Nine out of ten seasoned event managers agree that one of the best ways to earn your meeting planning stripes is by working at the onsite help desk. Why? No role represents more clearly the front line than the person answering and defusing an irate or confused attendee. The goal of this article is to teach you how to defuse an upset attendee and turn them into a raving fan using five simple steps — steps that can be unnoticed and are often underestimated because of how easy they are to apply.
But wait? Shouldn’t I delegate that? I mean, I’m the meetings professional. What do I need to work a help desk for?
Just like everyone should be made to work as a restaurant server for at least two weeks to understand the importance of empathy and servant leadership; you, as the meeting professional, cannot truly grasp the exceptional attendee experience until you’ve helped mitigate the screw-up with an attendee’s food allergies, supported people as they figure out your WiFi, or listened to someone angrily vent about the room pirate they booked with (even though you sent that email warning them not to).
It doesn’t matter what kind of meetings you plan — dealing with upset attendees is a standard part of the job. No one likes to do it, but how you handle each situation can make the difference between a repeat attendee and a former attendee who complains about the poor customer service they received, long after they’ve stopped coming to your conference.
Let’s take a look at some of the ordinary responses an attendee might receive when frustrated with the service they’ve received — whether it’s the overall conference itself, a pricing, food & beverage, or room issue, or a technical difficulty (seriously! why won’t the WiFi work!?):
It might seem innocent, but here’s what’s wrong with the “I understand” response: Just because you understand something does not mean you agree with it. Understanding someone can give you perspective, but it won’t necessarily change your mind or have you agree with the situation. This phrase can set already-upset attendee up for even more anger — because they’ll feel like you’re saying it for the wrong reasons.
Additionally, this response can make you sound presumptuous. Odds are, you really might not understand because the situation your attendee has found themselves in might be similar to something you’ve experienced before, but their experiences remain uniquely their own.
When you hear someone’s response followed by a “but,” you are, whether you realize it or not, negating what happiness could follow. Many times, the attendee will start tuning you out and become more obstinate about their issue, while also becoming angrier before they even hear your actual response.
Now, let’s dive into five ways to calm your unhappy attendee down:
Imagine you arrive to open up registration at 7 am sharp, and you see an attendee is waiting for you, furious, complaining about an experience she had with your event team or service she received at the hotel. Your immediate reaction may be to go into defense mode, staunch the bleeding, and try to stop the fix the situation before you understand the issue completely. But the more you attempt to help without listening, the more upset the attendee becomes.
What do you do instead? Just listen.
Make eye contact, breathe normally, and give the attendee the time and the undivided attention she needs — to vent, to rant, or to hold someone responsible for the perceived wrong (whether it’s something you did or not).
By allowing the attendee to get it all out on the table, you’ve demonstrated that you care about and respect her. Additionally, it allows you to be a proactive responder than a reactive personality, and not jump to incorrect conclusions.
“I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.”
Ernest Hemingway, Author
This is less about admitting fault and more about showing empathy. Again, the attendee probably isn’t really blaming you (though there are those times when it is your fault, even unintentionally).
Say you’re sorry for what they are going through. Because you really are (right?). Be personal. Keep it short and simple. And genuinely acknowledge the attendee’s hurt feelings.
Apologizing is one of the best ways to move a negative situation forward in a positive way. But be warned, it can backfire on you if you say that you’re sorry without meaning it. An upset attendee is working with heightened emotions and will be super-sensitive to perceived added insults.
Through the practice of a personal apology, you are empowering and walking your talk for your entire conference team to go the extra mile to apologize — and mean it — in addition to the next stop of solving that attendee’s issue.
“A customer service apology is stronger with a personal touch.”
Shep Hyken, Author and Customer Service Speaker
“Solve it. Solve it quickly, solve it right or wrong. If you solve it wrong, it will come back and slap you in the face, and then you can solve it right. Lying dead in the water and doing nothing is a comfortable alternative because it is without risk, but it is an absolutely fatal way to manage a business.”
Thomas Watson, Jr. Former President of IBM
There is a difference between jumping to conclusions and responding proactively in a way that doesn’t waste time. Figuring out the nuance is crucial, and can’t be taught but must be learned.
Which is why it’s so important that you work the front line. You have to learn (so that you can coach and train the rest of your team) how solving an issue does not necessarily mean having a solution in place right away, but can also mean offering a strategy to a solution.
So, how can you offer a strategy to a solution when you aren’t able to immediately “solve” the issue and improve the attendee’s happiness? Make the attendee feel like there is a forward movement of some kind.
Explain as much as you can what you believe or understand to have happened and what you’re doing to help — even if you can’t actually solve the issue yourself, and most importantly when they can expect a solution to be in place. Don’t overpromise and under-deliver. Share a transparent timeline with them for what they can expect, and when, in terms of a resolution.
“Thank your customer for complaining and mean it. Most will never bother to complain. They’ll just walk away.”
Marilyn Suttle, Success Coach
After agreeing on steps to move forward and resolve the problem, thank the attendee for bringing her issue to your attention. Why?
Because it’s important to hear all the feedback, even when it’s complaint driven. When thanking an attendee for complaining and yelling, it makes them realize that you really care and you value their opinion. Finally, it reinforces that you and your team are focused on making the event experience truly attendee-centric.
For many issues, you are typically able to listen, empathize, solve, thank, and walk away. However, if you find yourself in a situation where the solution takes more than thirty minutes, make a note to follow up in a couple of days, weeks, or months to ensure that the attendee’s experience actually improved and the resolution you helped put into place for them was the best way to solve their issue.
Why follow up? Yes, it’s time intensive, BUT let’s say the resolution didn’t go well. And the attendee is still mad. And now has had time to stew and talk to their friends and neighbors and social media circle about you, your team, your event, etc.
That never ends well. Stay ahead of any unknown issues by being a strategic and empathetic partner to your attendees rather than only an execution minded events coordinator.
The Ritz Carlton Hotel has a policy that any employee can spend up to $2000 a day (without requiring any authorization from management) to solve the need or concern of any of their customers. On his way to Hawaii to deliver an important presentation, a businessman realized he had accidentally left his portable computer at a Ritz Carlton in Atlanta. His presentation was stored on the computer.
He placed a frantic call to the hotel and was routed to housekeeping. They had found his computer. Please send by Federal Express, he requested. I absolutely need it tomorrow morning for my presentation. Imagine his surprise when Mary from housekeeping showed up in Hawaii early the next morning to hand deliver his computer. Mary was quoted as saying This was too important to trust FedX with, so I decided to deliver it myself!”
Yes, it’s no fun to listen to the complaints, but it’s important to take the time to go the extra mile for your attendee’s happiness. Practice as much as you can on how to defuse an upset attendee and turn them into a raving fan using these five simple steps.
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