De-escalation is a strategy that everyone who runs a business or works with customers needs to master. Left unchecked, an irate customer can become a significant problem for a business. They may spread the word that your business isn’t trustworthy or that you don’t deliver quality products or services. Remember that trust is hard to gain but easily lost. Taking time to learn how to deal with irate customers effectively is time well spent.
There are two typical reasons why customers get irritated or angry at a business. One is that there is an issue with the product or service that they have received. The other is that they are not receiving customer support as expected.
When customers have product-related issues, they usually bring complaints immediately. They have purchased a product, and it isn’t working as expected, is of worse quality than they expected, is defective, or they aren’t able to work with it as they want to.
People feel several different emotions during these situations. They might feel that the business has lied to them about the quality they were able to offer. They might feel angry and shame that they couldn’t resolve the issue. They will also feel disappointed that they are in this situation. None of these are pleasant emotions and tend to lead to anger.
These situations arise when customers have an issue, have attempted to resolve it through customer support, and find that they are unable to. Sometimes this is because the situation cannot be remedied. After all, there simply isn’t a solution the company can offer. In these moments, the customer may have expected something of a product or service that is unrealistic, but they believe it should be.
The customer may have been involved with multiple customer service representatives before getting to a stage of anger. The issue they have might be able to be resolved, or it might not be, but the customer still needs to be managed in a fair and understanding way.
Sometimes these issues arise mid-support conversation. The customer might disagree with a solution or something that you’ve said. They may feel lied to. They may feel that you simply don’t care. Often these are deeper-seated issues that go beyond the current situation.
The 13 following tips will help you to understand why a customer might feel how they do, how you can assist them, de-escalate the situation, and turn a negative moment into a positive one.
These situations are often cortisol-producing, high-stress moments that can rile even the calmest of people. Often when people are angry, they have had time to get angry, to build those feelings, and then suddenly, you find yourself on the end of an angry individual’s best shouting performance. Remember that chances are they are not angry at you specifically but at the situation that has arisen, and you are their opportunity to vent.
Take a breath and keep your cool, mirroring anger with anger is the easiest way to escalate a situation beyond your control. That will only serve to make things worse for everyone.
When someone is angrily ranting at you, it can be challenging to listen to what they’re saying, but it is at this time that it is most important to practice active listening. Active listening involves you focusing on the specifics of what they are saying so that you pick up on the important themes and words. When you actively listen to what they are saying, you’re able to pick out what has made them get to this stage of irritation. This puts you in a position of control, where you can pay little attention to the angry emotive words and more to what has caused the issue.
Linked intrinsically to the previous point, once you have actively listened to their words, remember them, then repeat them back to them. By using their own words, it shows not only that you are listening to them but also you’re responding in terms that they are comfortable using. Replying using technical jargon or complicated wording may only serve to irritate them even further.
You might even go so far as telling them precisely what you have heard them say, “I hear that….”
Remember that there could still be a relationship salvaged from this conversation. This customer has taken time out of their day to contact you. An easy way to placate them is to thank them for doing so. A simple “Thank you for bringing this to my attention.” will go a long way. Then, during the remainder of the conversation, keep offering thanks. Especially if you need to be absent from the call while troubleshooting or talking with a colleague.
Even if they go after you specifically and the service that you’re providing at that moment in time, saying thank you for their feedback and the opportunity to improve your service shows that you’re not angry at them. Just be sure to do it sincerely and without a patronizing tone.
Often people think that once they have vented their concerns, they will simply be filed and ignored, and the company will just move on. By letting them know what the next steps are, they will feel reassured that you will continue to action items even after the call.
This can be as simple as letting them know who will be in contact next, but a better way forward is to explain the precise steps that will happen next. If you’re going to escalate their complaint, then let them know. If you’re planning on talking with a colleague or conducting an investigation, let them know that too, and even let them know when they’ll hear the outcome of your discussions.
Some people will expect resolution during first contact, this often isn’t possible and the time away from the phone serves
When someone isn’t being respectful to you, it is only natural to want to be disrespectful in return. The truth is that in the customer service industry, you need to stay respectful regardless of the customer’s standpoint. That means replying in a sincere and non-judgemental manner, explicitly avoiding any patronizing tones, and remaining on the customer’s level at all times.
If customers join a call with a high level of anger, and then it turns out to be their error, it might be tempting to point out that it was their error all along. Avoid doing so at all costs. The last thing you want is for the customer to feel embarrassed as well as angry.
Everyone likes to feel that they are being listened to and that they are important to a brand. Even if they are one of your most inactive customers, telling them that their problem is important to you and that you will make sure it is resolved goes a long way to de-escalating angry customers.
During the conversation, you’ll likely feel that you’re struggling to keep up. Even with active listening, it can be difficult to recall specifics once the moment has passed. A great technique is to take notes. This could be on paper or an open document online. However you take notes, you’ll want to refer back to them afterward so that you get the specifics of the issue correct when talking with colleagues during troubleshooting. It’s also a helpful way of documenting the conversation should there be any questions raised after the event.
The majority of the time, people are looking for the company that they’re dealing with to acknowledge that they are owed an apology. Sometimes this is the sum total of what they’re looking for. The best method is to offer an apology for any inconvenience that the customer is having to deal with during the opening of the conversation. It sets the tone and shows that you are aware that this isn’t a good situation for them to be facing.
Simply saying the word “sorry” and then moving on doesn’t feel particularly genuine, and an empty apology is worthless. Instead, show that you are genuinely offering an apology by addressing the specifics that it should relate to. You might say, “I’m sorry that the service isn’t working correctly for you….”
The next method to employ to ensure that your apology sounds genuine is to follow up your specifics with a solution. Elaborating on our previous example, “I’m sorry that the service isn’t working correctly for you. First, I’m going to check that our systems are working correctly. Then I’ll look at your account specifically; that might mean I need to contact a senior technician.” In this example, you’re validating their concerns with an apology for the inconvenience followed by an immediate explanation of what you are planning to do about it. This method often immediately de-escalates the situation as people feel that you’re willing to work with them rather than against them.
It isn’t a skill that comes naturally to everyone, but empathy is a customer service skill that everyone needs. The key is to try and imagine how you would feel put in their situation. That will help you understand where their anger is coming from, helping you to cope with the stress of the situation.
Empathy is particularly powerful when you tell the customer that you understand their feelings and that you would likely feel the same way in their situation. It validates their emotions and often de-escalates their immediate anger. When troubleshooting, remember that the customer is stressed and likely running on adrenaline, so take your time with solutions that they need to carry out themselves, or if you’re asking for information they have to find.
Many calls are recorded for training and management purposes. Most online chats record transcripts. These are really helpful in evaluating how you handled the situation. If you’re providing customer service in a large organization, then you’ll likely have this as part of your professional development and evaluations. If you run a business yourself, offer customer support staff the opportunity to evaluate their service with another colleague or their line manager.
It’s important that customer service personnel don’t feel judged for their interaction. After all, it’s a stressful situation for them too. Instead, evaluate empathetically and explore how the situation could be improved next time.
This tip is easier said than done, but it’s important to remember that these calls are (usually) never directly related to you personally. More the business that you represent hasn’t been able to deliver the services or products required of it in the way that the customer expects. Learning to detach the personal from the role that you’re fulfilling is no easy task, but if you’re able to master it then you’ll find these calls far easier to deal with.
It’s a simple step, but address the customer by name once you’ve discovered who it is that you’re talking with. This level of customer service personalization should be the minimum expected. Always ask their name at the start of the conversation and mirror back their name as they gave it. Therefore if someone says their name is James, call them James, but if they say their name is Mr. Green, call them Mr. Green.
Learning how to de-escalate customers that are feeling irritated or angry is a skill that will always be of use. It helps in businesses of all shapes and sizes in all industries. It is highly unlikely that you’ll go through your career without needing these skills at some point.