my husband suggested that I put together a training workshop where I would teach my employees how to handle difficult customers using the martial art Aikido.

My husband, Leon, said he could see 3 ways Aikido could help my representatives.

  1. They could learn the Aikido principle of assertiveness, so they could say what they meant to stubborn customers, mean what they say and not be mean when they say it.
  2. He said they could learn that force never meets force so that they would stop going tit for tat with customers. Some of my employees would escalate their voice when talking to a yelling customer and I observed many agents getting defensive or counter-attacking.
  3. And he thought my employees really needed to learn how to strategically create calm so that they could get the screaming customer to stop talking and listen to them.

I thought that was a brilliant idea! My husband is brilliant ya’ll!

So, I spent the next 7 weeks learning everything I could about verbal Aikido and designing a training course for my team. In my research I discovered that teachers in a school district in California learned Aikido so they could more effectively defuse conflicts with students — and parents. I knew my husband and I were on to something with this Aikido thing!

I read books and tons of articles on verbal Aikido. I met with Aikido masters and I watched videos and movies that featured Aikido.

Aikido

I began to practice Aikido principles in my own life, both personally and professionally. My favorite Aikido principle is Non-resistance. This principle is basically the mindset of “It is what it is.” It’s about not having any negative feelings about the negative situation you’re in. You’re there. Deal with it.

After 7 weeks of study and workshop design, I was ready for the big training. All of our agents and Cassandra attended the 2-hour training that I called:

Verbal Aikido: An assertive approach to taking control with demanding, irate and unreasonable customers

In this 2-minute video, I discuss Verbal Aikido

Aikido is a unique martial art where force never meets force. I have found that using Aikido, customer service reps are able to assertively smooth over agitated customers, control conversations with long-winded or angry callers and feel more at ease and confident when talking to irate customers.

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Here are 6 of the Aikido tactics I taught my employees that day in our special Verbal Aikido training:

One. An Aikidoist strategically calms down the attack

This is done by both the use of relaxed body posture and open hands. Verbal attacks from irate customers need the same calming strategy. In Aikido, the master will step aside rather than confront the attack. This takes the power and speed out of the attacker and allows the master to stay centered and calm.

How this works with a difficult customer

When your rep responds to an angry customer with Clearly, we’ve upset you and getting to the bottom of this is just as important to me as it is to you.” anger begins to dissipate. She’s addressed the anger directly and non defensively and she hasn’t been pulled into the drama of the attack.

Two. Aikido never meets force with force

In fact, there are no direct attacks and very little striking or kicking in Aikido. This is one of the things that makes Aikido so different from other martial arts.

How this works with a difficult customer

When dealing with angry customers it is natural to respond to an attack with an attack. If the customer yells, your rep may escalate his voice. When the attack gets personal, he may become defensive, counterattack or maybe he’s less willing to work with the customer. While he may feel justified in launching an attack because he’s been attacked, he must realize that a defensive (forceful) response only escalates the original problem.

Learning from Aikido masters, employees learn to not attack back defensively. Instead, they respond carefully and strategically.

I want to share with you some great examples of not meeting force with force.I asked participants in one of my Verbal Aikido workshops to share the best responses they had successfully used in response to a customer who was yelling or cursing. I instructed the small groups to make sure their responses were not forceful.

This 1-minute video reveals the top 7 responses from this bright group of customer service professionals. 

Three. Aikido emphasizes quick, decisive movements that are designed to use the attacker’s force against him

This is done through evasive movements, body shifting, and leverage. I discuss principle number 3 in this video.

How this works with a difficult customer

Taking this to a verbal level, your employee would take a customer’s intensity and sense of urgency and use that to their advantage with a reply like: No question, we’ve messed up. Getting to the bottom of this is just as important to me as it is to you.” Instead of letting the customer’s intimidation tactics negatively impact them, your employee turns the energy back at the customer by pacing his actions.

Four. Aikidoists blend with their opponent’s energy

In Aikido, this looks as if you move toward your opponent and then change places with them.

Here’s how this works with a difficult customer

In a verbal attack, blending with your customer is finding common ground with the customer. Your representative can blend with an angry customer by listening with a sincere intent to understand their frustration and needs and then responding with empathy. I caution employees against listening to the customer with the intent to reply, cut off or tell them what they can’t do. The point is to listen with the real intent to understand their customer’s perspective.

The knowledge employees gain from listening to their customer becomes their force and positions your employee to redirect the energy in a productive direction. Once they’ve blended with the customer, that is, once they truly understand the customer’s situation, the attack can be neutralized and redirected.

Five. Aikido students learn to turn with their opponent’s force and let that force go past them.

Here’s how this works with a difficult customer

When employees respond to angry customers in this way, they’re able to keep their cool when customers get hot. They don’t get caught up in anger or offense. Instead, they allow the customer to express his feelings and they don’t take comments personally and they don’t allow their feelings (anger, rejection, offense) to control their responses.

Six. An Aikido Master never seeks to kill his opposition

Here’s how this works with a difficult customer

When we transfer this principle to unreasonable customers, we realize that our goal is to never hang up on a customer, blow a customer off, or “fire” a difficult customer. Our goal is to find more diplomatic ways to communicate and reach win win resolutions.

And these 6 tactics are just a small part of what my agents got in my handling difficult customers training. Here’s more of what they got:

  • Why you need to be asking your customers 3 closed-ended questions, back to back, because this instantly puts you in control of any conversation with a rambler, storyteller, angry person or a person who keeps interrupting you
  • Why you absolutely must acknowledge a customer’s anger – and why, because if you don’t, that actually makes them more talkative and harder to deal with
  • A remarkable response to the customer who demands to speak to a supervisor – I learned this tactic from a supervisor that worked for me; a supervisor who never, in the 5 years we worked together, had a call get past her

After the training Cassandra and I closely watched talk time, hold times, and case lifecycle.

Here’s what we found 27 days after our training:

Operator woman talking on headset at work

  • Average call handling time dropped by almost 2 minutes (104 seconds) – We know this because our agents were able to get customers to cut to the chase and they remained in control of the call
  • Escalations took a nosedive. Cassandra didn’t actually have hard numbers for escalations, but she was much freer because she wasn’t spending as much time talking to customers who escalated
  • Hold times were reduced by 30% because call talk time was shorter and agents spent less time trying to reach Cassandra for escalated calls

After my success in my small call center, I started doing research to see if others had ever received such profound results just from equipping employees to more effectively deal with difficult customers.

I discovered small computer repair and service shop. The owner, I’ll call him Mike, noticed that his sales team seemed to overwhelmed on the sales floor, but that conversion rates were staying level – and revenue was dropping. Not only that, but he also found that returns and claims were on the rise.

Concerned about the jump in claims and returns, began closely watching the activity of his sales employees. What he found was startling.

  • Sales staff was spending at least 50% of their time working with dissatisfied customers, handling returns, and trying to make the customer happy.
  • The same customers were returning with claims on a repeated basis.
  • Many of the dissatisfied customers had spent less than $200 in store, while the average sale was $1,000.
  • New customers were returning their purchases because they had bought products that didn’t match their needs.

What Mike realized is his people were spending half of their time trying to make difficult customers happy. The time they spent trying to smooth over agitated customers was time they could not spend with their best and most loyal customers. Their best customers, not getting the service experience they needed, ended up over-buying or under-buying and that resulted in more returns and dis-satisfaction.

Wow, this sounded so familiar. It’s basically what I saw in my own call center.

Mike brought a trainer in to teach his sales people how to handle difficult customers, giving them scripts and techniques. After the training here’s what Mike saw:

Mike’s Results
Before After
Revenues $20,000 / week $26,000 (30% increase) / week
Returns + Claims $3,000 / week $2,550 (15% decrease) / week
Conversion Rate 25% 28.75% (15% increase)

Do you see the pattern here? Difficult customers are costing companies money due to the extraordinary amount of time it takes to deal with them, and it puts your best customers at risk for dis satisfaction because your employees aren’t available to give your best customers your best service.

In our case, our “best” customers had to hold far too long because my people were tied up with our toughest customers.

I was on to something and I knew it. There was a definite link between equipping customer service employees with skills to defuse anger and customer satisfaction, faster issue handling time and overall improved metrics.

My first Verbal Aikido workshop was in 1999. I’m still conducting these workshops, with the same success. I’ve recently delivered my Verbal Aikido workshop to Nationwide Insurance, Ally Bank and Johnson & Johnson.

Workshop attendees have said, most intriguing and informative seminar I have been to in my life! and “Each one of us walked away with something new, and all of us feel we could have sat and listened to her for days!

Now it’s easy for your employees to get the exact skills they need to handle difficult customers.

I’ve neatly packaged my Verbal Aikido strategies in a new online video training that will help your employees create calm with angry customers.

Your employees can participate in this training at their desktops, in a conference room with their fellow co-workers, or even as part of your new hire training. All they’ll need to watch the video is Internet.

Believe me, this course goes way above and beyond your basic how to handle difficult customers training. Here’s just a sample of what you’ll find inside:

  • Learn why ignoring a customer’s anger is the wrong thing to do, so you don’t make the common mistake of tip-toing around anger when anger just needs to be addressed head-on
  • Discover why the “issue isn’t really the issue” when dealing with unhappy customers, so you can immediately focus on what matters most to your customers
  • The 3-steps politicians and CEOs use to de-escalate a crisis situation, so you can use these same 3 steps to de-escalate with unreasonable customers
  • Psychology 101: Get a crash course on the psychology of customer anger, so you can use psychology on your customers to stop stubborn customers cold
  • Find out how to strategically create calm with agitated customers, so you can handle problem customers like a diplomat

According to Newsweek magazine, the stress level of customer service professionals is comparable to that of air-traffic controllers and police officers.  The Newsweek article states that the role of customer service now ranks as one of the 10 most stressful jobs in the U.S.

In this training I reveal that extremely difficult customers are determined to force corporations—via the customer service professional—to give in to the consumer demands—reasonable or not.  This means the customer service professional must have an assertive response strategy.

Key Take-Aways In My Verbal Aikido Training

  • Employees learn to address anger head-on – so they immediately establish themselves as assertive and in control.
  • The principle of acknowledgment – because when an angry customer feels truly acknowledged, they are less talkative and a bit easier to deal with.
  • Assertiveness – so that employees learn to say what they mean, mean what they say and not be mean when they say it.
  • The “3 closed-ended questions” technique – so your employees can instantly control any conversation with a rambler, storyteller or angry customer who keeps interrupting them.
  • A remarkable response to the customer who demands to speak to a supervisor – so your employees can politely de-escalate situations with impatient customers.
  • The Aikido principle of Force Never Meets Force – so your employees are never guilty of being defensive or going on the counter attack with customers.
  • Your employees learn how to brilliantly pace an angry customer’s intensity or sense of urgency – so that they turn negative energy into positive forward-moving conversation.
  • How to blend with a difficult customer’s energy – so employees can make customers feel heard and understood, because when customers feel understood, they begin to calm down.

The outcome of this training is employees who are prepared to create calm, find resolutions that balance the interests of the customer and the company, reduce escalations, and create a positive conversation with challenging customers.

And I’ve arranged for you, my blog readers and customers, to get the How to Handle Difficult Customers Using Verbal Aikido Video Training at a very special introductory price. Just start the course by November 30th and you’ll receive a $50 discount, with my compliments. Just use code by November 30th.

Easily Access the Training Online and Have Access to the Course for 1 Year

This video training is perfect for:

  • Call Center Representatives who handle complaints on a regular basis
  • Public sector employees who struggle with the demanding public (Department of Insurance, Motor Vehicle, etc.)
  • Employees struggling with talking to difficult customers
  • Companies needing help with call control
  • New hire training

Your Verbal Aikido Course is Neatly Packaged in 2 Modules (includes handouts)

Module 1: How to Handle Difficult Customers Using Verbal Aikido, Conversational Aikido principles – So your employees are confident, assertive and in control when dealing with angry and agitated customers 

Module 2: How to De-escalate, So your employees can gracefully respond to the customer who demands to speak to a supervisor and they can assertively keep customers from escalating in aggression or anger

Bonus Module: Call Control – So your employees can politely control calls with storytellers, ramblers and whiners

Quite simply, this is the most complete, cost-effective, step-by-step approach you can find for handling difficult customers – without even having to bring in an expert trainer!

“Myra’s positive attitude really makes me feel that one person can completely change another’s state of being.”

Pablo Martinez , Consumer Affairs Specialist, Kellogg

$79

It’s easy to get started.

When you order this training right now, imagine the benefits you’re about to receive. Employees who struggle with difficult customers will become more assertive, take control of conversations and get angry customers to back down.

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