Article

Angry customers: How to de-escalate and get them on your side

You didn’t cause your customer’s anger. So how do you help them through it?

By Dave Dyson

Published September 10, 2018
Last updated September 21, 2021

An angry customer is one of the most difficult things to deal with in customer service. It’s hard to help someone who’s complaining, venting, or even cursing at you. It’s even harder to want to help them. What’s more, these exchanges are difficult to shake, making it tough to help the next person, who may be perfectly nice.

So, how do you deal with irate customers in a way that lets you give them the help they need without feeling wounded in the process?

What makes an angry customer angry?

Customers get angry when they experience something unpleasant that they don’t think they deserve. So, say your product doesn’t work the way your customer expected. Or perhaps your team fails to follow through on what they promised to a customer. In both situations, your once loyal customer not only feels pain—something isn’t happening as it should—but they also believe that they deserve something better.

Let’s break anger down even further. All of the following factors play a role in creating an angry customer.

The situation

The situation is your customer’s story of events leading up to their outreach. This includes the initial pain they felt when something went wrong. It’s also all of the efforts they put into trying to fix it, including any additional interactions with your company or your customer service team before the call at hand.

We see the same situations crop up time and time again in customer service. Our customers get angry when they:

  • Didn’t get the refund they wanted
  • Didn’t get the product on time or as expected
  • Were given a solution that didn’t work
  • Had to follow up with customer service more times than they thought appropriate

Don’t be surprised if your customer’s interpretation of the situation doesn’t align with how you, as a customer service rep or manager, see it. They might blow over some events or play up particularly painful ones, only feeding their anger further. Sometimes they’ll struggle to get the timeline straight or see the real cause of their pain. When a customer doesn’t have a clear view of the situation, it can be more difficult to de-escalate the conflict or solve their problem.

Your customer’s anger can change over time and experience with your customer support team. Ana Wiechers, director of advocacy customer trust at Zendesk, experienced this firsthand when she tried to replace a broken computer monitor in 2020.


Within a week of purchasing the monitor, it started showing strange black lines across the right side of the screen. Not thrilled but not enraged, Ana reached out to the company for a replacement. They apologized and promised her a replacement, but they said it would take a little while because it was on back order due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ana was okay with waiting, but six months passed and still no replacement. There was nothing in her inbox updating her on the status. No refund. Crickets. That small flicker of anger strengthened to a flame. Suddenly, she wasn’t angry that her once-new monitor wasn’t working. She was angry that the company she bought the monitor from didn’t fulfill their promise or seem to care about her at all.

The ramifications

Ramifications are what the customer thinks will happen if their conflict isn’t resolved. Perhaps they’re worried they can’t complete a job or will miss an opportunity. It could involve embarrassment or humiliation in front of coworkers or family. Or perhaps there’s money, career advancement, job security, or loss of business potentially at stake.

Consider this scenario: If your car breaks down on the way to the store, that’s bad. If your car breaks down on the way to a wedding, that’s worse. If your car breaks down on the way to your wedding, that’s a disaster. Same situations, different ramifications.

A situation that might otherwise seem fairly insignificant in the grand scheme of life may actually be very high stakes for the individual you’re working with. Their anger may result from stress—not so much because of the immediate situation but because of what it means to them.

A situation that might otherwise seem fairly insignificant in the grand scheme of life may actually be very high stakes for the individual you’re working with.

 

Their baseline stress

We all carry stress levels that vary depending on what’s going on in our lives. It’s called baseline stress, and it can exacerbate the tension in any situation.

Any number of things might amp up your customers’ baseline stress, including:

  • Unmet goals
  • Overcommitment
  • Unrelated job stress
  • Family conflicts
  • Health issues
  • Economic pressures
  • Politics

These may have little or nothing to do with the situation at hand, but underlying factors can set someone off. Your customer will probably not tell you about unrelated things on their mind, and it’s not your business to ask. What’s important to understand, though, is their baseline stress is likely impacting how they interact with you.

Their coping skills

Everyone has their breaking point. A person gets angry when a situation, its ramifications, and the person’s baseline stress exceed their ability to cope. On the other hand, if their coping skills are sufficient to manage the situation, its ramifications, and baseline stress, they might be able to keep a lid on their anger.

A scale signifying an angry customer. It’s tipping in favor of a person’s situation, ramifications, and baseline stress instead of their coping skills.

You get an angry customer when a person’s situation, ramifications, and baseline stress outweigh their coping skills.

Aside from whatever coping skills someone’s developed over their life, a number of factors can affect a person’s coping skills at any given moment—tiredness, hunger, or thirst, for example. The thing to remember is that there are a lot of factors playing into a customer’s anger. Most of them are not your fault, and most are outside of your ability to control.

How to not take customer anger personally

Whether you’re a customer support representative or the manager that an irate customer demands to speak with, most times, your customer’s anger will have little to do with you. Yet, you’ll have to bear the brunt of their venting.

So what are you supposed to do to avoid feeling angry as a result, or burned by the white heat of the customer’s anger?

Change your perspective

As the Reverend John Watson said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Your unhappy customers are at the mercy of their situations, ramifications, baseline stress levels, and coping skills. They may be angry, but you’re not to blame.

Remembering that your customer’s anger is not about you helps you distance yourself from the fault the customer may be trying to force on you. It also prompts you to investigate all the things that could be contributing to your customer’s anger. Finally, it makes it easier to see the other person as nuanced, in pain, and worthy of your empathy.

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

 
Verbal abuse can hurt, but if you can envision the other person as someone who’s in pain, it becomes easier to stay empathetic when they lash out. It even makes it possible to become your customer’s ally and resolve to help them through their anger.


Here’s a thought exercise to illustrate what I mean:

Imagine yourself facing an angry customer. They’re giving you their worst. Expensive, movie-grade computer graphic lasers, missiles, and flames are shooting out of them, right at you. It’s no fun, and if you want to survive, you’re going to need to become fireproof—at the risk of losing your empathy. So that’s not what you do.

Instead, step over and stand right next to that customer, shoulder to shoulder. Face what they’re facing. Now, all those impressive and scary special effects—which, again, are not about you to begin with—are aimed out into space, away from you. You’re by your customer’s side, able to see what’s happening but out of harm’s way.

To be clear, you don’t deserve to be abused. There are people who will present anger as a tactic, using harsh, insulting, and even degrading language as a means to achieve their goal. Your company should have policies in place to protect you from that.

Another way to advocate for yourself in difficult customer interactions is to learn how best to manage them. We dive into more tactical tips in the section below.

10 tactics for dealing with angry customers

Your instinct might be to yell back, be sarcastic, disengage, hang up, or close the ticket. But, in most cases, you can’t really do that without consequence. Here’s what you should do to grow stronger customer relationships instead.

  1. Give them the floor (at first)

    They’re angry. They have something to say. So the first thing you should always do, no matter if you already know about the situation, is give them the floor. Take opportunities to verbalize that you’re listening (using words like “I see” or “okay,” for example) but don’t interrupt. It’s your customer’s time to express what they’re feeling and experiencing. It’s your job to listen.

    That is unless you’re the second or third touchpoint for this customer. While this tactic is great for initial interactions, it can actually make a customer angrier to rehash their experience over and over again. Even worse, the more your customer repeats their story, the more it sinks into their head and becomes their source of truth. When a story becomes true, it’s more difficult to reframe and reach a solution when it’s time to problem solve.

  2. Acknowledge your customer’s emotions

    Instead of jumping straight into problem-solving, spend a moment validating what your customer feels. Try something as simple as stating that you understand the pain they’re experiencing. You can also apologize or say, “You’re right” if your company dropped the ball.

    Use this opportunity to play to your customer’s human side. If your team made a mistake, give them context. Let them know the cause—whether that’s unanticipated sick leave or pandemic pressures—that contributed to their pain. That context helps your customer understand that everyone, even the customer service rep they’re yelling at, is just trying to do their best.

    Whatever you say, make sure it’s a genuine and specific acknowledgment of where the failure occurred. Most customers can tell when you’re faking, and doing so only makes them angrier.

  3. Restate what they told you

    Restating what they said shows that you’re listening and taking them seriously. You can also use this tactic to make sure you understand their situation and what they want from you.

    Choose your words carefully when you restate the situation back to your customer. You can use the customer’s words to signal that you’re not minimizing their pain. However, also look for opportunities to tweak the language to something less loaded, more tangible, and more along the lines of a problem you can solve.

    After restating what your customer said, ask them to confirm that you got it right. A simple agreement there goes a long way to deescalating the tension and putting you both into more of an “ally” space.

  4. Move to an appropriate channel

    It might make sense to move a social media or text conversation to phone if it’s particularly heated. Likewise, you may need to switch to a video call so you can screenshare as you troubleshoot their issue. Don’t be afraid to embrace omnichannel and move the conversation to a different medium so you can better help your angry customer.

    At Zendesk, we prefer to bring upset customers into a video call as it makes it easier to connect, analyze body language, empathize, and have a more human conversation. “Jumping on a Zoom call signals that I’m taking this seriously. But it also works in my favor, too, because it forces my customer to make a human connection,” said Ana. “Suddenly, ‘Oh, I’m not yelling at Zendesk. I’m yelling at Erin, a real person. And here’s a picture of her dog, and I like dogs.’”

    We use Slack to quickly follow up with customers—particularly our B2B customers. WhatsApp is our go-to for global customers.

    Jumping on a Zoom call signals that I'm taking this seriously. But it also works in my favor, too, because it forces my customer to make a human connection. Suddenly, 'Oh, I'm not yelling at Zendesk. I'm yelling at Erin, a real person. And here's a picture of her dog, and I like dogs.

  5. Think critically about what your customer really wants

    Do they want a refund, or are they just looking for someone to validate their experience? Remember, the reason your customer is angry can change throughout their interaction with you and your team. Before addressing your customer’s request, you need to understand what’s behind it.

    You may need to go above and beyond your usual problem solving to help your customer out, and that’s okay. “It’s not a bad thing to give your customer homework because most problems aren’t solely on us,” said Ana. “They can execute and see better results. And maybe they’ll remember when you recommended they do that and think of you fondly.”

    For example, when an angry customer reached out to Zendesk because he hadn’t received a promised follow-up, Ana did a little digging to see what went wrong. She discovered that the customer hadn’t received the email she’d sent him weeks before.

    After talking the customer through his product issue on the phone, Ana went the extra length to walk him through how to approach his IT team about the email issue. The IT team found wider greylisting issues with the company email account. They were able to resolve the problem and prevent future ones from cropping up, thanks to Ana’s persistence.

    It’s not a bad thing to give your customer homework because most problems aren’t solely on us. They can execute and see better results. And maybe they’ll remember when you recommended they do that and think of you fondly.

  6. Set clear next steps (and follow through on them)

    Often enough, you won’t be able to solve your angry customer’s problem right away. When that happens, it becomes even more critical to communicate exactly how your team will fix their issue and what to expect.

    We walk our customers through a roadmap of how we plan to resolve their problem. This roadmap includes what we’ll do for them right away, what comes after that, and when the customer can expect a resolution. For example, if we can’t troubleshoot a product issue with a customer immediately, we’ll schedule a next-day appointment with a product manager on that call. Then we’ll tell the customer to expect a follow-up email from the customer support team 24 hours after the appointment to make sure all is well.

    Set customer expectations by telling them specific next steps. If your customer knows when you’ll follow up or when their problem will be resolved, they won’t need to call every hour for an update. Communicating clear next steps prevents the situation from becoming more heated and putting more pressure on your team. By following through as promised, you can de-escalate your customer’s anger.

  7. Stay consistent

    Inconsistent customer service interactions can confuse and escalate angry customers. It’s critical for everyone on your team to be on the same page about what’s happening and what the solution is.

    Share customer data, history, and context to stay consistent. Everyone who interacts with a customer needs to know what the customer wants, what their history is, their plan, their pain, what’s been done so far to resolve it, and the recommended solution. Consistency keeps the customer from rehashing the details too many times, often causing them to become more irritated. Zendesk’s agent workspace, for example, helps service reps and managers keep track of everything they need to know about a customer in one place.

    Consistency also deters agent shopping. When a customer hears different things from different people, they may insist on speaking to someone else until they get what they want. Agent shopping wastes your team’s time and encourages your customer to return to this bad behavior in future customer service interactions. You can discourage this by making sure everyone on your team offers the same solutions.

  8. Explore solutions even if you know they’re not available

    Say your customer comes to you demanding a refund, and you know a refund isn’t an option. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go to your manager and ask for it anyway. Doing so demonstrates to your customer that you’re putting in the effort to do everything in your power to help them. “Showing that you’re willing to work for them, not take the easy way out, goes a long way even if it results in the same outcome,” said Erin Hampe, senior manager of customer trust at Zendesk.

    Showing that you’re willing to work for them, not take the easy way out, goes a long way even if it results in the same outcome.

  9. Ask for help from your team

    Don’t be afraid to ask for help in uncomfortable situations, like when a customer is using abusive, sexist, or otherwise inappropriate language. If you’re unsure whether you need to terminate a customer interaction, ask a manager to come in and do a subjective review. They can analyze the situation and determine the best next steps for you and the customer.

    Teammates and managers can also provide solutions for customer issues you’re unsure of how to solve. Reach out to your product or engineering team for more technical questions or ask fellow customer service reps how they approached a similar issue. A manager can also do more investigating and open closed doors for your customer in some cases.

  10. Hang up as a last resort

    Yes, it’s an option. But if you go this route, be sure to involve a manager beforehand. Involving a manager gives them a chance to help you think through creative solutions and exhaust all options. It also provides them with the visibility they need to know that you did everything you could in that situation.

    Ready to hang up on an upset customer? Revenue might stay your hand. You and your manager are more likely to fight harder for a repeat, loyal customer on a pricier plan than someone who just purchased your product for the first time with a 70 percent off code.

    However, customer revenue is only part of the picture. You might consider firing a customer who repeatedly contacts your team to the point of harassment. Long-term customer issues can take up hundreds of hours and cost teams more than the customer’s worth.

Customers aren’t the only people who get angry

It’s easy to internalize the frustration and irritation your customers bring to you every day. Add your own baseline stress, personal issues, and perceived ramifications, and you might have a hard time finding the empathy you need to handle angry customers. It can even create team conflict or problems at home.

Keeping calm in your day-to-day customer interactions is a matter of self-care. Head on over to “Take care of yourself, your team, and your customer—in that order” to learn tactics for integrating ease into your workday.