Dealing with the angry customer

Any business that has customers occasionally has an angry customer. When that customer appears he might be shouting, or screaming, or silently fuming. She might be making a scene in the reception area of your business or sending a blistering e-mail in the middle of the night. He might be alone, or they might be an angry family complete with crying children.

All businesses have the occasional angry customer.  It’s how you deal with that customer that makes the difference.

Anger is an emotional response, and it’s frequently driven by fear.  In a customer service situation, the customer’s fear may be of loss of control and the consequences it brings.  Will I get what I purchased?  Will the broken item be replaced? Will I have to explain to my spouse that I made a foolish purchase?  Will I have to explain to my kids that their vacation is ruined?

Whether intentional or not, most customer service has also conditioned us to feel humiliated.  When it’s you vs. The Corporation, you don’t feel confident that your viewpoint will prevail. Why don’t they believe me that it arrived broken?  Why is this clueless cashier unwilling to let me see a manager? Why are they quoting “corporate policy” at me when it clearly makes no sense?  Add in a healthy dose of frustration if the problem is not immediately resolved, and you’ve got an emotional time bomb instead of a customer.

Fear and anger are primitive emotions, designed to react to threatening situations and trigger an entire cascade of biochemical responses frequently described as “the fight-or-flight” reflex. When we suffer from stress, the more primitive part of our brain responds: the amygdala, hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal gland all release chemical messengers that drive production of the hormone cortisol, which increases blood pressure, blood sugar, and suppresses the immune system to create a boost of energy. Our bodies prepare for violent muscular action by:

  • Accelerating heart and lung action
  • Slowing or stopping digestion
  • Constriction of blood vessels in many parts of the body
  • Liberation of metabolic energy sources (particularly fat and glycogen) for muscular action
  • Dilation of blood vessels for muscles
  • Dilation of pupils
  • Auditory exclusion (loss of hearing)
  • Tunnel vision (loss of peripheral vision)
  • Shaking

Now, imagine a customer in the throes of that biological reaction.  He’s mad, and he’s mad at YOU.  What do you do?

Most organizations shoot themselves in the foot at this point, either by requiring a lengthy, multi-person bureaucratic process to address the issue or by attempting to respond to emotion with logic.  When a customer is truly angry, you need a different approach:

  • First, you need to validate the person’s anger and assure him that his concerns are real and that your organization will work to resolve them.
  • Next, you need to escalate the situation immediately to someone with the power and authority to actually resolve the situation.  You need to do this within the sight and hearing of the customer wherever possible; nothing makes an angry customer angrier than being left alone to wait and wonder what will happen next.  Do not pass an angry customer up a chain of command or tell the customer to go away until someone with the proper authority can address the problem.
  • Once you have the right person working on the problem, listen to the customer’s issue and complaints.  Ask the customer what he or she would like to happen next, and if at all feasible, do it without hesitation.  If the customer is so flustered that he or she has no answer, be prepared to propose a resolution.  Most importantly, do not engage in an argument with the customer, even if you completely disagree with his or her perspective.  You can’t win, and the “fight” response will simply increase.
  • Overreact to the situation in a positive way.  Companies will spend millions to acquire a customer, but will go cheap trying to save a customer from leaving.  Be prepared to overwhelm the customer with your response, and be prepared to spend real time and money doing so.
  • Do not include an implied obligation in your response.  I’ve encountered restaurants who respond to significant complaints by sending me a coupon for my next visit, which requires that a) I return to a place I already don’t like and b) I spend money to exercise my “benefit.”  Overwhelm the customer with your generosity, even if it means paying for them to go to a competitor.
  • Follow up with the customer when the emotional crisis has passed; the timeframe might be minutes, hours, or days depending on the circumstances.  The same person who resolved the situation should be the one following up; nothing says “unimportant” like passing it off to a junior assistant.
  • If the customer’s issue was legitimately caused by something your company did wrong, figure out how to prevent it before the next time happens.

You can’t win a logical argument with the emotional, primitive part of the brain, so your focus has to be on defusing the biological bomb and returning the customer to something approximating sanity.  Once your organization has this practice mastered you’ll find that even the angriest customer can become an advocate.

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