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How to Handle Angry Customers and Improve Customer Service

A professional career coach, Marcy has helped hundreds refine their resumes, improve their interviewing skills, and advance their careers.

How do you handle angry customers? One angry customer can lead to a significant loss of business if not handled properly.

How do you handle angry customers? One angry customer can lead to a significant loss of business if not handled properly.

Every Customer Complaint You Hear Usually Means 10 Others Are Also Unhappy

It's an old saying and not proven scientifically, but it's pretty accurate to assume there are many more upset customers than the ones you hear from each month.

If you work in a store or provide a service such as hair styling or car repair, you probably have more good experiences than bad ones with your customers or clients, right?

But once in a while, someone complains, and sometimes they come across as rude or hateful while voicing their dissatisfaction. How you react in this situation can make or break your business reputation.

When you're faced with an angry, unhappy customer, you can either reverse the situation and gain a loyal customer or client you'll have for many years, or you can drive them away for good and risk losing other customers as well.

Years ago, it was commonly felt that for every one person who complains, there are 10 others who don't speak up. A corollary to that theory was that every unhappy client or customer shares their story with at least five to 10 people.

Today, however, the Internet puts businesses at a greater risk of negative exposure to the public. In addition to sharing the story with their family, friends and co-workers, that one angry client or customer is likely to post information on Facebook or on one of the sites that reviews businesses or professionals.

These tips will help you keep your cool when you're faced with an angry customer, and they'll also help you keep their business.

Don't shut them out! Be receptive and listen, and you'll resolve complaints more effectively.

Don't shut them out! Be receptive and listen, and you'll resolve complaints more effectively.

How to Listen to the Customer

We've heard for years that "rule number one" is "the customer is always right!"

Forget that one, at least just for the moment. Maybe the customer is right, and maybe not. But if you have an angry client or customer on the phone or in front of you, rule number one is now, "Listen to this person and let them know you heard them."

Not every customer knows how to make a complaint that will get results. Often, all they bring forward at first is their anger, and it takes a skilled person to listen and uncover the problem.

You can diffuse anger almost immediately, in just about any situation, if you truly listen to what the person says and then repeat it back to them. The tension literally starts to fade when that happens. Here's how it works:

Angry Customer: "I'm fed up with this place - I'm never coming here again!"

You: "I'm sorry you had a bad experience; can you tell me what happened?" (You acknowledge the customer's experience wasn't the best, and you ask for details - your job now is to listen!)

Angry Customer: "Yeah, I'll tell you what happened! This!" Customer holds up a broken item. "It's a piece of junk!"

You: "So you're saying this isn't working right? Or it broke? Can you show me what went wrong?"

At this point, Angry Customer is probably calming down a bit, because he knows you're listening. The reason he knows you're listening is that you paraphrased what he said by asking if the item had broken or stopped performing.

If you've ever been in a mediation setting, you'll recognize this strategy. Mediators use 'mirror' language to help resolve issues, and they ask those they work with in dispute resolutions to learn to repeat to each other what they have heard.

This does several things - it ensures that what you think you heard is indeed what the person meant to say, and it lets the angry person know their words have actually been heard.

Bad Customer Service and Rude Management: Classic Fawlty Towers Comedy Scenes

5 Mistakes to Avoid When You Hear Complaints

The list of mistakes that can be made when someone complains is nearly endless. Here are just a few things to avoid:

  1. Don't assume this person is a constant complainer. Many people (those 10 other dissatisfied customers you didn't hear from) avoid this type of confrontation, because it takes nerve and it isn't comfortable. Perhaps this person is the one in 11 who actually confronts problems. If so, he or she has done you a favor.
  2. Don't cast blame on the person who is complaining by pointing out they're behaving in an angry fashion. They already know they're angry, and it's your job to listen. In their mind, they have a reason to be angry. Once you listen a bit, you may end up agreeing.
  3. Don't use the lame statement, "We've never had complaints about XYZ before!" Maybe you haven't had complaints before, but you have one now.
  4. Don't start asking what they did to cause the problem. Yes, perhaps the item broke due to misuse, but properly handling this situation can help you retain them as a customer and avoid the fallout you might get if they take their complaints elsewhere. Your first job is to listen!
  5. Don't say, "Well, there's nothing we can do!" That may indeed be the case, but those words will only anger the person further. Start by saying, "Let me see what we can do."

7 Helpful Strategies to Resolve Customer Complaints

Now that you've listened and heard the complaint, here are ways you can resolve the situation. Please note, this does not mean that all issues can be 'fixed.' It just means you can resolve the current situation, which is that you have an angry customer in front of you.

  1. Thank them for letting you know they have a problem. Here's a good phrase: "I really appreciate you for telling us about this. Sometimes customers have a bad experience, but they don't let us know, and we would like to have an opportunity to fix things."
  2. Ask if they have had other concerns in the past. Maybe this isn't the first time they've been upset with your services. Tell them you want to learn how to improve.
  3. Apologize for what they went through. This could be anything - a party that was a disaster because the seam in a dress split, a car that broke down on a rural road, a meal that was ruined when the appliance failed, etc. Let them know you recognize they had a bad (even disastrous) experience and that you would have been upset in that position as well.
  4. Ask how you can make it better. They may not have thought about what will make them happy. And maybe you can't do what they ask. But they will calm down just because you asked them what they'd like to see happen.
  5. Ask how you can keep them as a customer. This tells them you value them, and that's important right now. Often, an angry customer will be so calmed by this time that they'll say, "I just appreciate you listening to me."
  6. Use the "Sandwich Method" to tell bad news. If you can't fix their problem, sandwich that information between two positive statements. Suppose the customer has brought back an item that has an expired warranty. Here's how your discussion would sound: "I really appreciate you letting us know about this problem. I wish we could replace this with a new one, but that's not possible now, because the warranty has expired. Let me see what else we can do for you."
  7. Offer whatever solution you can give. If you can't repair, replace or otherwise make it good, perhaps you can offer an attractive discount on another item, a gift certificate, some free services or another consideration to help resolve the issue.

Example of Exceptional Customer Service

How to Create a Customer-Oriented Environment

Now that you've heard how to talk to those angry people, how can you create a corporate or business environment that focuses on the client and customer?

There are thousands of training videos on this very topic, but just a few core values can help inspire you and everyone on your staff to approach customers the right way. When you adopt these approaches, your entire organization can improve almost daily. The reason for that is simple; each customer is treated as a new opportunity to serve.

Train your staff to anticipate needs in a helpful way and to spot opportunities to address problems, make a situation work out 'right,' and go the extra distance for each customer.

These do not have to be dramatic, grandiose gestures. Even the most simple efforts will stick in the memory of a customer who needs help.

This video gives an example of how one customer remembers an added touch and how it continues to impress him, even after several years.

Customer satisfaction is one area where you can avoid time-consuming and costly problems simply by setting the right tone in your career or at your workplace. It's far easier to take preventative measures to keep clients and consumers happy than to do damage control when you haven't met their expectations.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on October 01, 2012:

Nicely put, rfmoran! Once you turn the tide and get a customer on your side, it's an even bigger win than when they first patronize your business or services!

Russ Moran - The Write Stuff from Long Island, New York on October 01, 2012:

Voted up useful and interesting. To paraphrase Vince Lombardi: Customer service isn't everything; it's the ONLY thing. I think the key is to figure a way to let the customer win. your reward will be his or her desire to let you win something.

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on September 29, 2012:

That's great advice, Erin - thanks for mentioning it! You're right; it's hard to stay angry when someone is being gentle and friendly.

Erin Buttermore from Laconia on September 29, 2012:

great hub! One other thing I was told to do when handling an angry customer is to act as pleasant and nice as you possibly can. If you show that it doesn't upset you and smother this person in kindness they might regret acting that way and also will think you are amazing for putting up with them so easily! Of course this is an extremely hard thing to do....

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on September 29, 2012:

Thanks, VocalCoach - I certainly agree there are many firms that could use lessons in this subject! I appreciate your comments and the share!

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on September 29, 2012:

Wow Marcy - I'm with drbj. Should be in every business. It's getting harder all the time to find good customer service. Thanks for posting this.

Up and more and sharing.

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on September 27, 2012:

@drbj - Thanks for your kind comment here! Maybe we should get a printed list of 'tips' and laminate it for handouts or something!

@JamaGenee - Oh gosh - you certainly saw it all, didn't you! I love your term, "Cube Farm," - I may borrow that one!

Joanna McKenna from Central Oklahoma on September 27, 2012:

I didn't usually get repeat customers at the cube farm, but the dynamics of customer service you outlined are much the same in political fundraising. Months of coddling and tush kissing could be (and were) undone in a heartbeat by a junior staffer with no diplomatic skills whatsoever. Don't get me started. ;D

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on September 27, 2012:

Thanks for this excellent insight into the other side of things, JamaGenee - I imagine you have seen and heard some amazing stories. I used to be known for the calming effect one place I work (not in customer service), and one contact we had was always angry and curt on the phone. She was, however, stressed and overworked. By recognizing that, she and I got along well.

Then one day I was out, and a coworker got her on the phone. The coworker literally ruined months of 'good will' efforts when, after hearing the woman's stressed side, she made an aside comment to another colleage and referred to her as a B***. The woman heard it. That set us back tremendously.

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on September 27, 2012:

Hi, Kitty - thanks for reading, commenting and for the votes. Once you learn some of the strategies good firms employ, you can spot those that try to those that, well, don't care.

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on September 27, 2012:

I'm with you, Alocsin - I've left companies for good after inexcusable incidents. And I've become even more fervently loyal after someone has corrected a bad experience. Thanks for stopping by!

drbj and sherry from south Florida on September 27, 2012:

We need to make copies of this remarkable hub, Marcy, and hang them in the back of every establishment that has customers for the sales associates or servers to memorize and follow. Great advice.

Joanna McKenna from Central Oklahoma on September 27, 2012:

As a veteran of too many years at customer service cube farms, perhaps the hardest trick to learn - after "don't take the ranting personally" - is to NOT sound condescending and trite when spouting the corporate "I hear you" line. An angry customer is super-sensitive to such things, and if your attitude is "Ho hum...another ticked off customer", no matter WHAT you say that indifference will come through in HOW you say it and make the customer even more combative. I happened to have a talent for calming down angry customers and because of this, such calls were often transferred to me by other reps. (Oh, joy...)

That said, one develops a sixth sense for customers who simply like to take out their frustrations (real AND imagined) on a faceless voice at an 800 number. I had NO problem transferring THOSE calls almost immediately to someone higher up! ;D

Ann Leung from San Jose, California on September 26, 2012:

I do hope all people who work at customer department have these skills. Thank you for entertaining us with those fun videos. Voted up and useful!

Aurelio Locsin from Orange County, CA on September 26, 2012:

From the customer point of view, I agree with this article as well. I can't tell you how many times I've dropped companies simply because they didn't bother to respond to my inquiries or complaints. On the other hand, I've remained loyal to organizations that have bent over backwards to keep me satisfied. Voting this Up and Useful.

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on September 26, 2012:

Hi, fpherj - so glad you like the hub! I love Fawlty Towers, too - such a classic piece of comedy and so typical of not caring about the consumer or customer. Thanks for reading and commenting!

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on September 26, 2012:

Hi, Hawkeye! You make a good point here - thanks for your comments!

Suzie from Carson City on September 26, 2012:

Marcy.....Several years ago, the privately-owned Behavioral Health Facility I worked for, had semi-annual seminars for our office personnel, in terms of Client interactions. I got to be the lucky one who ran one of the work shops. I just need to share with you, that the most difficult part of this was "attempting" to train individuals to remain objective within a conflict scenario....aka...."don't take anything personally." short.

If we really think about this, it truly is the hardest thing for human beings to do when dealing with other humans....

The British comedy video Fawlty Towers......omg, Marcy, I hurt myself laughing. This is a great hub and customer service will always be an important issue!!.......UP+++

hawkeye49er on September 26, 2012:

Its not good to get angrythcustomer when he has a complaint or disagreement. The customer is alsway right. Its bad business.

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on September 26, 2012:

Hi, Billy - thanks so much for affirming the importance of this from your own experience. I've seen customers lost forever from poor customer service, and I have seen good responses to complaints turn the tide and earn a company or store a loyal customer for life.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on September 26, 2012:

Excellent suggestions Marcy! I have owned two retail businesses, and I can say with certainty that good customer relations will always improve business....always! I wish more retailers would read this hub for tips on how to handle customers.

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on September 26, 2012:

Many thanks, Allie - glad you found some ideas that you like here! I've seen anger dissolve so often when these strategies are used; I am a believer in them now!

Marcy Goodfleisch (author) from Planet Earth on September 26, 2012:

Hi, Nettlemere - thanks for reading and commenting here! I have to remind myself not to get angry, too, when I am faced with someone who is raging (and maybe doesn't make sense at first). Glad you enjoyed the Fawlty Towers clip - I love that series!

alliemacb from Scotland on September 26, 2012:

This is really useful advice. When I used to work in retail many years ago, I tended to get really upset when people complained angrily. I always saw it as a personal attach. Your hub gives great tips on coping with customer complaints and on ensuring that people feel they've received good service. Voted up and useful!

Nettlemere from Burnley, Lancashire, UK on September 26, 2012:

Really useful advice in this hub Marcy - I find it very difficult dealing with unhappy customers, so I will read and reread this. And you've picked an absolute classic with the faulty towers video, which I've chuckled all the way through.