Selling in Tough Times: How to Handle an Angry Customer

May 1, 2023

For those in sales dealing with supply chain issues (Global GDP expectations lower and US inflation rising to a 40 year high last month) you have most likely dealt with some concerned, frustrated or downright angry customers. Supply chain issues aside, stress on people at both home due to the lingering Covid Pandemic and at work where people are asked to do more with less resources creates an even tougher environment to sell into.

For a history lesson, we have seen this before. The Great Recession that lasted from 2007-2009 created massive supply chain issues and inflationary price fluctuations very similar to what is happening now in 2022.

I learned the hard way how to deal with some very difficult conversations and wanted to share with you how best to deal with these tough times.

Here’s the framework:

Empathy - Expectations - Accountability

Provide Empathy

Let them know you care. This seems obvious but I have a different take than most gurus who will tell you to apologize. I’m not a big “I’m sorry” guy when stuff is not my fault (but of course apologize when it is). For example, I’m not sorry about the pandemic affecting commodity prices because I can’t control it. I’m not sorry your appliances can’t ship because there is a chip shortage…you get the point.

I’m not sorry but I am empathetic to the issue. I will listen. I will let the client vent. I will be here when you need me and tell you I understand how they feel (true empathy). I want them to know I care and I let them know that.

Set Expectations

This one is hard especially when you just don’t have answers, a very frustrating situation for both you and your client. Your job is to explain the situation, articulate how you are going to handle it and what you need from your client for you both to work together through the issue.

Be accountable

If the world has gone crazy, prices change multiple times a day and delivery lead times have pushed out for several months your message will not be fun to send. With that said, it’s still your job to deliver it.

The accountability part comes down to letting your customer know you are doing everything possible to help, and then tell them what that means. Are you calling the vendor daily, weekly, etc? Are you looking for alternative sources? How many? How often? Are you working on payment structures or trying to be creative with funding sources? You might be doing all of this work but unless you tell the customer they will assume you are not doing anything to help.

Sell your value. Don’t overpromise. Tell them your communication schedule and how you will approach it. Ask them if there is anything you might have missed that they were hoping you could do. Remember, if your customer is mad at you, chances are there is someone else that is demanding the answers from them (and they’re simply the messenger).

Here's an example: The supply chain for the solar industry is a mess. With increased demand, more regulation and global shipping woes pricing and deliveries have stressed the North American marketplace. 

If I was speaking to a customer that said “You’re creating backlogs on our project and it’s costing us a lot of money. Where’s my stuff?” here is how I would respond.

 “Ms. Customer, I understand this has been difficult and want you to know my team and I are working hard to resolve this issue. I know you are aware of all the supply chain issues affecting different markets right now and solar has been no different…in fact we could argue it’s been worse. Here is what I know today.  Your order was placed 60 days ago and we are in line for the next shipment of products. What I don’t know is when it will arrive.  The backlog of containers that has to be inspected has created massive issues for all vendors and we get updates twice a week.
Here is what I will do for you until we get this resolved. Outside of the 2x week update, I’m on the phone with this vendor daily. If it’s ok with you I will email you M, W, F…even if I don’t have an update. I want you to know I’m on it and will continue to be on it until your project is completed. Is 3x a week enough for you? I appreciate your business and want you to know that we’ll get through this together!” 

This may sound extreme but I can promise you if you follow this framework you will build client relationships for life. Put yourself in your customer’s shoes… if someone handled your issues with empathy & accountability and set realistic expectations for solving your problems… would you be able to stay angry at them?

Mike Chudy

Owner of Austin Sales Consulting