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What contact centre staff need to know about de-escalating angry customers

28th Sep 2015
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With any customer service job you are likely to have frequent run-ins with dissatisfied, angry, and downright mean customers. The way these interactions are handled can either leave a customer satisfied and more loyal to your company, or result in the loss of a customer and gain of a detractor. Understanding effective de-escalation techniques can prepare customer service agents to confidently handle the concerns of irate customers without further upsetting the customer.

Confrontation with customers can be uncomfortable, intimidating, and upsetting. It is important to remember that handling angry customers ineffectively can have a negative impact on employees. Call centre employees are the victim of customer rage more than nearly any other employee. Because of the frequency and severity of abrasive calls, agents often report high levels of stress and anxiety. Particularly, outsourced call centre agents can exhibit physical symptoms, such as a rapid heartbeat and a tight stomach, as well as negative emotions, such as decreased confidence and feeling a lack of control. These issues can lead to increased absenteeism and a high employee turnover. Being trained in appropriate de-escalation techniques will help both customer and employee to have a positive experience.

De-escalating techniques often feel unnatural because when we are faced with an intense confrontation, we are naturally driven to fight, flight or freeze. While handling confrontation, employees have to avoid what comes naturally. The following are common negative responses from phone agents:

  • Getting angry back: Raising voice, interrupting, speaking disrespectfully.
  • Feeling intimidated: Being overly apologetic, letting customer take over the interaction.
  • Escaping: Trying to end or transfer the call as fast as possible, or placing customer on hold unnecessarily.

The key to avoiding these pitfalls, though it seems unnatural, is to remain centred and calm, even when feeling agitated. Keeping an even tone of voice and a normal volume will help to facilitate an effective conversation and allow a satisfactory outcome.

With the proper frame of mind and control of emotions, employees will find the use of the following de-escalation techniques to be empowering and effective in conflict resolution with angry customers.

Let them vent

It is important to remember that what an angry customer really needs is to feel heard. Anyone in an argument wants to know their concerns are valid, understood, and taken seriously. Listen to them before trying to defuse the situation. Avoid interrupting or trying to cut them off, even if you understand the problem or are aware of the solution before they are through speaking. This is not the time to try and lighten the mood or crack a joke. Just listen with the intent to understand and help.

It may be helpful to keep a notepad handy and jot down the main points of the customer’s concerns. Angry customers are prone to tangents, but will appreciate that you were listening closely to the real problem, and that by the end of their rant, you are closer to being able to find a solution with them. Your conscientious listening will help ease the customer’s tension.

Show empathy

Put yourself in the customer’s place, without your knowledge of company policies and inner workings. Would you be frustrated by the issue at hand? Even if you would not react as strongly, remember that frustration is behind their agitated dialogue. This is not a time for judgement. Try to sincerely empathise with the customer and their situation. If you would become angry or upset in a similar situation, feel free to tell the customer so. Letting them know you empathize with them helps them make a human connection to your company. It will also appear as though you are not excusing or defending what may be the company’s fault or a broken process.

Recap and confirm

When a customer pauses (you’ll hear a break or change in the tone of their voice), take a moment to recap what they have said. This allows the customer to feel understood, it helps employees seek the correct course of action, and it provides an opportunity for the customer to clarify their concern in the case that the employee misunderstood. The phone agent can simply say: “As I understand it, your concern is XYZ, is that correct?” Feeling understood will help to defuse the customer’s anger.

Ask if there’s anything to add

Immediately after recapping and confirming the customer’s concern, verify that the customer is finished stating their concerns. Ask if they have anything to add. This helps the customer to avoid feeling rushed, and shows that you are attentive and willing to do whatever work is involved in solving the whole issue.

Apologise and get to work

If the issue is due to broken processes or the fault of the company, recognise it and apologise to the customer. Sincerely apologising for the issue and cause of frustration can work wonders in de-escalating anger. Make your intentions clear and state that you are going to do everything in your power to correct or make up for the issue, then quickly move on to helping the customer find a solution to the problem.

Find a solution together

Involve the customer in the search for a solution. Giving the customer options allows them to feel in control of the resolution. It also allows them to feel that you are an advocate or a partner rather than an adversary. Tell them what you can do for them and be sure to ask if what you suggest is an adequate solution. They may have an idea of a solution that you can easily facilitate. Letting them feel part of the process shifts their focus from anger to resolution.

Make good on your promises

Be sure that you follow through on any promises made. If you’ve promised something that you cannot personally fulfill, let the customer know that you will be checking in on their account in a few days to ensure that the other employee or department involved took care of the issue. Making good on your promises shows the customer that they can trust you and your company to resolve their concerns in the future.

Empowered, confident phone agents = satisfied customers

Properly using these de-escalation techniques empowers employees to feel in control of stressful conversations, and allows them to calmly create an atmosphere of mutual respect, trust and satisfaction as they quickly work to resolve customer concerns. A customer who is heard, respected and whose needs are met will walk away from a potentially unpleasant interaction satisfied and willing to allow their future concerns to be handled without anger.

Hayden Beck is a freelance writer that works with ROI Call Center Solutions.

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