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How to deal with stressed and angry customers

6th Jul 2009
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The economic crisis can leave tempers frayed but biting back at angry customers does nothing for repeat business. New York Times bestselling author Kerry Patterson explains the common mistakes when dealing with stressed customers and how to rectify them.

As people face layoffs, cut backs, decreases in bonuses and the like in this turbulent economy, many customers are feeling stressed. And with this stress comes anger - often aimed at people on the frontline. It can be easy to get defensive or bite back but part of customer service means recognising these. But there are also some common misconceptions about how to react.

After 30 years of studying stress, particularly when my partners and I first began to study emotional outbursts, we observed dozens of explosive interactions and almost nobody handled them well. Here are the big five mistakes and how to handle them:
Mistake One: Patronising the client
If you’ve been instructed that you shouldn’t get angry at a customer who has become angry at you, the most common replacement behavior is to talk down to them. “I’m sorry, but I’m doing my best here to solve the problem and you’re acting very unprofessionally. You must calm down before we continue this conversation.” All true - but exactly the wrong thing to say.
Mistake Two: Controlled anger
You’ve been told you can’t get angry, so you try to hide your emotions by not saying anything mean or disrespectful. Of course, your non-verbal reactions could start a fist fight, but you’re not saying anything bad. If you let yourself get angry, you’re very likely to show it and if you show it you’re part of the conflict.
Mistake Three: "You shouldda oughtta"
With many blow-ups, the other person contributed to the problem by being imperfect in some way and it seems only natural to point out their role in the problem. “We told you of our upcoming price increase. You should have purchased more material six months ago when the price was lower.” Telling the person he or she is a dimwit is not a good strategy.
Mistake Four: Righteous indignation
When someone is verbally abusing you, you think to yourself 'how dare they treat me in such a way'! In fact, they’re acting so unprofessionally, they deserve whatever I’m about to give them in return!” These are the words that go through your head right before you become angry and unload on the customer. Any interaction that starts with “they deserve what I’m about to give them,” ends with you in trouble. Giving yourself permission to act unprofessionally and then doing so quickly takes the spotlight off the abusive client and places it squarely on you. Long after everyone has forgotten how poorly your client treated you, they’ll be talking about that day you lost control.
Mistake Five: Correcting a minor point
Desperate to change the subject or take away the other person’s right to complain, people often stop the verbal onslaught by pointing out a minor factual error: “Actually, the price increase is 6%, not 7%.” Once again, correcting people - and in this case, pointing out an issue that has little or nothing to do with the anger in the first place - only leads to increased anger.
Okay, so we’ve covered the most common mistakes, even when the person is trying his or her best to not become emotionally out of control. What’s a person to do instead?
Show empathy: When someone starts to raise their voice, they want you to listen to them. Empathetically listening may seem unnatural at first because you’re just dying to step in and solve the problem. Don’t. First, listen. Then as you listen, the angry person wants you to show empathy. They’re suffering so they want you to feel bad in return. This is done as much through your expression as through what you say.
Show understanding:  Once the other person realises that you care, they want to know that you understand them. In your own words, repeat their issues and concerns. Don’t correct them or set the record straight; repeat back their view. This can be hard - particularly when you know they’re wrong - but restate their view as their view, not the truth. They want to know they’ve been understood.
Connect to values: Finally, once you’ve shown empathy and understanding, explain how your actions are aimed at satisfying the client’s long-term values. “We’ve been forced to increase our prices so we’ll be around to meet your needs over the long-run.” By connecting to their values, you take the focus off the short-term pain and place it on your long-term, value-based purpose, where it belongs.
So, next time you find yourself talking to an angry customer, fight your natural tendency to patronise them, hide your emotions, point out your client’s role in the problem, give them what (you think) they deserve, or correct them. Instead, show empathy and understanding, and connect to their values. How you behave in these high-stakes and emotional conversations will determine if you keep or lose valuable business relationships, if your company succeeds and, ultimately, if you keep your job through the duration of this economic downturn.
Kerry Patterson is co-author of three New York Times bestsellers:  Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer: The Power to Change Everything He is also a speaker, consultant,  and co-founder of VitalSmarts.

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