For most of us, dealing with an angry or abusive customer is upsetting, even nerve-wracking. Still, sometimes it happens. When you know how to handle angry and abusive customers, you can turn situations around, save relationships, and keep your stress levels under control. Here are five critical success factors in dealing with difficult customers (or anybody else, for that matter):

  1. Listen. Practice active listening techniques. That’s where you listen to understand and remember what the other person is saying. You don’t have to agree with them necessarily, but do acknowledge their concerns. Avoid any temptation to interrupt them or speak over them, even when you have good news. Let them finish.
  2. Validate. I was angry once about some travel hassles and went up to the guy at the Delta Air Lines baggage service counter in a small airport. I explained the problem to him. He listened, nodded his head, and said, “I don’t blame you. I’d be upset, too, if that happened to me.” Immediately, I started to regain my composure. His use of empathy and validation was like a warm ocean breeze. It helped me calm down and deal with the problem in a more productive manner.
  3. Keep your emotions out of it. It’s not personal. Even if the other person is treating you disrespectfully, do not react emotionally. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg recounted how her mother told her to never let other people see her get angry. She explained that doing so gives power to the other person. Instead, pause, take a deep breath, and respond in a calm and unemotional manner. (This may require some acting skills!) Here’s a link to an article on How to Control Anger: 25 Tips to Help You Stay Calm.
  4. Just agree with them. My friend was an IT manager in a government IT shop. He explained that, when an irate caller would ask to be transferred to him, he would just agree with nearly everything they said. He didn’t take it personally, he knew they needed to sound off, and he knew that, in time, the angry customer would calm down and he’d be able to deal with their issue. (I would probably not agree with something they said that was patently false, but I also wouldn’t disagree with them while they were angry. Let tempers cool off first.)
  5. Ask what they want to happen. Say the words, “I’m here to help. What would you like to happen?” Then listen carefully, using your active listening techniques, take notes if necessary, and be prepared to deliver either the solution they want, an acceptable alternative, or to escalate the issue for resolution.

Consider doing a role-play with a coworker to practice these five techniques before you actually have to deal with an angry or abusive customer.

Obviously, if you ever feel your safety threatened, you should immediately involve your supervisor. Fortunately, that’s rare.

Here are some links to other blog posts on dealing with angry customers:

Really, if you just think about what you would want if you were in their position, you’ll go a long way toward making the right decisions about how to handle the situation.

For most of us, dealing with angry or abusive customers is never fun. Fortunately, it doesn’t usually happen very often. Just remember, it’s not personal (and least not most of the time!), be a great listener, validate and use empathy, tell them you’re there to help.

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