Good customers and bad customers; it’s likely you’ve had your share of both, and everything in between. And sometimes a critical email or negative review from either one can trigger absolute rage in any ecommerce or online entrepreneur. But letting your ego drive your actions is a net negative, 100% of the time.

Instead, think about the outcome you want and remember that reacting with our ego almost never gets you what you really want in the end.

Difficult People Are a Reality

Whether they be our customers, colleagues, suppliers, or business partners, some people are bound to be difficult at times. Even well-meaning and generally nice people can say hurtful things about our products or react harshly to a late delivery.

That guy. Yes, we've all met that guy.

This makes sense. According to psychologists, negative emotions are far more powerful than positive ones. Which means, when something bothers us even slightly, most homo sapiens tend to cling to that negative emotion.

Add to this that people feel much bolder when they deliver feedback online (via email, reviews, or comment threads) versus doing so in person. That makes the climate perfect for a storm of hateful messages and over-the-top reactions to issues.

The internet has exacerbated our negativity bias, turning almost all of us into internet trolls at some point in our lives. I know I’ve left overblown comments regarding issues that, in retrospect, aren’t nearly as important as they seemed at the time. We just can’t help ourselves.

At some point online, all of us will be a jerk on the internet. This is reality.

Case Study: An Invoice for Zero Dollars

Many years ago, I worked the front desk at an upscale hotel in Park City, Utah. Difficult customers weren’t rare, but for the most part, the issues they raised were reasonable. For example, the restaurant and bar on the ground floor of the hotel made sleeping in rooms 220 through 223 a waking nightmare. That was by far the most common complaint, and it created it’s fair share of angry guests.

But the most difficult customer I ever dealt with had nothing to do with that issue.

One morning, a tall man came to the front desk to check out of his hotel room. I can’t remember exactly why, but his bill was a grand total of zero dollars. Perhaps his room was comped by management for some reason. In any case, this man asked for an invoice.

I was confused. Why would somebody want an invoice for zero dollars? I attempted to comply anyway. However, our reservations system wouldn’t allow me to print an invoice since there had been no charge in the first place.

But the man insisted. He became irate, said awful things to me, and threatened me, all in front of a line of other guests waiting to check out. Needless to say it was a bad day to be the only person on shift.

This is pretty much how I felt.

So in my frustration, I took a blank piece of letterhead, wrote his name and room number on it, “Amount Due: $0.00,” signed it, and slapped it on the countertop in front of him! What happened after that is a bit of a blur now. Needless to say he left in quite an angry state.

As for me, I was on edge for the rest of the day. And while the other guests apologized to me for this stranger’s awful behavior, neither him nor I left the interaction happy. And most likely, he’ll never go back to that hotel.

The point of this story is twofold:

  • Difficult and unreasonable customers are inevitable. Expect them.
  • But how we react to their craziness is just as important as whatever caused the craziness in the first place. Actually how we react is even more important.

Ego is the Enemy

I’ve read Ryan Holiday’s seminal book, Ego is the Enemy, more times than I can remember. It’s a must-read, especially for leaders, entrepreneurs, and business professionals. It’s absolutely brilliant.

In the book, Holiday describes in detail the always-negative impacts that ego has on our lives and work, complete with dozens of modern as well as historical examples.

If Holiday were here, I think he’d say something like, when somebody derides you or your product, the absolute worst thing you can do is let your ego drive your next actions.

Ego always gets in the way

Perhaps you’ve launched a new feature or product line that fell flat with your audience. Maybe you’ve just been the victim of some incredibly negative PR. Or possibly you disappointed one of the most vocal and influential people on the internet.

Whatever negative feedback is coming your way, you’re going to have an initial reaction to that feedback. That reaction is almost invariably ego driven. And the ego always gets in the way of any positive outcome.

Your ego blocks you from the path you need to take.

Case Study: Coworking, Catering, and a Really Stupid Email

Once upon a time, while managing the events and education program for a coworking space in San Francisco, I rented our main event space to an outside company. Little did I know that the caterer which this company had hired was planning to install a full-blown kitchen in our space prior to the event.

They arrived midday for setup, took over the entire kitchen area, and made an ungodly amount of noise. If you’ve ever been a member of a coworking space, I’m sure you can imagine how annoying this was. After all, it was the members’ kitchen and they paid a monthly fee to have a productive workspace. I was embarrassed. I felt like a total idiot for allowing this to happen.

On top of that, the company hosting the event said that our members weren’t allowed to attend the event as it was private, nor were they allowed to have any of the food and drinks provided for the event (opposite of what was normally allowed).

So I sent an email to our members. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a very stupid, thoughtless, and rude email. I spent most of it trying to save face, outline the rules, and didn’t include an apology. I didn’t accept blame. I didn’t think I needed to.

The reaction to my email was complete and utter indignation.

While I thought the outrage was a bit of an overaction at the time, I learned three valuable lessons that day:

  • Ego-driven reactions, or those where you’re trying to save face, always escalate the situation.
  • When you make a mistake, admit it in the open, profusely.
  • Even if you’re not wrong, or don’t think you are, never act like the other person is wrong. In their mind, they never are.

Instead, Kill Them with Kindness

Regardless of the situation, whether it’s a negative online review or a blog slandering your store’s return policy, it always makes the most sense to offer up kindness, generosity, and accept the blame.

When you do these things, you disarm the your opponent. Every. Single. Time.

Consider the following example with Sam and Sarah. Sam bought a watch which, as it turns out, doesn't have a critical feature he wanted. He’d like to return it and get another watch that has what he’s looking for. However, the online store he bought it from has a policy that all sales are final. The owner of the store, Sarah, instead of getting in a fight with Sam, take it in stages, and is always kind and understanding. Instead of blaming Sam for not reading the return policy, she understands that most people have never read her return policy.

Here's an example conversation between the two:

“Hey Sam,

I totally get what you’re saying. The watch you bought doesn’t have that feature. And I understand that you’d like a refund, but our store doesn’t offer refunds per our return policy [link]. All sales are final.

That said, I realize this doesn’t put you in a great position. We’ve actually created a very active Facebook community for this exact purpose. If you’d like, you can put the watch up for sale there. I know for a fact that somebody will take it off your hands for a great price since its essentially brand new. Then we can move your new order into our priority queue, so it will be shipped out before the end of the day.

Does that sound reasonable, Sam?

-Sarah”

Sam will either be okay with this outcome or not. If he’s not, he’ll probably say something like,

“What?! You don’t offer refunds? What kind of scam is are you running here? I demand you refund my purchase now or I’ll get my lawyer involved.”

Doesn't he sort of look like a Sam?

At this point I’ll bet you can feel your blood boiling, especially if you’re a solo operator. And it probably feels like the right thing to do now is to double down, push back, blame, or otherwise react with your ego. After all, who dares speak to you like that?

Wrong.

Instead, Sarah replies back with another kind, honest, but firm message.

“Hey again Sam,

You’re totally right. Our return policy does seem frustrating. I also find it frustrating because all I want to do is make all of our customers as happy as possible.

Sadly, we can’t operate our small business in any other way. The shipping fees would put us under. That’s why we try to make it clear that all sales are final. However, perhaps it’s not clear enough on the site. I’ll talk with our design team about making it more clear.

If you’d like, I could post the item in the group for you. I think you’ll be surprised at how fast it sells. Plus, in addition to putting your new watch order in the priority queue, I could offer you a 20% discount on the new order. I’m not supposed to do this too often, but it should more than offset any loss on the other piece.” Even employees don’t get this discount! Haha.

Let me know if this sounds reasonable to you, and I’ll get your current item posted in our Facebook Community right away.

-Sarah”

This type of response doesn’t give the irate customer what they asked for, but it does recognize their pain. It doesn’t blame them. In fact, in this type of email, Sarah accepts the blame for the not-so-great policy. She explains the rationale behind it without sounding defensive. Then she ups the offer by taking the work out of Sam's hands, adds that she’ll make his next order a top priority, and even gives Sam a discount to cover most, if not all, of his loss.

The End Result is All That Matters

The reason we feel so tempted to take an ego-driven action instead of killing our customers with kindness is simple. Ego blinds us.

When our anger, shame, or embarrassment flare up, we see red. Like a raging bull, we charge in for a fight. We see the other person’s false assumptions. We lose all sense of empathy toward them. We go on the defence because we assume the other person is acting totally irrationally. We enter fight mode, where there’s only one winner, and the loser is left on the floor, bruised and bloody.

But, of course, this means we’re being crazy too!

We’re not in a fight for our lives, we’re resolving a customer service dispute. The person on the other end is a human, just like us. And just as we’re seeing them as the cold-hearted, hate-filled enemy who won’t give us a break, they see you as the cold-hearted, hate-filled enemy that’s trying to screw them over.

So what can you do when you’re seeing red? Here’s what helps me calm down and respond in the right way:

  • Stop typing, put down the phone, log out of Intercom.
  • Go for a ten minute walk, make some tea, or just lay on the couch for a bit.
  • Imagine this person as a kind, generous human being that’s just mad or ignorant or incompetent, not malicious or malevolent.
  • Try to put yourself in this person’s shoes. Recall a time where the role was reversed.
  • Then think about the end result you want. It’s all that matters.
In the end, all that matters, are happy customers.

The end result we want is de-escalation. We want everybody to take a couple steps back toward being a rational and sane human being. Not only do we want the fighting to end, we want to eliminate the tension so much so that everybody feels heard and respected. And ideally, we want an outcome where everybody wins. We want to turn a potential reason for negative word of mouth into a catalyst for positive word of mouth.

Keep reminding yourself of this positive outcome. It's all that matters.

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In the end, remember these crucial things to keep your ego out of the equation and your customers leaving you glowing reviews:

  • Frustrating and irrational customers are inevitable.
  • Kindness, generosity, and accepting blame almost always disarm angry people.
  • Ego always gets in the way of our goals.
  • When faced with a difficult person, take few minutes to cool off and make generous assumptions about their character.
  • Focus on the end result, which is having an army of happy customers who give you positive word of mouth marketing.