The exhaustive guide to dealing with angry customers

By Harsh Vardhan
Dealing with angry customers
  • Why do customers get angry
  • Dealing with angry customers by avoiding unpleasant words
  • Dealing with angry customers by using the right words
  • Examples of great responses to angry customers

It is already a widely accepted fact that customer service can make or break a company. At the same time, how a company behaves while dealing with an angry customer is a huge determinant of how their brand is perceived.

We should all be getting it right then, eh? Not so much, it seems.

Despite the millions of dollars companies spend on customer service, it’s probably safe to say that a good share of our interactions with customer support still leaves us angry and dissatisfied.

Here’s a classic case when a billion dollar corporation managed to screw up:

British Airways angry customer Twitter thread

It is easier than ever for customers to share their experiences publicly. The way you respond to them speaks volumes about how much you care about them.

The most glaring mistake from British Airways was not that they lost a bag, but rather that they took seven hours to reply to a tweet! This guy went ahead and spent a whopping $1000 to promote the tweet and publicly defame the airlines.

He managed to get over 76,000 impressions on Twitter alone, excluding all the coverage on mainstream outlets such as the BBC and CNN.

Angry customer British Airways Twitter coverage

Let’s try and understand why exactly do customers get angry.

WHY DO CUSTOMERS GET ANGRY

Guy Winch, the author of Squeaky Wheel, says: when it comes to the psychology of customer service, customers have only one very sensitive trait - respect.

The primary reason customers get angry is that they feel disrespected. Companies, mostly unknowingly, institute customer service practices that are disrespectful to customers in one way or the other.

Let’s dig deeper.

1. Companies have little respect for customers’ time

Time is a commodity everyone values. Every time a customer faces a problem, they lose time (a) reaching out to the company, (b) maneuvering through complex menu obstacle courses, and (c) eventually being able to reach an actual person who will put them on hold for a ridiculous amount of time, or an emails address which fetches a reply after ten hours.

Let’s be honest here: a lot of companies suck at complaint handling. Even when they do manage to solve a customer’s problem, the enormous amount of time that is wasted in the process leaves them irked.

It’s understandable that coming up with a solution might involve reaching out to a few people or going back to the handbook, but, it’s worth noting that the customer was not ready to face a problem in the first place - every extra minute spent is a minute wasted.

It gets even more annoying when a customer has to talk to multiple support reps. The joy of receiving a solution is usually overshadowed by the test of patience they had to take during the episode.

2. Companies have little respect for customers’ dignity

Let’s face another hard truth: companies do not always respect the customers’ dignity. In a market where treating customers well is a priority for most businesses, there is a surprisingly high number of incidents when companies come across as impolite, sarcastic, haughty and rude.

Chip Wilson, the CEO of Lululemon, a lingerie and workout retailer is a classic example. The guy says most of their unhappy customers were just too fat to wear their clothes!

Below are the headlines from the around the internet after he made the derogatory comment:

Media coverage

Such instances are a blow to customer’s dignity - it is natural for them to get irked every time they face a problem.

3. Companies have little respect for customer’s intelligence

You start with coaxing the customer: you value them and that they mean everything to you. You tell them that your company believes in a customer-centric culture. You tell them that the product was designed to solve all of their problems. Customers have great expectations from you.

Now, when they face a problem with the product, you put them on hold for thirty minutes; you send them automated messages from the support email address; your reps act like total badasses while trying to make the customer understand a solution.

Customer Service email

Later, when it comes to fostering loyalty, you send them knick-knacks such as pens and t-shirts with your logos. It does not really convey that you respect your customers’ intelligence.

Customers would rather have you treat them like adults. Solve problems diligently - this engenders loyalty more than anything else.

Respect is the cornerstone of building trust among customers. This is one concept that needs to be propagated across the layers of an organization.

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Customers - both happy and angry ones - are a source of valuable insight. Shunning away from the disgruntled ones is losing out on a big learning opportunity.

The key is to learn as much as you can from the ones that are unhappy and incorporating the same in your business decisions. It is, however, equally crucial to deal with the angry customers in a way that sets them up for long-term loyalty.

DEALING WITH ANGRY CUSTOMERS WITH THE RIGHT BENT OF MIND

Less than 4% of your angry customers will let you know about it, though. 96% of them won’t share their annoyance, and 91% will never come back (Source: Ruby Newell-Legner).

Your angry customers represent a source of learning, and an opportunity to make things right. Here are the best ways to deal with them:

1. Approach stressful situations with a Zen mind and compassion

In situations when a customer is angry, our first natural reaction is usually the first thing that goes wrong.

Our brain perceives an angry customer as a threat and enters into a stress and defense mode - fight or flight. This is exactly when we have to take control of our minds. Throwing a punch at the customer would not make things better for anyone.

Getting angry is punishing yourself for the mistakes of others.

I’d recommend support executives or anybody who deals with customers to read a particularly good website, the Zen Mind. The website teaches the art of letting go when you find yourself in a stressful situation.

It is not the actual event that causes the threat. The angry customer is simply a catalyst. It is your reaction to the customer that cause the stress. It is the fear of not being able to solve the problem or not being able to calm the customer that causes the stress.

You have to let go of the idea that you have to fix a situation. This is not the same as not caring. It is simply a realization that you can only do your best and it might or might not solve the problem.

You do not have to hold yourself responsible for the situation. Let go of the fear of the outcome and focus on the execution.

A good service rep should learn how to combine a Zen mind with compassion. They should focus on putting themselves in the shoes of the customer and understanding their pain.

California Tortilla certainly throws in some Zen here:

California Tortilla Zen mindset for dealing with angry customers

A simple ‘I understand this must be frustrating for you’ goes a long in pacifying the customer when they are at their worst.

2. Calm them down by asking questions

Our standard response to anger is defense. It is a natural tendency to argue with the customer and call their beliefs unfounded.

Well, science disagrees.

It is psychological fact that you cannot change even a relaxed person’s mind, let alone an infuriated one. Arguing with the customer will only make the situation worse even when their claims are actually unfounded.

It is crucial for the company to be able to curb their innate need to enter into a rational argument. The customer is under stress and any argument will make them feel that they are not taken seriously.

What’s better: ask questions. Like we discussed in the previous point, tell them that you understand why they are angry and move straight to asking questions about the problem they’re facing.

Remember to not cast any judgment at this stage. All you have to do is understand the details of the problem.

It is a good way to handle the customer before you can actually move to rational resolution.

Being listened to will make the customer feel that you take them seriously. The act of talking and explaining the problem brings their minds to a rational state. They will be calmer than they were when they initially called.

This is also a good time to thank them for pointing you to the issue. A bit of ego boosting will open doors to a rational conversation.

3. Apologize for the situation

More often than not, the customer would be angry for something that was never under your control. The human tendency is to shrug shoulders off the blame.

A company might respond to an infuriated customer saying it was not their fault. All this does is shake the faith the customer has in your company.

It doesn’t get much better or more direct than Jeff Bezos’ apology for how they handled pulling copies of 1984 and other novels off Kindles:

Jeff Bezos’ apology

You have to train your reps to follow the same principle. They have to remember that they are the face of your company. Whether they were involved in causing the problem or not is not the customer’s problem. A rep has to willingly take responsibility for the problem at hand.

It is important to remember that every time a customer has had to call your company helpline, it has failed them in some way or the other.

Tendering an apology is not a weakness. It is, in fact, a sign of compassion.

An apology will help diffuse the situation quickly and open doors for the resolution. An apology tells your customer that you regret them having to interrupt their day to make that call.

4. Reinstate trust and resolve the problem

Once you have managed to calm your customer down to a reasonable extent, only then should you start working on the resolution.

Your customer wants to know that you are willing to work on the problem and aren’t going to run for the door. Start with a positive statement such as ‘We’re going to solve this together’. It will help them feel reassured about the resolution process.

The first question you should ask them is ‘What would you consider a fair and reasonable solution?’. Asking a customer what they would consider a fair deal is very important to set the expectations right at the get go.

At the same time, you have to watch out for patronizing phrases such as ‘How can I help you’ or ‘How can I make you happy.’

Instances when you need to reach out to someone in order to solve the customer’s problem, most reps have a tendency to give out vague responses such as ‘I will get back to you as soon as I can.’ This is again a bad idea as it would leave your customer wondering whether you have a solution.

Instead, tell them exactly what you’ll do, and indicate how much time will that take. A great response in such situations is:

I will have to reach out to my product engineers for this. Allow me to call you in 2 hours.

If you do not have a solution within the next two hours, call them anyway and tell them that you are working on it. Tell them the product team thanks you for pointing that problem. A small reassurance is a must every time you talk to them.

5. Follow-up, and express gratitude

The goal of every support interaction needs to be more than just solving the problem at hand. The actual measure of success is whether you have been able to preserve the investment you’ve made in the customer.

Ask your customer a very straightforward question: Are you satisfied with the solution? It goes a long way in showing that you care.

It’s surprising to see most companies in a hurry to close the ticket. The most common parting note I have come across is ‘Is there something else we can do for you?’. You do not have to sound like you’re doing the customer a favor by solving their problem!

It’s a great idea to express a little gratitude at the end of the interaction and saying ‘thank you’.

No, do not expect your customers to thank you. They did pay for your product which failed to perform as expected. They did spend a lot of time trying to get a resolution for a problem they were not meant to be faced with in the first place.

At the same time, they have probably helped your team discover a few areas of the product that did not perform the way they were supposed to - thank them for that!

DEALING WITH ANGRY CUSTOMERS BY AVOIDING UNPLEASANT WORDS

Having the right mindset for dealing with angry customers is only the job well begun. What you actually say or write in an email makes a big difference.

It is important for the service reps to choose their words wisely when dealing with angry customers.

Here are a few bad responses that are commonly used by reps when dealing with angry customers, followed by what to do instead:

1. “Calm down”

You cannot douse a fire by putting gasoline on it. Asking a customer to calm down would make them even more infuriated. Remember that the customer has all the rights to be angry because something they have paid for does not work.

Empathize with them. Your job is to tell them that you understand their problem, and not argue with them.

I understand you must be frustrated. I am sorry that it’s not working for you” is a much better way to deal with the situation. Empathy over defense, every single time!

2. “I am sorry that you’re freaking/flipping out”

We all use slangs every once in awhile; an angry customer would not take it very well. Using those phrases is a clear sign that you are not taking them seriously.

I am sorry that you’re upset” is a decent way to communicate that you understand where they’re coming from.

3. “Listen to me”

Angry people do not listen, they vent. This phrase almost looks like you are ordering them to be quiet - you come across as a condescending bureaucrat.

Allow them to vent all the frustration they have before you actually begin to offer a solution.

4. “What you should do is”

Your product has failed the customer already and that is why they have had to call you. People, when angry, resent being told what to do.

They have called you because they want YOU to fix the problem.

Do everything you can to solve the problem. Even if the solution exists in a video or a manual, do not point an angry customer there.

5. “I am not really sure what to do here”

This is one of the worst things a support representative can say to the customer. There can always be instances of problems that have not surfaced till now and takes the rep by a complete surprise.

While the real intention of the rep might be to get in touch with a few peers and discuss, the initial ‘I am not sure’ will make the customer even more furious.

I will get in touch with the folks who understand this better, and will have an answer for you in thirty minutes” is an honest answer and the customer will appreciate it.

It is important to call the customer right when you have promised them, even when you do not have an answer. Keep them updated on the progress and they’ll be calm.

6. “This isn’t my department”

This one’s extremely professional. While the rep might be implying that they will get in touch with their peers from other departments, the initial reluctance will create a strong doubt in the mind of the customer.

I will get in touch with the team which handles these queries and will ensure that they get in touch with you in thirty minutes.”

Follow the same drill as the previous point - do get in touch in thirty minutes, no matter what happens.

7. “This is against our policy”

Unless you want to sound like an inflexible bureaucrat who doesn’t care about the customers’ needs, don’t use this line as a reply.

It just shows that you do not value your customers. Your policies are as good as dirt without customers.

Offer what you CAN do.

8. “You did that wrong”

There will always be instances of customers complaining unreasonably. Even so, there is always a better way to verbalize than telling them that they’re wrong.

A blunt statement stating it’s their fault and not yours may win the argument for you, but you will certainly damage your company’s relationship with the customer.

Instead, politely walk them through the steps to do it right and they’ll be glad.

9. “You are the first one to complain about this”

This is as good as putting the blame back on the customer. You are indirectly accusing them of being demanding and unreasonable.

A better way to deal with the situation is to thank them that they brought up the problem to light. Follow up with a solution diligently.

10. “Will you please let me explain”

The customer is angry because there is a lapse in your service. They want the answer quickly. Even if they are whining and sulking unreasonably, you have to listen to it all patiently.

DEALING WITH ANGRY CUSTOMERS BY USING THE RIGHT WORDS

Avoiding unpleasant words has to be backed by using powerful words that evoke confidence among your users.

Here are a few words that can do wonders while you try to pacify the irate customers:

1.  “If I understand you correctly ….” or “You’re saying’

The key to pacifying every irate customer lies in empathizing with them. These phrases communicate that you understand the seriousness of the problem.

It can be as simple as repeating what they just said in an agreeing tone. This is called ‘reflective listening’ - it will make them feel that they are being heard, and they will begin to calm down.

2. “Oh that’s the worst” or “Wow, I am really sorry”

It is important to apologize the moment you have understood the problem. It makes the customer feel that you genuinely feel the gravity of the situation.

Apologize to customers when things go wrong

Now, keep in mind not to dwell on the disappointment and quickly shift to a positive and helpful tone.

3. “If I were in your shoes, I’m sure I’d feel just as you do

This will certainly have a calming effect. People love it when others second their behavior. This also tells the customer that the company is not trying to escape the situation.

4. “Let’s work through this together” or “Let’s get you in a better shape”

These positive statements will evoke confidence in your customer. They start believing that you will eventually be able to solve their problem.

5. “What would you consider a fair and reasonable solution”

Asking a customer what they would consider a fair deal is very important to set the expectations right at the get go.

6. “I assure you I will do my best”

This statement makes the customer believe in your sincerity towards solving the problem. Them starting to trust your willingness to solve the problem is certainly calming.

7. “If I can’t take care of this, I will find out who can”

That feeling when a customer does not have to reach out to multiple people to resolve a problem is priceless.

Take responsibility

The fact that the company is willing to take responsibility is a major relief for an angry customer.

8. “I know there’s something else you might rather be doing, so thanks so much for bearing with me”

Acknowledging to the customer that they were never really meant to deal with the situation goes a long way in them starting to like you. It is important for a customer to know that the rep sees the episode as a waste of their time.

9. “Here’s what has worked in similar situations”

Being able to offer a use case is almost precious. This will give customers some time to ponder on their situation and also give them a hint that they are not the only ones with this problem. It is a good way to tell them that there is definitely a solution.

A FEW EXAMPLES OF GREAT RESPONSES TO ANGRY CUSTOMERS

A bit of humor always does the trick.

Responses to angry customers

Even though Starbucks did not have an immediate solution, they pleased a fan by inviting them to express their ideas.

Starbucks response to angry customers

Zappos will never ruin a customer’s day.

Zappos response to angry customers

WRAPPING UP

There is always a way to diffuse a difficult situation. What separate the best support systems from others is their ability to transform angry clients to satisfied customers.

Science shows that to truly become a master on how to calm down an angry customer, you must be able to identify and acknowledge where they are coming from.

Empathy is key. More than anything else, the caller wants to know that they’re being addressed as a real person. Learn to relate with your caller, and the appropriate response will follow suit.

The angry customers, when handled well, will rave the most about you.

Zappos response to angry customers 2

 

About the author

Harsh is the Marketing Lead at Hiver. He's always been an all-things-digital fanatic. He feels that Content Marketing found him magnetically.

Comments

Leave a Reply

  • Lisa Olinda

    May 3, 2017 2:06 am

    I have been on both sides of this issue. Being angry because of poor customer service and providing customer service to angry customers. I have been known to bang the phone and yell at a looping automated system. Makes a perfectly intelligent person, CRAZY!

  • Shep Hyken

    May 6, 2017 9:08 pm

    Great article with lots of takeaways! Thank you!

  • jmcmillen89

    May 10, 2017 7:13 am

    This is great and hits the worst elements of customer service right on the head. Great stuff.

  • Aruosa O.

    May 24, 2017 9:08 pm

    this really is an exhaustive guide with useful examples. This would be helpful to anyone in the Customer Experience community

  • June Martinez

    July 13, 2017 10:53 pm

    I am known as the CS champion but I am always looking for ways to be better. I learned a lot from the article. Thank you for all the info. It was easy to read and very entertaining, I think I have seen almost every one of those roll plays.

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