How to Deal with Angry Customers — 4 Psychology Backed Tips

Anyone working in service will have to deal with an angry customer sooner or later. The stress and unpredictability of these situations are the cause of many disastrous fails.

The internet brims with videos of cases in which customer anger couldn’t be contained. The Angry McRib Lady and United Breaks Guitars are my favorites. These videos are often entertaining, but can culminate into giant losses for the companies involved (an estimated $110 million for United Airlines).

Not knowing how to deal with angry customers could make your case end up on YouTube as well.

Inside the Mind of an Angry Customer

Understanding is the first step in dealing with anything. So let’s take a closer look at what happens inside the head of an angry person. Why do we get angry at all?

According to the recalibrational theory, anger is a “bargaining emotion”. It arises when we experience a situation that we consider as unfair. We become angry and exhibit an “anger face” (lowered eyebrows, thinned lips, flared nostrils) to warn, or threaten, the unfair party that we’re not going to let this pass.

By displaying the potential violence costs of the situation, anger brings us into a better bargaining position.

Molly Edmonds explains the physical anger reaction. Anger is a stress reaction, and it pushes us into fight or flight mode. Adrenaline and noradrenaline rush through the body. The amygdala, the part of your brain dealing with emotion, goes crazy – pushing you to do something.

Most of us, however, won’t start a fight with that guy cutting in line at the grocery cashier. It’s another physical reaction to anger that stops us: the increased flow of blood to the frontal lobe above the left eye, which controls our reasoning. The hyperactive amygdala and reasoning tend to balance each other out fairly quickly. So although you feel fired up, there’s a rational voice telling you: “He’s not worth it…”

The angry customers that do engage are those that jumped into action before their mental balance was restored, or those who made a calculated decision that they could only get their issue solved if they engage with some power.

Less than 4% of your angry customers will let you know about it, though. 96% of them won’t share their annoyance, and 91% will never come back (Source: Ruby Newell-Legner).

That’s important to realize. Your angry customers represent a source of learning, and an opportunity to make things right.

1
Approach with a Zen and Compassionate Mind

In angry customer situations, and in interpersonal conflicts in general, the first reaction is usually the first thing that goes wrong. When someone attacks, we intuitively shoot into stress and defense mode – fight or flight. But that’s exactly the wrong mindset if your aim isn’t to throw a punch but to calm the customer down.

Rafiki from the Lion King would know how to deal with angry customers.

Zen Habits, a blog I’d recommend to all service reps that frequently find themselves in stressful situations, offers a better response: the Zen Mind. Which is basically “the art of letting go”.

In it, one realizes that it’s not the actual event that causes stress. It’s not the angry customer, your co-workers, or your boss. No, it’s the reaction to the event that causes the stress – the fear of not being able to fix the situation, of not being able to calm down the customer.

This fear of a negative outcome results from the desire to turn things into a certain direction. The stress doesn’t come from the situation; it comes from you. By letting go of the idea that you have to fix the situation, you let go of the fear and the stress.

That’s not the same as not caring, however. It’s just the realization that you can only do the work as best as you can. Let go of the responsibility for the outcome. Focus only on the execution.

The Zen Mind is however easily confused with apathy – a mindset that plagues plenty of service reps.

A good service rep knows how to combine a Zen mind with compassion – “feeling and understanding the pain of others, and then wanting to reduce that suffering.” (Leo Babauta, Zen Habits)

The best mindset to encounter angry or annoying people with is one of empathy: the realization that you would be exactly the same in their shoes. With their background, experiences, and genes, your actions would be exactly the same.

Understanding begets empathy and compassion even for the meanest beggar.

Oromis

Try practicing this mindset the next time you find yourself in such a situation. In his or her shoes, you would do the exact same thing.

2
Calm down through questioning

Defense is the standard response to anger – and it mostly consists out of arguing why the customer’s anger is unfounded. But it’s pointless to argue with someone whose amygdala is on fire. In this condition they are physically incapable to listen to reason.

Research has repeatedly shown that even a relaxed mind is nearly impossible to change. We’re not the rational creates we like to think ourselves to be. The “affect heuristic” explains how objective facts by themselves are meaningless to us. We only make sense of facts by running them through the software of our feelings, in that way developing our opinions. Disney’s “Inside Out” is pretty much on the spot.

The one thing that has been proven to make us more open-minded, is feeling good about ourselves. Self-affirmation conditioning studies found that when people were asked to think of something positive about themselves, they were more open to facts.

So what does all this mean for dealing with angry customers?

For one, a rational argument is out of the question. It’s hardly possible to change the mind of a relaxed person, never mind an angry person whose mind is under stress. The only thing arguing will reach is your angry customers becoming even angrier – since they’ll feel they’re not understood or taken seriously.

Instead, the first priority should be to calm the customer down. First handle the person, then the issue.

The questioning technique is a good way to do this. It’s nothing more than sincerely asking the customer to explain his problem in detail, without casting judgment. Use follow-up questions to get a clear image of the situation.

This simple technique kills two birds with one stone. Firstly, being actively listened to will make the customer feel like he’s taken seriously. This by itself will already reduce his combative state of mind.

Secondly, the act of talking and explaining redirects your customer’s mind to a rational state. It’s not possible to accurately communicate when you’re all fired up; while explaining, your customer will automatically calm down.

Then you can also make use of that fun-fact about people being more open when they feel good about themselves:

Thank you for notifying us about this issue. We value customers who do this, because it could have passed by unnoticed and bothered others as well. You allow us to offer a better experience for all our customers.

Some tactical ego caressing will make your customer feel good, increasing the odds for an open mind.

3
The apology

The customer could be angry for a reason outside of your control. A very human response is to explain the customer that you were not part of the problem:

I wasn’t involved in that, that’s the fault of my colleagues at operations.

A service rep, however, is the face of the company – its eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. When you are speaking, you are speaking as a representative of your company. So whether you were involved in that what caused the customer grief is besides the point. If the customer won’t hear an apology from you, he won’t hear it from anyone.

Does that mean that you should always apologize to any angry customer? Yes, but with one important side note.

A customer can be angry because your company made a mistake. In that case, an apology in the name of your company is in order. But sometimes, the customer’s anger is misplaced.

A customer could be furious because his brand new smartphone didn’t survive a trip through the washing machine. That’s however obviously not the company’s fault. In this case, an apology could look like this:

I’m sorry about the fact that your phone stopped working. I can understand that you must be upset.

You apologize for the situation, but you don't accept the blame.

4
The “because justification”

In the 1970s Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer conducted an insightful behavioral experiment at a public library. In it, she tested the willingness of people to allow someone to cut in line at the photocopying machine. The queued up persons were asked 3 slightly varying questions.

  • Variation 1: “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. Could I use the Xerox machine?” 60% of the people agreed – although probably with a heated up amygdala.
  • Variation 2: “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. Could I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?” 94% of the people agreed, which already shows the power of the “because justification”. The real interesting results, however, came from the third variation.
  • Variation 3: “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. Could I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?” Remarkably, 93% of the the people agreed – almost as many as with the more or less legitimate reason to cut in line! That’s the power of the “because justification”: explanation, even when nonsensical, begets agreement.

So how to use this with an angry customer? For one, it can be used to prevent anger. When you share bad news with the customer, offering an explanation will likely mitigate the flow of toxic emotions to the brain.

It can also be used with a customer who you just calmed down through questioning and apology. A solid because will make it hard to turn back to anger mode.

Your customers are likely more critical, though, than your average dulled bookworm in the photocopy queue; so do try to come up with a logical because. There are few things as frustrating as hearing, “because those are the rules”. If the rules don’t make sense, you will have lost a customer.

Which also highlights the importance of well-informed employees. A service rep with a deep understanding of the why behind the company’s rules and practices will be in a better position to calm down fired up customers. And also to know which rules can be bent, and which should be upheld.


You won’t be able to salvage every raging customer. Some people have a condition in which they are in a constant stage of anger; others will have had too many bad experiences already. No combination of words or pleasantries could save them.

But these tips should help you to smoothen the angry customer interactions you run into, and pull a good share of them back on board.