How To Handle Angry Customers: A Guide to Conflict Resolution and De-Escalation

September 21st, 2017 | Isabella Steele | Customer Service
how to handle angry customer

Introduction

“Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.”
– Bill Gates

Dealing with an angry customer is an unpleasant situation at best – at worst, it can turn a good day upside-down, or make a bad day get worse. But, like how nurses often have to care for angry patients and speak with upset families, dealing with angry people is a part of life, and handling angry customers is just part of the customer service industry.

There is some good news: handling an angry customer isn’t the end of the world. In fact, helping an upset customer find a solution to his or her problem can be one of the most rewarding customer service accomplishments that there is.

So how do we get a customer who calls in screaming to leave praising your name? This blog post will show you how to de-escalate a situation with a wrathful customer, moving it forward towards a solution.”

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  1. Remain Calm

    This classic tip is one of the top recommendations for handling nearly any emotionally-charged situation (a disagreement with your boss, a fire alarm going off, a medical emergency… you name it), and may seem like a no-brainer when it comes to dealing with difficult customers. However, that doesn’t make it any less important.

    When a customer is in an agitated state, be it of anger or frustration, the last thing that you want to do is to get upset yourself. By remaining calm, you will be able to maintain the level-headed perspective that is needed for you to help find an ideal solution to your customer’s issue.

    Hack for staying calm – If a difficult customer is stirring an emotional reaction within you, here are some steps that you can take to stay calm:

    • Assess how much ‘space’ you can get during this interaction. If you can feel your blood starting to boil, remember that these calming tips work best when you can take a minute to yourself to practice them. If you are on the phone with a customer, it might be appropriate to ask them if they don’t mind holding for a moment (phrasing here is key, as you want to indicate to them that you’re putting them on hold to help them, not annoy them further!), to give yourself a moment to work through these tips. It can be a lot better to risk a customer getting a bit more annoyed if it means you gain control of the interaction – versus staying in the moment, not taking the time to calm down, and letting the situation getting worse and worse. On chat, this is a lot easier as you have the luxury of being able to do this in the ‘spaces’ between exchanges.

    • Notice what you are feeling. If you feel yourself losing your cool, ask yourself what exactly you’re feeling. Is it anger? Anxiety? Stress? How is that feeling manifesting inside of your body? Do you feel a tightness in your chest or throat? Or maybe your stomach is churning? Just by placing your attention on the emotional and physiological responses that are being caused by your interaction with this difficult customer, those feelings will start to lose their grip on you.

    • Breathe. Take a deep, slow, focused, three-second breath. Once your lungs are full of oxygen, wait a moment, then begin to breathe out slowly at the same pace. Breathing exercises can do wonders for helping you to calm down.

    • Release. Once you have identified what you are feeling – be it anger, stress, or anxiety – it’s time to try releasing it. Imagine that the feeling is losing its grip on you and fading like steam into the air. Picture the tightness in your chest loosening up, and your body relaxing. While you may not be able to fully commit to these practices during every conversation with an upset customer, they can be a big help when you feel like you are on the brink of losing your cool.

  2. Be Assertive

    When handling an angry customer, it is important to be assertive. When you are assertive with a customer, you consider and respect both your customer’s feelings and needs as well as your own. That means not rolling over or cowering to try to appease your angry customer, but also not trying to overpower them.

    Assertiveness is essentially the ideal balance between passive and aggressive behaviors, and it also helps you manage those behaviors in others. By going into a conversation with an assertive attitude, you will be able to more easily avoid enabling your angry customer’s behavior by giving them a punching bag, or by agitating them with your own aggression.

    Angry customers tend to be show stealers, who can take the reins from you if you let them. By being assertive you can keep control of your live chat or phone call, and confidently steer the conversation towards a resolution.

    Hacks for being assertive – You can practice being assertive the following ways:

    • Respect yourself. In order for you to keep a conversation with an angry customer on track – without letting that customer overpower you – you need to respect yourself and have confidence in your role and ability to help that customer.

    • Respect the customer. Just because your customer is being difficult doesn’t mean that you should be difficult back. To be assertive – as opposed to aggressive – you must respect your customer and his or her needs.

    • Be kind but firm. By coupling compassion with resoluteness, you’ll be able to assertively withstand the storm of even the angriest customer.

  3. Don’t Take It Personally

    Whatever your angry customer is upset about – as much as they may be directing your anger at you – don’t worry; it isn’t about you. Psychologist Dr. Nadia Purson explains: “People are energy-conserving creatures. Just as most animals attack out of self-defense, hunger or other biological needs, human anger also is goal-driven. Most people, even most violent individuals, don’t walk around the majority of the day attacking and abusing others. They lash out in spurts.” In this case, your difficult customer’s goal is to get what they want, and they will lash out at anyone who they think is standing in their way, including – but not limited to – you.

    To better understand this, we can again turn to psychology. “Behind their violent shield, a threatening individual is feeling threatened – maybe not by you, but by something or someone,” Purson writes. “Their anger is related to you only in a way in which some action or expressed feeling of yours has triggered some discomforting emotion within them.” Even though a customer’s anger may be directed at you, it is a culmination of their past experiences, upbringing, fears, and so on, and is not necessarily a direct result of something that you have done. In reality, behind every person’s behavior is positive intent, even if they might not be expressing it very positively in the moment.

    Once you learn not to take an upset customer’s anger personally, you are much less likely to be triggered or bothered by something that they said. This means that you will have an easier time of remaining calm, staying level, and ultimately resolving your customer’s issue.

    Hacks for not taking it personally – If you find yourself taking a customer’s anger personally, try any of the following:

    • Ask yourself: Is this about me? Did I do anything personally to offend this customer? Chances are, no, and the sooner you realize it the better.

    • Invent an alternative scenario. Typically we take someone else’s anger personally when our mind tells us that it is in part our fault, or recites some other self-blaming story. So, what’s a different story that you can replace it with?

    • Ignore personal attacks. It can be hard not to take something personally, especially when a customer makes it personal. Try thinking about what difficulties that this customer may have had to face in their childhood or lifetime in order to humanize them and avoid taking personal attacks to heart.

  4. Don’t Oppose the Customer

    When you are talking to a customer who you perceive to be difficult, it isn’t uncommon to subconsciously start to oppose them. This may manifest itself in acts of defiance, including doing a particular task slowly just to get under their skin, or telling a customer that something is “out of stock” and there is “nothing that you can do,” without even checking. It can also manifest itself in strong feelings of dislike, or the villainization of your customer.

    This is because when we feel threatened, we become defensive. We can see this tendency at play when it comes to politics. If you are a middle-ground conservative who is arguing a topic with a liberal family member, you might find yourself taking the most opposite viewpoint to the battlefield. In reality, your views may not even be so extremely different from your family member’s – they just get presented that way because of the knee-jerk reaction that accompanies the situation. In a different situation, you might end up taking a liberal viewpoint to combat some die-hard conservative friends.

    It is important to go with the flow and try and collaborate with an angry or disgruntled customer, rather than oppose them. Use this de-escalation technique to make life easier for them, not harder, and they’ll make life easier for you too.

    Hack for not opposing the customer – If you feel any opposition towards truly helping your customer, try imagining your customer as an innocent child. Kids can be difficult, but their behaviors are generally very innocent – they just don’t know a better way to behave or get what they want. By imagining your difficult customer in the same light, he or she will seem less threatening, and it will be easier for you to take the higher ground.

  5. Watch Your Tone and Language

    “Watch your tone, boy!” Growled an angry old man in more than one movie. When you are interacting someone who is upset, you may think that you have your composure, but watch out: a slip in your tone or language might betray you. That is why in order to de-escalate a situation, it is immensely important to choose your tone and language wisely, especially if you start feeling annoyed or angry yourself.

    While a quick, sarcastic remark might feel momentarily empowering, it can lead to disaster. Before you know it that temporary relief will be gone, and your customer could be yelling for your manager and demanding your head.

    Remember to avoid sarcasm at all costs when talking to an angry customer. Even hidden or subtle sarcasm that you think is well-disguised can easily be picked up on by an alert customer who is looking for a fight. Never let out any curses, insults, or groans – however mumbled you may think they are – during your correspondence. Sure, you could try arguing to your supervisor that you didn’t call your customer a b**** underneath your breath, but needless to say, it’s worth steering clear of that conversation. Another thing to remember is to never tell a customer to calm down. Think of the last time someone told you to calm down when you were upset; for most people, it’s infuriating.

    Hacks for watching your tone and language – If you feel you are in danger of a slip of the tongue or tone, use one of these hacks:

    • Assess your action. Before you send that snarky email reply, think to yourself, what am I gaining from this?

    • Set the radar to positive. By making it your goal to convey positivity, you’ll be able to speak with your customer in a way that won’t further set him or her off.

    • Learn from the best. Think of the most cheerful customer service representative that you have ever spoken to while upset, and try and emulate their tone. Alternately, you can try and emulate one of your co-workers or a supervisor who does this exceptionally well.

    • Smile. Body language has a huge influence on how we feel and what comes out of our mouths. Smiling while talking or typing to your difficult customer (even if they can’t see it) can help you come from a calmer, kinder place.

  6. Listen

    If you ask an angry customer to give you information that he or she has already provided, it is possible that you will be on the receiving end of even more fury. That is why listening to your customer is such an important de-escalation technique.

    To calm an angry customer down, they need to feel like they are being heard and that their grievances will be addressed. You can show that you are listening by using active listening skills, such as using words of acknowledgment and selectively rephrasing, if necessary, to show your understanding of the issue.

    Hack for listening – Use these easy hacks if you’re having trouble with active listening:

    • Show a customer that you are listening with the following phrases:

      • “Right.”

      • “Of course.”

      • “I understand.”

      • “Absolutely.”

      • “Uh-huh.”

    • If you’re finding it particularly difficult to concentrate on what someone is saying, try repeating their words mentally as they say them – this will reinforce their message and help you stay focused.

  7. Understand Where Your Customer is Coming From

    Everybody on some level longs for understanding. If a customer is upset, you will be doing yourself and the customer a favor if you can actively empathize with them, and try to get to know where they are coming from. Empathy is the capacity to understand and share a person’s experiences and emotions. It is a facet of emotional intelligence that is important in the customer service industry because it gives you the ability to connect with your customer on a human level.

    When an angry customer feels like they are being connected with and understood, they will have an easier time of calming down than if they feel like you do not understand or care about their problem or emotions.

    Hacks for empathizing – Having trouble empathizing? Try this out:

    • Play pretend. Take yourself through a play-by-play of your customer’s experience, as if it were your own. If they have only given you the most basic details, focus on how disappointing or inconvenient their problem might have been.

    • Ask yourself prompting questions to better relate. How would you feel if you had to talk to several incapable agents just to cancel a service and get a refund? How would you feel to have waited 2 weeks for a product that arrived broken, only to reorder it and have it arrive broken again? How would you feel if you were overcharged for something that was supposed to be cheaper? Whatever the situation, put yourself in your customer’s shoes. You may not react so angrily as they are (or who knows, maybe you would!), but chances are you would be upset too!

  8. Validate Your Customer’s Feelings

    Once you are able to empathize with your customer and understand how they feel, the next step is validating their feelings.

    Validating people’s experiences is an important part of removing anger and hostility. Part of what anger says is: look at how I’m feeling, you have to understand that this is a big deal to me. Once you validate this, customers are likely to start lowering their angry shield.

    Hack for showing validation – To better validate your angry customer’s experience, you can say things like:

    • I don’t blame you.

    • I understand.

    • I’d be frustrated too.

    • That makes sense.

  9. Apologize

    Regardless of whether you think that your customer is right or not, apologizing is a huge part of de-escalating a heated situation with them.

    Apologizing doesn’t mean necessarily repeating the words, “I’m sorry,” again and again. It doesn’t mean groveling at your customer’s feet, either, or accepting blame for everything that the customer has gone through. As a customer service representative, when you apologize, it is on behalf of the company.

    When giving a good apology, the important thing is to convey compassion, regret, and understanding of the situation. Avoid an insincere or a non-apology. That means don’t make statements like, “I’m sorry that you were offended by what happened” – instead, say, “I’m very sorry that that happened to you, and we’re going to do our best to make amends.” Notice how the first apology puts the blame back on the customer (as if it was their fault for getting offended), whereas the second one doesn’t issue out any blame, and instead points towards action. The first apology – or rather, non-apology – invites the exact anger and escalation that you are trying to remedy.

    Hack for apologizing – Imagine how you would feel if you were the one to receive your apology. If the answer is not great, it’s time to try again, this time with a little more heart.

  10. Take Responsibility

    When a customer is upset, they want someone to be accountable for solving their problem. Who will be the one to make things right?

    Show responsibility by telling your customer that you are going to get their issue sorted. As soon as you take responsibility, the customer will know that they are no longer on their own, and that in itself is enough to scale back their anger.

    Hack for taking responsibility – Put your name on the line. By giving a customer your name, you are reaffirming your commitment to helping them, and showing them that you take their issue seriously.

  11. Be Honest

    When you have an upset customer on your hands, you might find yourself saying anything you can to calm them down. While that intention is noble, it is extremely important to always be honest.

    Honesty is important to all customers and is necessary for de-escalation. Even if a customer does not realize that you are being dishonest in the moment, if they find out later on, they will be even more upset and may even cut ties with your company.

    Alternately, many customers will be able to tell if you are being dishonest with them, or even if you are unsure of your convictions. These customers can become very frustrated with unconvincing arguments and can react badly in these instances.

    Hack for being honest – Always double-check information before giving it out to a customer.

  12. Find a Solution

    You can follow this entire guide to the T – but if you can’t find a decent solution to your customer’s problem, then all of your de-escalation techniques will have been for naught. Once you understand the customer’s issue, you must move forward towards solving the problem.

    Hack for finding a solution – To reach an optimal solution, you can either offer your own ideas and/or options on how to proceed, or you can even ask your customer what his or her desired outcome is so that you can both work together on achieving it.

  13. Exceed Expectations

    “There are no traffic jams along the extra mile.”
    – Roger Staubach

    Depending on how much autonomy your company gives you to help upset customers, a valuable tool for de-escalating a heavy situation is by offering incentives.

    By offering a customer a full or partial refund, a discount, or a freebie as a gesture of goodwill, you can go an extremely long way in cooling them down.

    Hack for exceeding expectations – If you are going to offer an angry customer some sort of compensation, always offer compensation that matches your customer’s needs. You want the gesture to make things better, not serve as an indicator of poor listening skills or judgment.

    For example, if you are working customer service for a photography company and a customer calls to complain that one of the elves who took part in the local Christmas photo shoot were ill-behaved or “creepy”, your customer would be best served with a partial refund, not a coupon for a second set of photos free.

  14. Keep Your Promises

    No matter what solution you and your customer have come to, make sure that you keep any promises that you have made to them.

    The last thing that your customer wants is a reason to call back. If you say that you will personally ship them a new product with extra packaging so it does not arrive damaged a third time, forward the product to your desk first, and package it yourself. If you say that you will make sure to get a refund processed in no later than 3 days, make sure that it happens by then.

    Hack for keeping your promises – If you have made a promise to your customer, contact the customer to make sure that the result was a success. By checking-in on the date that something was supposed to happen, you can help customers restore faith in your company after a bad experience.

  15. Respect Each Customer’s Process of Calming Down

    Don’t try to rush a customer into calming down, or force them to feel better. Trying to control how a customer feels will just be exhausting for you and even more frustrating for them. Instead, give them some breathing room and allow them to calm down – or not – unfortunately, it’s not up to you.

    Hack for respecting your customer’s process – Remember that how your customer feels is not a reflection on you, so you can detach from the need to “fix” them.

  16. Leave if Necessary

    Some escalated situations might be too far gone for you to undo yourself. Maybe your customer is unresponsive to all of your efforts to be of assistance. Maybe he or she is calling you names and is being verbally abusive to the point where it is becoming harmful to listen to. Maybe he or she doesn’t like your solution and just wants to speak with a supervisor. Maybe your customer’s problem never had a solution at all.

    In these cases, don’t feel bad about walking away. Remember our tip about being assertive? That means respecting the customer, but also about respecting yourself!

    Hack for leaving – If you find yourself in a situation where you have to walk away from an interaction with a customer, it is important to decide what that means and how to go about it. Here are some ways in which you might walk away from a call, chat, or email:

    • Escalate the issue to a supervisor. This should almost always be your first step.

    • Decide not to serve the customer again. Sometimes you may have already escalated an issue to your supervisor, but the same angry customer might continue to harass your team even after all has been said and done. In extreme cases, get backup from your supervisor before deciding to leave a customer service situation. If this happens, don’t forget to share the information with your team, so other agents don’t have to be on the receiving end of an abusive customer or a situation which cannot be resolved.

  17. Recover

    Maybe you were able to give your angry customer a killer solution to their seemingly unresolvable problem. Or maybe your customer raged on like an unstoppable hurricane, leaving you feeling crumpled and defeated in the aftermath. Either way, once the conversation is over, take a minute to unwind and pat yourself on the back. Take a deep breath, and sink back into your seat. You survived! That in itself is an accomplishment, and is a victory to celebrate.

    Hack for recovering – Repeat the exercises for calming down, listed in hack #1.

Conclusion

Customers can be fantastic to work with, or total nightmares. The important thing to remember is that we’re all humans who are just trying to make it through the day, each in our own ways.

We hope that this guide will help you take an angry customer and turn their frown upside down.

Which of these tips did you find most helpful? Let us know!

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About 

Isabella is a freelance editor, writer, and blogger at Live Chat 100 and Comm100. She is passionate about helping people, teams, and organizations grow into their full potential, and excel in their service. In her spare time, you can find her traveling, painting, or drinking copious amounts of coconut water. Connect with Isabella on LinkedIn.

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