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What to Say to Angry Customers

With the current crisis, contact center representatives are grappling with heightened workloads and anxious customers. The following excerpt is from a course for agents, Working in a Customer Contact Center (LinkedIn Learning), which was developed and presented by Brad Cleveland, Senior Advisor to ICMI.

In your role as an agent, you will inevitably interact with angry customers. It comes with the territory.

  • Their anger could be caused by a process or product that has gone awry.
  • They may have already had a bad experience as they attempted to get resolution.
  • Or maybe, their anger is misplaced; your organization has not dropped the ball but—for any number of reasons (systemic failure, national crisis, etc.)—the customer is frustrated, frightened, or confused.
  • And some feel they will get better service if they express their unhappiness and warn of consequences, such as providing bad reviews or taking their business elsewhere.

While customers can certainly be angry in any channel—chat, text, email, whatever—I'll focus here on verbal communication and the dialogue taking place. The same core elements for communication apply:

First, keep calm. Remember that the customer’s anger is not directed at you. Don't “match” their tone. Be professional and even-keeled and, more often than not, the customer will begin to match your tone. A 3,000-year-old proverb says, "A gentle answer turns away wrath." Many experienced agents will say, "Yep, always remaining kind and polite goes a long way toward calming down a situation."

Next, allow the customer to tell their story. Listen carefully to the words they say; don’t be distracted by their angry tone. Use verbal prompts to let the customer know you are with them, such as "I understand,” and “I see.” Ask questions as appropriate, but don’t interrupt.

Summarize and empathize. Show you are listening by repeating their main points. You can start by saying something like, “I want to make sure I have it right,” or “Let me repeat back to you what I heard.” Empathy goes a long way.

Apologize when appropriate. If your company caused or contributed to a problem, acknowledge it in a sincere way. You can say something like, “I am sorry that happened. I understand why you’re frustrated, and I am going to do everything I can to help.”

Own the solution. Recognize that you may have to take some extra steps to resolve the issue. Imagine that it is you in the customer’s situation. What would you like to see happen? Take the actions needed.

When feasible, offer options. That can help the customer feel they’ve gained back some of the control they lost due to the problem.

Finally, if the customer becomes abusive or threatens harm, follow your organization's guidelines. Know what to do if there is a physical threat to you or your facility. These situations will require specific protocols such as involving others or contacting authorities.

You can summarize many of these steps with an approach that is sometime called the HEAT model (H, E, A, T):

  • Hear Them Out
  • Empathize
  • Ask Questions as Needed
  • Take Action

On the flip side, here are a few things you should never say to an angry customer.

“Sorry, but…” If you say the word “but”, you are negating everything that came before. Saying “Sorry, but…” is worse than not apologizing at all.

“Calm down.” There’s a saying that telling an angry person to calm down works about as well as trying to put out a fire with paper. Don’t say it; you will just fuel their anger.

“Let me speak.” This will shut down lines of communication even quicker than telling the customer to calm down. Of course, it’s necessary that you do speak—just don’t preface what you say with that statement.

“According to our policy…” You can almost see the customer roll their eyes. Instead, use a phrase such as, “Given what's happened, here’s what we CAN do..."

“It’s not our fault.” By saying this, you’re implying a lack of responsibility. Find a better way to say it, such as, "Let's look at some options." Effective airline agents are great with this. Instead of saying, "The weather has impacted service and I can't get you on another flight until tomorrow," they'll say, "I can get you out first thing in the morning; would you like for me to grab one of those seats?"

It takes practice to find ways to ensure your impact is as positive and helpful as possible! But you'll see firsthand the better results as you develop these skills.

Let me offer one more recommendation, one which probably is the most important: Remember that you’re doing important work. It’s hard work and it can sometimes be disheartening and downright draining. But your role in helping customers during the most difficult times and in the toughest circumstances really matters. You’re making a difference for them, for their families, and ultimately for the larger community.

Topics: Coronavirus, Customer Experience, Contact Channels