27: Don’t be scared of angry customers

At some point in your product career, you’re going to piss someone off.  It will be unavoidable.  Hopefully it will not have been the result of, say, supergluing a pound coin to the desktop of your alpha sales guy.  It might be a customer who’s annoyed with you, perhaps because of an otherwise well-intentioned change to your product.  Is this a problem?  Not yet.  Let me explain why.

You see, customers who tell you that they’re annoyed with you still care enough about your company and product to make their feelings known.  If they no longer cared, they’d have already left to your competitor silently and without a fuss.  They’d simply have stopped paying you and returning your calls without as much as a “goodbye”.  When you know a customer is angry with you, you still have an opportunity to understand why and maybe even retrieve the situation.

Begin to deal with this situation by showing the angry customer some extra love.  Ideally, go and see them in person and let them vent at you.  Don’t interrupt them or try to justify or defend yourself, you need to let them get it all out of their system.  Listen actively.  If they interrupt themselves to ask what you what you’re going to do about the situation, gently and politely ask them to continue with their litany of woes so that you can understand the full picture.  At the end of their rant, summarise back their key annoyances, using their own words if you can.  You may wish to omit expletives.  Notes may help.  This may then remind them to kick off about something else, so let them continue.  Clarify the final list when they’re done.  With any luck, you may well find that the customer calms down dramatically just because you’ve been patient and shown you’ve been listening.

The chances are that the underlying reasons for the customer’s annoyance are that they were treated by your company in a way that differed from what they were expecting, or that something important to them changed, perhaps without advance warning.

You’re probably going to need some time to reflect on the right approach for each of their points.  This may be because some items may not be your direct responsibility though, as a product manager, you probably have a degree of ownership regardless.  Or it may be because you’re not sure how to resolve the problem satisfactorily.  Ensure that you make it clear to the customer that you’re sorry they’ve had a bad experience and that you would like to help them to put things right if you can.  Tell the customer that you need to speak to a few people back at work to establish what the best course of action will be for each of their points, but do not promise anything you’re not 100% sure you can deliver.  The last thing you want to do is to set expectations incorrectly again.

Ask them if there is anything else they would like to discuss with you, but try to avoid them retreading previous ground.  When they’re all done, tell them when you’ll get back to them, ideally within a day or two at most.  Apologise again, then leave.  Then do what you said, when you promised to!

The way to look at it is that when customers become angry with you, a countdown starts.  When it reaches zero, the customer will most likely give up and leave.  Any customers you catch before the countdown ends you may be able to keep.  If there’s nothing you can do to save the customer, you were going to lose them anyway, so you’re no worse off than you otherwise would have been.  However, even if you lose the customer, you will hopefully have learned why and this will help you avoid similar problems in the future.

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The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management book cover

The Practitioner's Guide To Product Management

by Jock Busuttil

“This is a great book for Product Managers or those considering a career in Product Management.”

— Lyndsay Denton

Jock Busuttil is a freelance head of product, product management coach and author. He has spent over two decades working with technology companies to improve their product management practices, from startups to multinationals. In 2012 Jock founded Product People Limited, which provides product management consultancy, coaching and training. Its clients include BBC, University of Cambridge, Ometria, Prolific and the UK’s Ministry of Justice and Government Digital Service (GDS). Jock holds a master’s degree in Classics from the University of Cambridge. He is the author of the popular book The Practitioner’s Guide To Product Management, which was published in January 2015 by Grand Central Publishing in the US and Piatkus in the UK. He writes the blog I Manage Products and weekly product management newsletter PRODUCTHEAD. You can find him on Mastodon, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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