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Dealing with an unhappy consumer.

I began my career in Rural Electrification in February, 1974, at Walton Electric Membership Corporation, an electric distribution cooperative just east of Atlanta, GA. The following month the cooperative announced its first rate increase in its thirty-eight year history. All rate changes up to that time had been rate decreases. Hard to believe. You can imagine what I, the newest Member Service Representative, spent most of my first year doing, with a great deal of frustration I might add.

Like many other electric cooperatives and investor-owned utilities, we had a rate increase almost every year for a while. The summer and winter seasons were particularly busy. Especially the summer because our rates were higher in the summer months.

It was not until I attended an NRECA training program on "Handling Consumer Inquiries and Complaints" that I was able to deal effectively with irate consumers without experiencing a great deal of stress and frustration myself. I want to share with you the information that I found most valuable in that training program.

When people experience a sudden change in their lives or are confronted with something that is totally unexpected (e.g., an electric bill that is twice "normal") they deal with the stress in a pretty predictable way. They go through stages before they can accept the change. I have since learned that these stages are much like the grief process associated with the loss of something special or important or the death of someone close to the person.


While everyone goes through the stages, different people may remain in one stage or another different lengths of time on their way to final acceptance of the stressful change or loss. Unfortunately for you and for them, a very small percentage get stuck along the way and never get to acceptance.

The stages of acceptance are:

1. Shock. Upon getting bad news such as a high electric bill, the first reaction is shock. The person may simply be startled and take a deep breath or ignore the information and put the bill with their other bills and not acknowledge it at that time.

2. Disbelief or denial. How many times have you heard a consumer say, "This can't possibly be right"?

3. Guilt. "I shouldn't have been leaving that light on in the hall at night," or "I told my husband (those kids) not to run that air conditioner at 75 |degrees~."

4. Projection. This stage is often accompanied with anger. By now they are probably blaming the cooperative for their problem. After all, you advised them to put in all-electric or an electric water heating or that central air conditioner or whatever.

5. Rationalization. Now they start to grasp for answers. They are not ready to accept that something has actually changed so they look for something unusual and temporary that could be the problem. "My mother-in-law was here for two weeks that month."

6. Integration. At this stage people finally begin to realize that the change is not a fluke or the loss is not temporary. They move from an irrational to a more rational state. They can finally begin to deal with factual information.

7. Acceptance. While they may not like it, they realize that things are the way they are. They look for new ways to cope with the new reality as it now exists.

It was magic for me when I realized that these stages were real and that I had been trying to deal rationally with irrational people. That had been the source of my frustration. "If they could only see things the way they really were." I now know to wait until the person moves into stage 6 or 7 before trying to deal with the real problem. In stages 1 through 5, my task is to help the person move through the stages until they became rational enough to address whatever issue is at hand.

I learned to identify the stage that the consumer is in and developed techniques to deal with the person in each stage. My job as Member Services Prepresentative became challenging rather than frustrating.


With the eighteen or so years of experience that I now have dealing with people and studying why people act the way they do, I have learned to cope with difficult people by gaining their trust. People tend to trust people that they like, and they tend to like people who like them. Express a genuine interest in your members and they will respond by believing you and placing their trust in you.

You can also gain their trust by looking for similarities between you and your members. People like people who are like them. I was walking recently in a small town in the mountains outside of Denver. I stopped to admire a beautiful Great Dane in a fenced yard. The owner was working on a car in his driveway and was visibly annoyed by my intrusion, until I told him that I had owned three Great Danes myself and that I had never seen a harlequin and brindle mix before. His demeanor changed immediately once he saw me as someone like him who owned and knew about Great Danes. We swapped stories about our dogs for 5-10 minutes, and he seemed genuinely disappointed as I continued my walk.

One way to be like someone else is in the way you dress. A suit and tie or high heels might help you fit in at the Chamber of Commerce monthly meeting, but jeans and casual shoes help you establish an atmosphere of trust when you visit a rural area of your service territory.

Another way to get people to trust and believe you is through a technique called "matching and mirroring." This technique takes practice and will probably feel unnatural and uncomfortable at first, but it is a powerful tool once you master it. When you are talking to someone, observe them closely and match as many of their characteristics as you can. Match their posture, voice tone, rate of speech and, most powerful, their breathing pattern.

You may be concerned that they will think you are making fun of them but they will not notice, they will simply become aware that they like you and their trust level will rise.

Use Humor

Don't be so serious. Humor used at the right time can also help diffuse a tense situation.

One day an angry older woman wearing a cheap red wig with gray hairs hanging out from under it here and there came into the office of a distribution cooperative. She ranted at the Front Counter Personnel until they called the Office Manager. All the while, she was demanding to see the General Manager. Eventually, the Office Manager called the General Manager and took her back to see him.

The angry older woman with the cheap red wig with grey hairs hanging out from under it here and there told the General Manager everything that she had told the Front Counter Personnel and the Office Manager and more. The General Manager listened patiently until he saw that the time was right. Then he leaned forward in his chair and said, "Ma'am, I have something that I have to say and you might hit me when I do and I don't blame you if you do." She was startled quiet. The General Manager continued, "When you are mad you are the prettiest redheaded woman I have ever seen." The woman burst into laughter. The situation had been diffused. He and the woman laughed and talked a few more minutes and she left in much better humor than when she had arrived.

While this is a true story, I am not recommending that you kid with your members when they are upset. That could be dangerous. But sometime, when nothing else seems to be working, try humor.

Suggested Reading

Unlimited Power by Anthony Robins

You've Got To Be Believed To Be Heard by Bert Decker with Jim Denny

Benjamin Abbott is a management consultant with NRECA working out of the Denver office. Joining NRECA four years ago, Benny is responsible for consulting and training in marketing, strategic planning, economic development and energy management. Prior to joining NRECA, Benny worked for Walton EMC in Snellville, Georgia, as a member services representative for four years, and spent eleven years at Oglethorpe Power Corporation as an energy management coordinator and as manager of development services in Economic Development.

Mr. Abbott earned his bachelor of science degree in industrial management with honors from Georgia Tech. He has done graduate work in anthropology, psychology, sociology and philosophy. He keeps current with the latest trends in management and human potential development.

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Author:Abbott, Benjamin
Publication:Management Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 1992
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