The Three A’s For Dealing With Angry Customers Who Want a New Sandwich

My first job (and the job I had for six years) was at a peppy Midwestern sandwich chain that prized itself on its customer service. Most likely I’m preaching to the choir, but customer service is so important because while people can forget a positive experience, they will engrave a comment about “that rude server” on their tombstone. While I may have complained about wearing an apron and perpetually burning myself on the ovens for six years, hindsight has shown me the benefit of the awesome customer service training I received at the time.

When dealing with upset customers, we used a system at the sandwich shop called the three A’s. As a manager at a public library, I still put the three A’s to use.

The three A’s (in chronological order) are:

Acknowledge – Apologize – Act

Acknowledge –

Customer 1: “There was supposed to be extra cheese on my sandwich!”

The first step is to understand the problem; the real problem. This is not always totally apparent. Listen calmly, and repeat back what the customer is telling you. Ask them to confirm your understanding as well. At this stage, you are gathering the facts and recognizing there is a problem. Practice active listening by giving this person your undivided attention, eye contact, and even a potentially disarming smile.

You Might Say: “So you’re telling me your sandwich was supposed to have extra cheese? Let me take a look in your bag. You know what, your extra cheese sandwich is actually marked with an X.”

By acknowledging and understanding the real problem, you can set the ground work for success. You also spot any oversights you or your customer may have missed. Without a careful understanding, you could actually start working on the wrong problem and frustrate the customer even further.

Apologize –

Customer 2: ” I think I ordered a roast beef, but I actually wanted a turkey.”

An apology goes a long way. In many cases, it’s you or your company’s fault, so apologize. It’s easier and often more accurate to apologize about failed technology, a procedure, or a miscommunication instead of something more personal, but don’t shy away from a personal apology when it is even partially your fault. People tend to know when someone is passing the buck.

In many cases though, it’s not your fault. How can you apologize for something you didn’t do? This happened a lot when people would drop glass bottles of soda at the sandwich shop on the floor, or order the wrong sandwich. In a case like this, I’ll say something like, “That sounds very frustrating,” or “I’m sure that is not what you wanted to happen today.” Regardless of who is to blame, you should be able to empathize (or act like you empathize) with this person’s dilemma.

You Say: “No one wants a sandwich they don’t like for lunch. Let’s get you a new one!”

You do not want to keep your customer in the Apologize step for too long. We want our customer to be happy and on their way. As soon as you can, start the next step. Occasionally, you may find someone does not actually want to resolve the issue, so you may need to cut them off by saying something like, “Yes, I understand that you are frustrated. The only thing I can do now is ______.” If they keep insisting on complaining, firmly state something like, “I’m sorry, as I mentioned I can only help you by _____ . Would you like me to do ______? If not, I’ll need to help someone else.”

This sends us to our last A.

Act –

Customer 3: “I just need this to be figured out as soon as possible. I have a flight to catch!”

In many cases, by the time you get to Act, you may have built a rapport with your customer through active listening and a sincere apology. Equally important now is doing everything in your power to correct the issue. If you can, show or tell your customer the steps you are trying to resolve the issue. Start with the quickest and most obvious fixes (e.g. looking around, turning a device on/off, etc.),  and proceed to the more specific and time consuming ones.

You say: “I don’t think your order is in the back, but I’m going to check and make sure. If it isn’t back there, we can run it again and have it complete in about seven minutes, or I can give you a refund now.”

By showing your work, you are demonstrating effort to your customer. Even if you cannot resolve the problem, you are showing a commitment to getting it right.

Finally, if you can, give your customer something  extra for their time if it’s your fault. Only fixing your customer’s problem usually puts that person at a net loss. After all, your customer has now been inconvenienced and has wasted several minutes resolving the problem. Throwing in a little bonus like a coupon, free cookie, or promo can turn an experience into a net positive. Plus, giving your customer a little bonus shows them how much you really care about their business!

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