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How to communicate with an angry customer

Updated: Sep 15, 2021

Back when I was a temp working at a call centre, there was one thing I dreaded above everything else: taking calls from angry customers.

I worked in the lost-and-stolen-cards section of a bank, so this happened every day. I used to lie awake in bed, recalling the day’s calls, fearing the next. At work, I spent a questionable amount of time at the water cooler or in the toilets.

I lasted 10 weeks.

However, handling irate consumers doesn’t have to give you stress-filled days or sleepless nights. There are techniques to help you and them. Take them individually or use them as a process.

Let’s start with something you need to the moment your angry customer opens their mouth.

Let them speak

Your angry customer has spent time thinking about what they want to say to you. Perhaps, they’ve been planning their monologue for days, weeks, months. Let them say it.

If you interrupt them, they will not be open to what you are saying. They will be too busy thinking about their next words to hear yours.

They will only listen to you after you have listened to them. This leads us to technique number two.

Listen actively

When you listen to someone, it tells them that you think they are important. Interrupting them or listening half-heartedly tells them the opposite.

Give them your undivided attention. Maintain eye contact. Show you are listening by backchannelling: using words such as “ok” and noises like “uh-huh”.

Echo, clarify and recap

These techniques are listening skills too. They show you are listening and help you confirm what you have heard.

Echoing is repeating what the other person has said almost word for word. They say, “I’ve been waiting six hours.” You say, “You’ve been waiting six hours.” Negotiation guru, Chris Voss, swears by this technique.

Clarifying is checking that you have understood what they have said.

They say, “I’ve lost thousands of pounds because of this.”

You say, “So you’re saying the delay has cost your company financially. Is that right?”

Recapping is summarising what they have told you. This is useful when they have had a lot to say. You could start with a simple “Please correct me if I’m wrong. You said…,” and finish with, “Is that right?”

Don’t mirror them

Mirroring refers to the way we mimic one another’s body language to help us understand each other. We do this without thinking. You have probably often discovered yourself in the same body position as a friend you’ve been talking to. This subconscious act helps your brain understand the other person.

Unfortunately, mirroring aggressive body language will trigger more aggressive body language. Subconsciously you will want to do this. Your conscious mind needs to step in, resist and show positive body language.

Smile and put your body into a friendly position. Lean forwards, keep your body relaxed, avoid folding your arms. When faced with this body language, part of your angry customers subconscious will want to mirror it. And because the brain takes cues from the body, they will calm down.

And if you’re having this conversation on the phone, the same rule applies to your voice. Do not raise your voice to match theirs. Speak in a calm, assertive voice. Speak at a steady pace, pausing to give them time to take in what you’ve said.

Show empathy

It’s difficult to show empathy in the face of angry words, aggressive body language and an icy tone. But doing so will help you connect with the customer. It will help you to see them as a fellow human being. It will show them that you care.

As you listen, put yourselves in their shoes. How would you feel if what had happened to them, happened to you? Would you be angry too?

When you speak, use empathetic phrases. Examples include, “That must be frustrating,” “It sounds like this is important to you,” or “I’m sorry that you had to go through this.”

Follow this expression with open-ended questions, such as “What can I do to help you?” or “What do you need?” Asking these will help you find out the deeper cause of their distress. It will lead you to solutions.

Going forwards

Putting these techniques into practice in the heat of the moment is a challenge for anyone. It will take emotional intelligence, mindfulness, and practice.

Start small. Choose a less annoyed customer to try it on first. Or choose a couple of techniques to focus on first.

As you try out these techniques, keep a journal. Reflect on what worked and what didn’t. Share your experiences will colleagues and friends.

Being able to handle an angry customer helps you and them. It helps create positive working environments, smooth customer experiences and happier lives. I invite you to try these techniques today.

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