Dealing with Angry and Difficult Customers as a Customer Support Agent

Dealing with Angry and Difficult Customers as a Customer Support Agent

They're out there. Angry customers. And we've got solid tips to help you manage the situation.

Angry customers challenge you to provide exceptional customer support, no matter the scenario. They can help you sharpen your skills– and sometimes they have good points. No matter how difficult the situation, you want to support these customers through their difficulties.

Believe it or not, angry customers often turn into happy ones (really!). In customer service circles, this is called the “service recovery paradox.” Numerous studies back up the idea that offering exceptional support can turn dissatisfied customers into fans.

If you’re able to comfort the customer, provide support, and ultimately ameliorate the issue, you have a good chance of creating a loyal customer.

In order to support angry and difficult customers, you need support yourself. That’s why we’ve created this comprehensive resource. We cover:

  • Why It’s Important to Properly Manage Angry Customers
  • How to Manage Your Emotions
  • DOs and DONTs to Repair the Relationship & Resolve the Issue
  • Examples of Potential Scenarios and How to Handle Them
  • 5 Types of Difficult Customers
  • Frequently Asked Questions About Difficult Customers

Why It’s Important to Properly Manage Angry Customers

As a customer support agent, you’re going to encounter angry customers. Even the very best agents working for companies that offer an A+ customer experience have to manage difficult situations. 

You’re never going to stop customers from getting angry, but you can manage the situation so that everyone– you and your customer– can live with the solution. 

It’s important to properly manage angry customers because many of them can be turned into fans. You also want to avoid some of the actions that angry customers take when they’re upset.

A study from Echo Research Group looked at what customers mostly commonly do when they lose their temper. Many insisted on switching to a supervisor, made threats, hung up, or talked about the experience on social media. If these interactions are properly managed, you can avoid these consequences.

Even so, it can be tempting to hang up the phone, close the chat window, or say something short to someone who’s difficult. Why is it important to properly manage these customers, rather than giving up? Here’s why:

Difficult customers deserve support, too

When someone is raising their voice, it’s hard to set aside their behavior to give them the support they need. But remember that anger is part of a “fight or flight” response. As a customer support agent, your job is to provide support, even when someone is angry. 

Most of the time, someone is lashing out. Once they have been listened to and their needs are addressed, they’ll calm down, and often become more loyal than they were before.

Angry customers can be vocal

Who’s most likely to leave a one-star review of your product? Yep, an angry customer. 

Oftentimes, they don’t share negative experiences until after they’ve contacted support, which means you have a chance to right the ship.

Considering that 97% of customers rely on ratings and reviews to buy products, you want to keep your reputation squeaky clean. 

Here’s an example of a customer who contacted customer support, was disappointed in the results, and then shared a negative review.

This review could’ve been avoided had the customer had a positive experience when they contacted support. Note that the customer’s complaint was not just that she couldn’t make the return, but that the team “didn’t care at all,” “would not entertain the idea that the sizing chart was wrong,” and “took forever to respond to my concern.”

Angry customers can turn into happy ones. Never lose hope!

Although a customer may seem impossible to support, it’s incredible how often angry customers turn into happy ones. If you take a look at Amazon reviews, you’ll often see negative, one-star reviews updated after the customer receives exceptional support. For example, check out this updated review for a video baby monitor.

Solving the issue can help you learn and prevent this from happening in the future

Did you know that for every customer complaint there are 26 others that you don’t hear about? When a difficult customer vocalizes their frustration, they’re sounding the alarm. There may be others out there grappling with the same issue.

When you’re able to resolve an issue for a difficult customer, you learn a lot. First, you learn what worked to calm them down. You also learned valuable information about what your brand does (or doesn’t do) that’s upsetting to people. For example, if a customer is angry because of your return policy and how it was explained to her by other agents, you can work internally to create a go-to script that prevents the situation from happening again.

To learn more about why you should properly manage angry or difficult customers, we recommend:

How to Manage Your Emotions

Managing angry customers is less about them and more about you, at least in the sense that you’re the one who has to cope with them. 

If you’re going to succeed, you’re going to have to manage your own emotions throughout the process. It’s ok to feel upset when a customer is angry or difficult, but you shouldn’t let that emotion dictate how you act.

Stay calm

When a customer expresses themselves to you, your job is to diffuse the situation. If you don’t stay calm yourself, the situation will only get worse.

It may seem like a silly parallel, but toddlers are notoriously terrible at regulating their emotions. This results in angry tantrums, fits, and a lot of crying.

Although this behavior can be frustrating for parents, the best tack is to remain calm. A toddler can sense the calming energy from their parents. While being calm can’t stop a tantrum, it likely won’t last as long. Plus, the toddler will feel psychologically safe and secure, even when upset.

To stay calm, take a deep breath and remind yourself that this situation is out of your control. Continue to breathe deeply, and often. Get comfortable with pausing to respond.

Remember that anger happens

Along with sadness, joy, and surprise, anger is a human emotion that happens from time to time. 

Rather than trying to avoid making a customer angry at all costs, try adopting the perspective that people get angry and that managing anger is an inevitable part of a customer service job. 

The anger may be directed at you, but it’s usually about what the other person is going through. Sometimes, a shift in our perspective can make all the difference. 

Put aside the urge to instantly fix

When a difficult customer expresses themselves, you’re likely to fear a negative outcome. 

You worry that things will get worse, that you’ll lose control of your emotions, or that the issue will result in losing a customer or receiving negative reviews. You might be concerned over your own ability to handle the situation, fearing that mismanaging the customer will reflect poorly on you.

This fear of a negative outcome can lead us to try to instantly fix the issue. Rather than apologizing and rushing to create some kind of fix for the situation, let go of that fear. Your goal here is to listen, understand, and figure out what steps you can take to make this right. 

Here’s a good script to use:

“It’s really unfortunate that this happened, and I can see how it’s impacted you. I really appreciate your patience as I work to resolve things– give me a moment to understand the situation so I can figure out the best way to move forward.”

Focus on learning the details of the story

Rather than letting your blood boil, focus on putting together the details of the story. When someone begins an angry tirade, they’ll tell you why they’re upset. Use this as an opportunity to try to get the story straight– focus on getting the story, rather than the anger that’s coming at you.

If you need help getting the details, try to answer the following questions:

  • What happened?
  • When did it happen?
  • What has the customer already done to resolve the problem?
  • What has your team already done– or not done– to help the situation?
  • Why is the customer upset about the situation?

Get support from your team

If you feel completely out of your depths, it’s ok to ask for help. There’s a reason that so many angry customers ask to talk to a supervisor– they believe the supervisor has more power to resolve the situation– and sometimes they’re right.

Even if you can handle the situation yourself, your team should be able to support you as you prepare for difficult interactions and process ones that have already happened. 

To understand more about how to manage your emotions when someone is angry, we recommend:

DOs and DONTs to Repair the Relationship & Resolve the Issue

Let’s get to the meat of it. You’ve got a difficult customer on the line, and you need practical tips on how to repair the relationship and resolve the issue. Here are the DOs and DONTs we recommend.

DO reflectively listen to the customer, DON’T assume

When a customer is unhappy, they want to be heard. They need to know that you’re there for them, that you hear them, and that you’re going to do your best to resolve the issue. 

Take it from Bill Thompson, Guru of Customer Happiness at Olark, who has 16+ years of experience managing tough customers:

“What people need most when they are upset is to know that they are being listened to, that you are a resource, a life preserver and a path to a solution. Once they know you’re listening and will help/advocate for them, I guarantee they will calm down.” 

To show that you’re willing to work with the customer, use reflective listening. Basically, listen carefully to what the customer is saying, and then repeat the customer’s language back to them. 

Reflective listening is especially helpful as you try to gather the details of the story and make sense of the situation. But more importantly, it shows the customer that you’re listening to what they have to say.

Here’s an example of what reflective listening might sound like. 

Customer: I’m so mad! This is ridiculous. I’ve contacted your team three times in the last two weeks to try to get my refund, and you keep bouncing me around to different agents and I keep explaining the situation and have not seen a cent. This is a lot of money to me, and I want my money back NOW.

Customer support agent using reflective listening: Ok, so it sounds like you’re trying to get a refund and that you’ve contacted us several times in the past few weeks. You’re upset because this is a lot of money to you and you have not yet received a refund. Do I have this right?

Remember: DON’T make assumptions about what’s happened or why the customer is upset. Every customer is unique, so give them a chance to share their story– and make sure you understand it.

DO work to find the root cause of the issue, DON’T accept a superficial understanding

The reason that you’re reflectively listening is two fold: First, you want to not only understand exactly what’s happened to the customer, but show that you understand so they can relax a little. Second, you want to get to the root cause of the issue so that you can solve it.

Understanding the root cause of your customer’s frustration allows you to get at the deeper reason– the root cause– of why they’re upset. Once you understand why the situation is bothering them so much, you can begin to act with empathy and support.

To get to the root cause, keep asking why.

Sometimes, when someone has contacted support a number of times but has not gotten their issue resolved, it’s because the root cause was never reached. Don’t settle for a superficial understanding of the problem– dig as deep as you can to find out the reason the customer is upset.

DO give credit to the customer’s emotions, DON’T judge their feelings

No one wants to be judged for expressing anger or for being upset about what someone else sees as a small problem. As a customer support agent, you want to validate the customers’ feelings. 

Unless someone is being hostile, you want to express your humanity. It’s amazing how much it can calm someone down when they hear: I’m so sorry this happened to you. If it happened to me, I’d be really upset as well. 

DO remind the customer that they’re the priority, DON’T give lip service

As you work to diffuse the anger of a customer, remind them that they’re the priority. Your customers, after all, are what keeps your business running.

Unfortunately, a lot of businesses say their customers are the priority, but don’t act accordingly. How many times have you called into support for the third time, only to have to remind the agent that this is the third time you’ve called?

To prove customers are your priority, you need to know each customer’s history with your business and demonstrate this knowledge with your customers. When a customer feels you have a big picture view of the situation and are actively working to resolve it, they begin to calm down, knowing they are getting taken care of. 

At Groove, we help our agents gain these insights by displaying the customer’s history in our help desk’s sidebar next to each ticket.

DO use their first name– and share yours, DON’T use impersonal titles

Names are magic. It’s a wonder that so many customer support agents continue to use “ma’am” and “sir.”

According to Dale Carnegie, “names are the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” The quote from How to Win Friends and Influence People is often cited, but research proves that it’s true. 

Want someone’s brain to become ecstatic? Simply say their name. According to research conducted by scientists Dennis P. Carmody and Michael Lewis, hearing your own name activates the brain in all sorts of positive ways.

Researcher Tracy Rank-Christman had similar findings. Not only did she find that customers react positively to personalization from brands– specifically the use of first names– but she also found that customers lost confidence in the brand when the name was wrong. 

You should share your name, as well. It’s much easier to be angry at a faceless “corporation” rather than an individual human. Sharing your name reminds a difficult customer that you’re a person, too.

You can go beyond sharing your name to sharing your face, as well. Although we recommend resolving heated issues over the phone, showing your face can help remind the difficult customer that you’re a human, too.

DO resolve serious issues over phone or video call, DON’T rely on email

When things escalate enough for someone to get very angry, it’s time to pick up the phone or schedule a video call. Live chat can work well because you can have a back and forth conversation, but if things are really dicey, it’s best to have a conversation.

Going back and forth over email can take up valuable time, allowing feelings to fester. When someone is angry, it’s best to work to resolve the issue as quickly as possible, which is much easier to do via phone.

DO suggest a next step & set a date for followup, DON’T let the issue fester

In order to alleviate the customer’s pain, make sure you’re aligned on what’s next. Both of you should have a clear understanding of what the next step will be. You should set a date for followup, and make sure that you’re the one who will follow up to find out how things are going.

For more information on how to repair the relationship and resolve the issue, we recommend:

5 Types of Difficult Customers

There are a few different types of difficult customers that you’re likely to encounter. Here are 5 types that we regularly see, and some advice on how you can handle each one:

The Know-It-All 

Who they are: The Know-It-All seemingly knows everything about your product, brand, and the way that things “should” be run. They might claim to run an ecommerce business themselves, work in customer support, or be a successful businessperson. This person feels they can do your job– or run your brand– better than you do. 

How to deal: Rather than ignore their claims, acknowledge their expertise and compliment them as you resolve the issue.

The Escalator 

Who they are: The Escalator comes into the conversation upset, and uses everything you say as fuel to get more upset. At every turn, the escalator seems to make things worse, getting angrier and angrier. 

How to deal: Try to do your best to get at the root of their frustration. What needs to be resolved for them to back off and calm down?

The Champagne Taster

Who they are: The Champagne Taster has the highest of high expectations for the products they buy and brands they work with. They don’t tolerate products that break or wear out, and they won’t accept anything less than superb support and lifetime guarantees.

How to deal: The Champagne Taster is likely to come back asking for more if they feel their issue was not resolved. Whether you give them what they want or not, it’s best to resolve their issues in a single interaction.

The Cooperator 

Who they are: The Cooperator wants things to go well, but can’t help but be angry because of the negative impact the issue has on their life. The Co-operator may enter the conversation calmly, but periodically get heated throughout the conversation.

How to deal: The Cooperator is the most likely to have a large amount of empathy for you. They just want to reach a resolution and feel heard. The Co-operator needs a lot of validation, so be sure to remind them that you understand how difficult this is for them, and that you’ll work to find the best possible resolution that you can.

The “I’m Done”

Who they are: The “I’m Done” has already contacted customer support or tried other ways to resolve their issue and has come up short. At this point they are fed up– they’re “done” and want the issue to be resolved as quickly as possible. 

How to deal: Apologize that the issue was not resolved previously and vow to resolve it as quickly as possible. In this case, work to get to the root cause of the issue. A superficial understanding of their problem may have prevented adequate support in the past.

Examples of Potential Scenarios and How to Handle Them

Example #1: A customer is unhappy with a product after they purchased it.

Let’s say a customer contacts you on live chat and says they’re super disappointed with the product they just received in the mail. It’s a bike seat and it doesn’t fit their bike.

In this instance, it’s tempting to say “I’m sorry that you’re upset.” But focus on the words the customer actually used. They didn’t say they were upset– they said they were disappointed. If you mislabel the customer’s emotion, it can further escalate the situation. Suddenly, the customer is very upset about the seat when they came into the conversation a little disappointed.

When you reflectively listen, you use a customer’s language back at them. Say something like “Yes, that’s totally disappointing. Let’s figure out how we can resolve this.”

Example #2: A customer doesn’t like one of your policies, one that isn’t flexible. 

Sometimes, your policies just aren’t flexible. Your brand offers a 30-day return window for a reason, and you don’t make exceptions. But a customer gets in touch after 60 days, demanding a return.

Start by getting at the root cause of the issue. Why does the customer want to make a return, and why did it take them so long to get in touch? 

Although you may not be able to make a return, you may be able to offer the customer something else to alleviate the situation. Firmly state the policy, and assure the customer that you understand how frustrating this is to them. Ask them if there’s anything you can do to make the situation better, and consider offering a discount on future purchases.

Example #3: A customer is frustrated by how long it’s taking for you to resolve their issue and begins name-calling and berating you and your staff.

Firmly ask your customer to stop calling you names, and let them know that you won’t be able to resolve the issue until they can calmly tell you what’s going on. If a customer continues to berate and name-call, it’s time to let this customer go. Your brand should have a standard policy for how to handle such customers.

Example #4: A customer is repeatedly having issues with a product, and previous support requests have not resolved the issue.

A likely reason this is happening is because the root cause of the customer’s issue has not been addressed. Prior attempts at resolution only took into account a superficial analysis of the problem. For example, if you’ve contacted customer support several times with an issue, and no one acknowledges how many times you’ve had to get in touch, they’re not going to feel good about the interaction.

Example #5: A customer expresses that you’re being condescending, rude, or patronizing.

If a customer feels you are being rude to them, you probably are, and you’re letting your emotions and judgement of the situation get in the way of providing the support they need. Oftentimes, customers feel they are not being taken seriously. 

Apologize to the customer, and ask them what you said that they found upsetting. Then apologize directly for whatever those words were, and ask them if you can move on together so that you can get their issue resolved.

Example #6: A customer is vocal on social media about their issues and picks fights

Your brand might have customers that are vocal on social media about their issues but are rarely seen in your support inbox. They don’t email you about their issues. Instead, they publicly Tweet about them.

Occasional vents on social media happen, but these customers can create chaos if they’re left unchecked. If a customer is making personal attacks on people, such as you or your agents, excessively uses profanity, or has repeated outbursts privately or on social media, it may be time to gracefully part ways with the customer.

Frequently Asked Questions about Difficult Customers

Why do customers get angry?

Anger is part of a natural “fight or flight” response to a perceived threat. Ultimately, anger happens to customers when they feel something has happened that’s unfair. They take this perceived unfairness personally and feel threatened, violated, or put down.

Although it may seem like a difficult customer’s anger comes out of nowhere, anger is actually an adaptive response. Evolutionary, this response helped us react quickly, which protected us from danger.

In today’s world, anger can come on suddenly. Plus, everyone has different triggers. You might get exceptionally angry when food doesn’t arrive on time for a party you’ve meticulously planned, while someone else may get angry when a family member doesn’t show up. 

No matter the trigger, anger is a response to the feeling that what’s happening to us is unfair. When we’re angry, we feel threatened, vulnerable, exposed, violated, or inadequate.

That angry customer who’s yelling at you on the phone? They’re having a lot of intense feelings, likely because they feel threatened. 

To understand more about what anger is and where it comes from, we recommend:

What’s the difference between anger and hostility?

Anger and hostility are different. Anger is an emotion being expressed, while hostility happens when someone wants to inflict harm. Not every angry customer will yell, belittle, or name call. Some may remain calm, but not accept reasonable resolutions to their issues. 

According to Albert Rothenberg, M.D. a Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, here’s the crucial difference

“The critical distinction between anger and hostility is that hostility always has a destructive component, whereas anger may not. ‘Feeling hostile’ always involves the wish or intent to inflict harm, pain, or actual destruction on another person or creature.” 

While we hope you never encounter a hostile customer, it’s likely to happen after a long tenure in customer support. But remember: difficult, angry, and hostile customers present an opportunity.

How do you calm down a difficult customer?

There are two steps that need to be taken to calm down a difficult customer. First, you need to manage your own emotions, then you need to work to repair the relationship and resolve the issue.

To manager your own emotions:

  • Stay calm
  • Remember that anger happens
  • Put aside the urge to instantly fix
  • Focus on learning the details
  • Get support from your team

To repair the relationship and resolve the issue:

  • Reflectively listen to the customer
  • Work to find the root cause
  • Give credit to the customers’ emotions
  • Remind the customer that they’re the priority
  • Use first names– and show your face when possible
  • Resolve serious issues over the phone, rather than via email
  • Suggest a next step and set up a follow-up.

What do you do if a difficult customer threatens you?

First, recognize that most of the time, threats are empty. An upset customer might make all kinds of threats: threaten to call your boss and have you fired, threaten to report your company to the police, or threaten to take you down in any number of ways. 

It’s unacceptable if a customer is threatening physical violence, and they should be barred from buying from you in the future. In general, if a customer is so hostile that they threaten you, it may be best to part ways. 

Every company should have a policy for how they deal with overly hostile companies and when enough is enough. If you don’t know what your company’s policy is, now is the time to check. 

What is the effect of angry customers on a support team?

Dealing with angry customers can be stressful and difficult. In order to retain your customer support team, you need to make sure they feel well-supported. If they have feedback about policies that regularly anger customers, listen carefully. 

Even in the best circumstances, difficult customers can lead to employee burnout for those who work in customer service.

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