Dealing with Difficult Customers: 10 De-Escalation Steps


Soothing angry customers: It's not something that elicits a warm, fuzzy feeling – but it is inevitable. With any upset caller, the goal is to turn the encounter into a win for your business. You can’t control what people say or do, but you can control how you react. These negative experiences can be turned into opportunities to show the customer they were right to choose your company. Remember that by quickly resolving your angry customers’ concerns, you stand a chance of retaining up to 70 percent of them.

Still, it’s important to recognize that not all customers express their frustrations the same way. Everyone reacts differently to stress, and these differences in anger can influence what steps you take to manage irate customers. Here are a few personalities you may encounter.

  • The Talker. These customers aren’t sure what they want. They don’t know what a resolution to their problem looks like. They just want to be heard, so don’t zone them out. Practice your active listening skills. Once they’ve had their say, make sure you restate their concerns. This can help guide them to what they want from you.
  • The ExecutiveThese customers don’t care what it takes, they just want results! They expect you to know who they are, what their problem is, and how you can fix it for them. Getting information out of them may feel like pulling teeth, and they may resent questions. Be patient, explain what you’re doing and why you need the information you’re requesting.
  • The VenterThese customers are similar to The Talker, but they’re here to tell you how they really feel. They’re the screamers, the shouters, and the foot-stompers. Brace yourself for a potential tantrum on the phone. With The Venter, all you can do is ride it out. If you have to, mute your phone; but whatever you do, don’t interrupt! Once they're finished, empathize and begin to steer them towards a solution.
  • The Intimidator. These customers love the phrase “...or else!” It gets old, and can even sound silly, but try not to take it personally. Like The Venter, let them have their say. Repeat their concern back to them and allow them correct you if you misunderstood something. Proceed to drive the conversation towards a resolution.
  • The SuffererNo matter what you offer to do, it likely won’t be good enough for this customer. In their eyes, things will never be the same again, and it's all your fault! In this case, there may be no easy resolution the customer will accept. You’ll simply have to tell him or her, “I’m sorry, but that’s the best I can do. Thank you for understanding.”

We make a little fun of these customers here, but realize that their problems aren’t at all funny – especially not to them. They deserve attention, sympathy, and redress.

How to Deal with Difficult Customers

There is no one-size-fits all solution to difficult or angry customers. You can’t control whether or not a customer leaves the encounter satisfied, but there are subtle ways to influence how they respond to your efforts. Here are 7 tips to help:

  • Prepare in advanceAvoid “winging it” when you run into an angry customer. Practice responding to different concerns; it might even help to have a script prepared, but realize that the customer will hear it in your voice if you’re giving a “scripted” response. A script should only act as guidelines to help direct your exchange.
  • Keep emotions out of it. What’s worse than an exchange with one emotionally-charged caller? An exchange with two emotionally-charged callers. It’s important you stay calm throughout the conversation. Don’t let the customer bait you into retaliating, and always watch your tone. Speak slowly and softly. Remember that the customer isn’t attacking you personally. Any anger or abuse is caused by a core problem, which you’ll need to uncover before you can start on a solution.
  • Listen, listen, and listen some more. The best way to uncover the core problem is let your customers have their say, without interrupting or asking for clarification. Most importantly, don't tune them out – take notes if you need to. If they feel like you’re dismissive or not paying attention, that’s all it takes to lose them as a customer.
  • Identify and understand their anger. It isn’t always clear what made your customers so angry. What the customer complains about isn’t always the actual problem. This is where you have the chance to play detective. In many cases, the customer started out with certain expectations for your product or service, and that expectation wasn’t met.
  • Sympathize with them. Besides a fix to their problem, most customers are also looking for someone to tell them, “You’re right. This shouldn’t have happened. Your reaction is entirely reasonable.” What they don’t want is someone asking them why they're upset. Be sincere and don't use empty phrases like, "I know how you feel." Instead, try something along the lines of, “That sounds like a terrible experience. Let’s find a way to make this right.”
  • Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Never lie to the customer. You may be tempted to tell them what they want to hear to get them off the phone. Don’t do it! You’ll get found out eventually. You can tell a customer you’re trying to work out a solution, but help them understand it isn’t entirely up to you.
  • Avoid the hold or transfer button. Everyone hates waiting on hold, but maybe not as much as being transferred and having to explain your problem all over again. Only put them on hold if you're certain the problem is beyond your ability to solve. If you can, perform a warm transfer by first speaking to the person you’re transferring the customer to and telling them the issue. That way, your customer doesn’t have to repeat themselves.

They’re not angry customers, they’re opportunities.

Angry customers aren’t necessarily a sign of failure. They represent an opportunity for you to communicate how much you value them. A solid strategy outlining how to navigate these conversations improves your chances of retaining those customers.