Diffusing the Irate Customer

I've written before on the subject of callers who are ‘mad-as-hell-and-they’re-not-going-to-take-it-anymore,’ and it continues to be a top subject in our various call center training programs.


For as long as there have been companies selling things, angry, dissatisfied – and often rude – customers have been an unfortunate fact of business life.

In the call center industry, angry customers are frequently cited as a top cause of employee burnout and turnover. And – in the era of social media – they can have an outsized impact on brand reputation.

Most business owners or customer-facing employees will likely encounter at least one irate customer over the course of their career. Setting aside whether their anger is legit and well-placed (because, in all fairness, sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t), handling it can be a challenge.

It Isn’t You, It’s…Well, Your Employer
The first rule of thumb is to never internalize the customer’s anger. Remember, if it seems directed at you, it’s almost always because you are the face of the brand the customer encounters. But it isn’t personal, and it’s absolutely critical to never take it personally. (In an earlier post, I mentioned the issue of personal attacks – racist, sexist, etc.)

With that said, however, taking ownership of the problem or issue by accepting personal responsibility is crucial to helping satisfy the customer.

Here are some additional Do’s and Don’ts of Handling Difficult Customer Situations:

  • Avoid Upsets – Remain Calm
    The fastest way to escalate the situation is to mirror the tone of the customer. Instead, customer service agents should remain the island of calm in the ocean of anger. Much as anger is infectious, so – too – is calm and composure. It is much harder for a customer to maintain their angry façade when confronted with calm, collected, helpfulness.
  • It’s a Matter of Perspective
    One of the biggest mistakes made when facing an angry customer is failing to take their point of view into consideration. Always consider the customer’s perspective from his or her point of view. Try to understand why they’re mad, and what they believe went wrong. The ability to empathize with the customer is often the key to understanding what realistic outcome will solve the problem.
  • No Arguing
    Another big mistake: arguing with the customer. As much as they may be acting irrationally, you should never argue with a customer – address the customer calmly and softly. Again – avoid upsetting the customer and escalating the situation.
  • “Here’s What I Can Do”
    No customer ever wants to hear what you can’t do for them. Instead, tell them what you can Remember, the customer obviously already feels as though they’ve run up against a barrier. You need to provide solutions, not evasions or additional barriers.
  • Leverage Resources
    Agents should use all available resources to solve the customer’s problem, and there are usually quite a few that can be brought to bear. For technical questions, turn to in-house tech experts who can troubleshoot the problem or present the options. Billing questions may require the input or expertise of supervisors or managers. Agents can also turn to the Company’s CRM for information on handling or servicing the customer. Remember: it’s the agentwho should identify and loop-in internal resources to solve issues, rather than the client.
  • Avoid the Blame Game
    Shifting blame for the problem onto the company or co-workers is a no-no. While it may make the customer service rep’s life a little easier, it doesn’t help alleviate the customer’s anger – it just redirects and refocuses it internally elsewhere.

Getting The Customer to Turn the Corner
The primary objective of diffusing difficult customers is to get them to ‘turn the corner’ – to set aside their anger and turn their attention to problem resolution. Generally, the formula for diffusing difficult customer situations involves:

  • Attempt to re-establish dialogue with the customer.
  • Apologize/empathize/acknowledge them.
  • Listen carefully, and uncover the true cause of the problem.
  • Listen non-defensively.
  • Provide solutions.
  • Take action.
  • Anger is stressful! Relax, and take a deep breath.

What tactics or techniques have you found useful when handling an angry caller?