Hello there, you Customer Service Expert, you! But why would I call you an expert? For starters, you’ve been a customer all your life. Since you were a little kid, you’ve been buying stuff, going to the movies, paying bills, eating in restaurants, getting your teeth cleaned, and interacting with service personnel in a myriad of settings and situations. You know how you like to be treated – and you also know what burns you up! Being ignored. Being lied to. Being sent in the wrong direction. Being brushed aside. Being given the run-around. Being, being, being… The list goes on. And here’s an important fact about human nature: we tend to ignore adequate-to-good customer service when we experience it (I guess we’ve simply come to expect it), and we go ballistic when we’re poorly treated -and then we almost invariably report it to the world via Yelp! So, you see? You already know a lot about customer service, simply by going about your day and living your life.

Secondly, when you think about it, no matter what career you’ve chosen, no matter what industry you’re in, and no matter what level you’re on, you serve customers. In other words, not only are you a sometimes-customer, you’re also a customer service provider – regardless of what your job description says. And who are your customers? They could be the patrons in your retail business or restaurant, the students in your school, your clients in a professional services agency, the co-workers who depend upon you in an office setting (yes – think of your co-workers as your customers), or your constituency in a government or political position. Customers exist – and are essential – in every form of business, and they definitely exist in yours. A customer’s positive experience can gain both you and your company favorable attention, still more customers (and thus more revenue), and a sterling reputation. Conversely, a customer’s negative experience can adversely influence your organization’s industry standing, tarnish its good name, and in some cases, even do irreparable damage. Plus, with the advent of Internet sites such as Glass Door, Trip Advisor, and Yelp, we all know how easy it is to “vet” a business or organization, whether it’s your downtown donut shop, a prospective new dentist, or the local YMCA. And often, what we read online or hear by word of mouth is a make-or-break proposition when it comes to deciding with whom we want to do business – or, when job hunting, for whom we want to work.

So here’s the bottom line: as customers, we want to be treated fairly and respectfully. We want to be able to accomplish whatever task we’ve set out to do, unfettered and unantagonized – whether it’s eat breakfast, rent a car, or get a haircut. And we have the right to ask for what we want.

On the flip side, as customer service providers, we must make it our priority to provide stellar customer service to all people we encounter, no matter what the situation may be. (Remember, no matter who you are or what you do for a living, you are interacting directly with some form of customer!)

As with most things, excellent customer service boils down to excellent communication. Communicating with a customer – especially when the going gets tough – takes special interpersonal skills, and having the right approach can make the difference between a great interaction and a dreadful one. Here are four tips to consider when things are going a bit (or a lot) haywire:

  1. Show a little empathy. 

Said slightly differently, have a heart! It goes a long way in winning people over, and equally importantly, in smoothing ruffled feathers. Most of us interact with a lot of people during the course of a day, and we can sometimes succumb to becoming disengaged, distant, and downright unsympathetic – especially during a difficult or hectic workday. However, it’s important to put aside your tired feet, your exhausted brain, and your cranky attitude, take a deep breath, and find your happy place. Showing your gentler, kinder side is essential when addressing a customer problem or complaint. According to Customer Service Manager, an on-line magazine for customer service professionals, “listening closely to customer concerns is the key to providing strong customer service.” When a person feels their concerns are being glossed over, or worse, if the customer feels their claim is being disputed, it can lead to a negative outcome. However, simply saying something like, I’m so sorry you’re having such trouble,” or “I can understand how frustrated you must feel,” can turn the customer around, make them feel calmer, and even buy you the time you need to fix the problem. Scores of studies show that having empathy for the customer works to create a more successful interaction – for both parties.

  1. Address the issue, and then move on.

Understanding the problem is important for moving forward with the relationship, but spending too much time on what has gone wrong can lead to an ineffective interaction. (And you certainly don’t want to end up in an endless loop, where the customer continues to complain about the same problem, over and over again, ad tedium.) AllBusiness, an online entrepreneur resource, suggests that as soon as possible (which means as soon as you’ve listened to the problem and offered an empathic statement or two), that you outline a plan of action for addressing the issue so the relationship can move on. Yes, there may be a need for further clarification, or for modification of the original plan of action, but as soon as you reach agreement, launch the corrective action and then move on.

  1. Become knowledgeable about policies and procedures. 

Getting past an issue is easier when you have complete and accurate knowledge of what you can (and can’t) do to correct a negative situation. No one appreciates having to wait to resolve a problem. So whenever possible, you want to offer up a solution that can clear up the issue right away, rather than having to say, “I’m not sure what our policies are, so I’ll need to investigate the situation and then get back to you.” (Remember how that feels when you’re the customer? Not very satisfying.) Again, according to AllBusiness, your customer service communication should be conducted in a timely manner, with a genuine sense of importance – and to that I’m going to add: and with expert “rule and regulation” proficiency as it relates to your business or organization. If you are able to provide customers with a solution immediately – and then ensure that all additional interactions are performed quickly – both you and your customer can focus on the future, rather than on the past.

  1. Go the extra mile. 

Let the award-winning customer service giants serve as your role models. Nordstrom, Amazon, Apple, and Trader Joes are known in their respective industries to have stellar customer care policies – it’s simply built into their business practices and company cultures. All of these companies have empowered their employees to resolve customer service issues in a timely manner – and almost always with a little extra sparkle or flourish! Here’s an example: On a recent business trip, I went shopping at a Von Maur Department Store in the Midwest, where I found a blouse that I liked – except that they didn’t have it in my size. Without my even asking, the salesperson located my correct size in a sister store, and offered to ship the blouse, free of postal charges, to my home in California. The blouse arrived at my door before I even got back home, and inside the box was a handwritten note from the woman who’d assisted me! (I’m not even sure how she did that.) I’m now a customer for life, and I have returned many times to that same store. So when you have a chance to do something extra, go for it. You’ll create loads of goodwill.

Here’s the quick summary: show your human, empathic side; address the issue, suggest a solution, and then move on to the resolution; know your policies and procedures; and finish your interaction with a little “something extra” that builds goodwill and trust. And guess what? This formula works in virtually every interaction you’ll ever encounter: with your three-year-old, your co-workers, your best friend, and your significant other!

It’s also known as being a decent person.