No matter your business, your customers are your greatest asset, so keeping them happy is critical.
It's natural for your customers to become frustrated or upset occasionally when dealing with an issue related to your business — but how your customer service team handles and de-escalates the situation is vital for customer retention and loyalty.
With the long-term satisfaction of your customers at stake, your team must learn effective de-escalation techniques. In this post, we'll dive into 19 de-escalation techniques and why they work.
Table of Contents
- What are de-escalation techniques?
- Why De-Escalation Matters in Customer Service
- How Consumers React to 6 De-Escalation Techniques + Why They Work [New Data]
- 13 De-Escalation Techniques
- The Benefits of De-Escalation in a Company
What are de-escalation techniques?
De-escalation is a process by which you calm the situation before it gets worse. This can be done through a variety of techniques involving breathing, active listening, asking questions, being compassionate, and the use of body language.
Why De-Escalation Matters in Customer Service
Recently, I had an upsetting experience with an airline after dealing with a flight cancellation.
I wanted a refund, so I waited three hours to speak with a member of their service team, only to hear: "I'm sorry, ma'am, but there's nothing I can do for you."
Now, I'm not blaming this airline or this service rep. But one thing I learned throughout the encounter was how much empathy mattered to me.
I didn't necessarily need the rep to give me exactly what I wanted: I just needed to feel heard and understood.
And, apparently, so does everyone else.
In a recent survey I conducted with 100 consumers across the U.S., "listening carefully, understanding the problem, and demonstrating empathy" was the most popular response to this question:
"Think of a time when you were upset at a company and customer service helped you have a positive outcome. What did they do to make the experience positive?"
Listening and demonstrating empathy exceeded even "they offered me a refund, upgrade, or promo code." In other words: People care more about a service rep's behaviors than they do a rep's actions.
All of which is to say: How your reps behave when a customer is upset could make or break that customer's loyalty. So it's a critical component of long-term customer retention.
Let's dive into six of the most effective de-escalation techniques next.
How Consumers React to 6 De-Escalation Techniques + Why They Work [New Data]
1. Practice active listening and demonstrate empathy.
46% of respondents rated active listening and empathy as the most important de-escalation technique practiced by service reps.
Improving your communication will help prevent misunderstandings and help you to de-escalate them when they do.
Active listening requires you to actually listen to the other person, rather than interrupting them, rushing them, or spending the time in your head plotting out what you'll say next.
When you listen to the other person, they feel heard and appreciated, and their anger will begin to subside.
Asking questions (and listening to the answers!) allows you to hear their side of the story and get down to the root of the problem.
Remember that there are always three sides to a story: yours, theirs, and what actually happened. Be open to hearing how they have interpreted something and how it may differ from how you intended it.
"When I encounter escalation situations during consulting calls, the first thing I do is lay a strong foundation of listening by way of asking strategic questions and giving the customer the space to air their frustrations and their needs,” HubSpot Senior Inbound Consultant Bradlee McKibben told me.
"My goal is to dig deeper into what the actual root problem is, as sometimes frustrations can be misaligned. Everyone encounters roadblocks and challenges; customers simply want to know we understand the why and are here to help," she says.
Showing empathy by putting yourself in their shoes will help de-escalate the situation. Once they know you'll try and do what's best for them, they can calm down, and you two can work together to resolve their issue.
2. Offer refunds, upgrades, or promos to make up for an issue.
Money can often be a major cause of contention. If your customers feel they've lost or wasted money and haven't received the full package in return, it makes sense for them to feel frustrated or angry.
Money can also be the answer. In fact, roughly one-third of respondents marked this as the de-escalation technique that led to a positive customer service experience.
While offering anything for "free" to a customer can feel painful, you'll want to keep in mind that acquiring a new customer is much more expensive than retaining an existing one.
Of course, you'll want to abide by your company's refund policies whenever possible. Speak to your manager to understand what you can offer an unhappy customer if you cannot resolve their issue.
In the situation with the airline, I felt much better about purchasing another ticket from them once a service rep offered me a refund on my canceled flight.
It proved they valued my future business more than their bottom line and increased my trust.
If you can't provide a refund, consider offering a promotion or discount on a future purchase.
3. Don't say no. Instead, tell your customer how you'll work to resolve their issue.
There's nothing more frustrating than hearing "No," "I don't know," "I cannot," or "It is not within my power" from a customer service rep — so, to truly de-escalate an issue, avoid these terms.
Instead, you might say phrases like, "I will investigate this issue," "I will try to resolve this issue," or "I'm digging into this." If possible, explain specifically how you're planning to help resolve the customer's issue.
For instance, you might explain that you're going to send their ticket to your IT team so they can dig into an issue with your software. Tell them they can expect a follow-up from you within the next 48 hours, and you'll pause payments until the issue is resolved.
As McKibben puts it, "Sometimes I encounter escalation situations that are outside my role's scope. I make sure to clearly explain to the customer how my expertise isn't best suited to solve the problem but that I will take the following steps: loop in the correct point of contact, file a roadblock with our product team, and/or follow up with the Support rep who is handling the ticket."
She adds, "I make sure my follow-up is timely, actionable, and detailed so that the customer knows I'm keeping track of the issue. Lastly, I will provide helpful resources or ways other customers have tackled similar issues, if applicable."
4. Be honest, and don't make promises you can't keep.
HubSpot's Senior Customer Success Manager Jen Berenguer told me honesty is her number one de-escalation technique.
She says, "Firstly, because it aligns with HubSpot's value of transparency, but mainly because managing expectations is one of the most important aspects of my role. When I'm honest with how much I care about a customer's problem, the steps I'm taking to help, and, more importantly, what I won't be able to do, it helps them understand the complexity of the matter and how feasible it is to get to their desired outcome."
"Most of the time, honesty leads to a stronger relationship with my clients, even when we have a problem that can't be solved."
Lying to your customers to make them happy might seem like an easy solution for de-escalating a situation. Still, it will ultimately backfire by creating a major sense of distrust. Personally, I wouldn't want to work with a business that encouraged its support reps to lie — would you?
Rather than lying or over-promising when you're unsure whether you'll be able to deliver, simply ask for time to explore the issue further.
Instead of saying, "I can promise you we can help you," you might say something like, "I can promise you I'll try my best to help you." Customers know when you're lying, and promising you can help is a lie unless you've already found a surefire solution.
5. Stay calm, even when your customer is frustrated.
While raising your voice or becoming equally emotional when speaking to an angry customer can be tempting, it won't de-escalate the issue and might even make it much worse.
Instead, it's critical you remain calm. Breathing can help with this. When an argument begins, our bodies are forced into a fight, flight, or freeze mode. Our breathing becomes labored, our heart rate increases, and we're literally ready to fight our "attacker" or flee the situation.
Neither of these solutions is ideal for workplace conflict.
Controlled breathing benefits a heated situation in multiple ways. First, taking a deep breath calms your nervous system, allowing you to think (and respond) clearly and calmly.
With focused breathing, you can lower your heart rate and your blood pressure and take yourself out of this common stress response. Second, a few moments of deep breathing can give you the time you need to collect your thoughts so you don't say or do anything that could cause lasting damage.
6. Tell customers you value and appreciate them.
While only 16% of respondents rated this as important for de-escalation, it's undoubtedly a nice extra step you can take once you've de-escalated a situation.
However, you'll want to time this one wisely: Telling your customer you value them before solving their problem could seem disingenuous, especially if they're upset.
Once you've identified a solution, however, it's a good idea to emphasize that you truly appreciate the customer's business.
13 De-escalation Techniques
So what does de-escalation look like in practice? We've compiled 13 of the best de-escalation techniques for you to implement in your business.
1. Skip the hold button.
If a customer has a problem, don't put them on hold. Customers today expect a higher level of service and may feel devalued if you place them on hold when they complain.
Instead, stay with them, physically or on the line, until you find the person they should speak with or get the resources you need to address their problem.
What we like: Skipping the hold button allows you to maintain a human connection with a customer when it matters most and helps set a more positive tone for the rest of your interaction.
2. Remain calm.
Upset customers will come to you with various emotions, including anger, frustration, disappointment, or sadness.
Your reaction can aggravate them further if you let these emotions impact you personally. Remain calm while interacting with the customer to learn about their complaint and direct them to the correct personnel.
Pro tip: While exuding calmness is important, you don't want to show indifference or a lack of concern. Get engaged with the customer while not escalating the situation with your response.
3. Use active listening.
Customers who want to escalate want to be heard and know that you're listening. By using active listening, you can show them you care and potentially even de-escalate the situation or at least keep a ceiling on their frustrations.
If speaking in person, show the customer you're actively listening. Nonverbal cues such as eye contact, nodding, and leaving your arms uncrossed can demonstrate your active engagement with the customer.
When speaking with the customer, recount their main points and ask thoughtful questions to clarify their complaint and probe into potential causes.
Pro tip: Take notes during the interaction, if possible, or after it, and inform the customer so they know their complaint is being recorded.
4. Express sympathy.
Customers with complaints often want validation that their feelings are legitimate.
Even if you don't think they are, expressing sympathy can help defuse a customer's anger and frustration.
Regardless of how the interaction gets resolved, the customer will at least remember your sympathetic response to their problem, which can prevent further issues.
Pro tip: An upset customer may not be entirely rational. Your sympathy can help calm them down and ease their suspicions of you.
5. Be confident.
By speaking confidently with customers, you can assure them that you will handle their complaints.
Your confidence can also pre-empt the customer from experiencing further questions and doubts. You'll also be better able to guide the interaction instead of following the customer's lead.
Pro tip: There's a difference between being confident and cocky. You can manage a customer complaint and regain initiative in the interaction by staying humble yet confident.
6. Mirror the complaint.
Mirroring is an active listening technique that can help you build rapport and demonstrate engagement with a customer. Repeat their complaint without interrupting to show you heard and remember what they have to say.
You'll make the customer feel validated while also seeing the problem from their perspective, which may help you find a solution faster.
Best for: Mirroring is especially useful if a customer has a complex problem but shouldn't be overdone. Try to mirror the key points of a customer's complaint to demonstrate your attention to their problem without repeating them word-for-word, which can be off-putting.
7. Use scripts.
Customer complaints often follow similar patterns.
Scripts can make it easier to address customer complaints without escalating the situation further with your own emotions.
You can also use scripts to avoid getting stuck on a complaint and move an interaction toward resolution.
Pro tip: Scripts can ground you in a stressful situation, but you don't want to sound like you're reading from one. You might use a script as a reference point rather than something to repeat verbatim to make your response and empathy natural.
8. Simplify complex problems.
You can de-escalate a customer by breaking their complex problems into simpler ones. Simplifying the problem can make the situation easier and faster to resolve.
You may also discover that the customer's emotions or lack of information made the problem seem more complex than it really was.
What we like: Breaking down a complex problem can help you score quick wins for the customer. You can also naturally shift the focus of the conversation from the problem to its resolution.
9. Identify the problem's root cause.
Identifying the root cause of a customer's frustrations can make solving them easier. You can also identify what needs to be changed.
Once the customer has aired their frustrations, ask tactful but pointed questions to get to the bottom of the problem.
Pro tip: Ask the customer about the specific use cases in which they had a problem to determine the source of their complaints.
10. Set realistic expectations.
It's vital to set realistic expectations for customers when trying to de-escalate.
You could be shocked into overpromising when customers share their complaints with you, especially if they're emotional.
However, this can cause more frustration for a customer when you can't deliver on your promises.
Pro tip: Avoid firm commitments on what you can accomplish for a customer. Instead, commit to making your best effort to help them and to reach out to anyone else who can help.
11. Narrate your actions.
Communication is essential for de-escalation. Narrating the actions you're taking to assist customers can help them.
They don't want to feel abandoned or ignored. By telling customers what you're doing to help them, they'll know you're trying to make progress.
What we like: Narrating your actions can make the customer more useful to you, as they, too, begin thinking of potential solutions and new ways to help.
12. Make an apology.
A simple apology can go a long way in establishing goodwill during a customer complaint.
No one wants to admit fault, but doing so can make a customer feel appreciated.
By apologizing, you can calm the customer down and make them better able to work with you through their problem.
What we like: By apologizing to a customer, you can make their return more likely even if you can't solve their problem. At the very least, they could leave with a positive view of your company.
13. Offer compensation.
As you bring the customer complaint to an end, consider offering compensation.
A coupon, discount, or free offer can show a customer that your company values them, even if you couldn't resolve their problem.
Even if you lose the customer, they'll at least remember your gesture, protecting your reputation.
Best for: Compensation is ideal for customer retention and allows you to end a potentially negative interaction on a positive note.
The Benefits of De-Escalation in a Company
Learning de-escalation techniques and training your entire team, from HR to managers to your frontline workers, can benefit your organization, not just customer relations.
These include (but are not limited to):
- Minimizing Conflict:You'll see less conflict and less drama when team members can communicate better and work out disagreements before they become full-blown battles.
- Improving Teamwork: When employees respect one another and can work peacefully with one another, they work better and accomplish goals faster. You'll have an actual team, instead of individuals working in silos.
- Increasing Your Bottom Line: When people work better together, they work faster, accomplish more, and earn more money for your organization.
- Reducing Turnover:Happy employees with high levels of job satisfaction rarely jump ship in search of new opportunities. Rather than constantly trying to replace valuable team members, you'll hold on to the employees that are moving your organization forward.
- Better Crisis Management: During a crisis, your company can suffer damage due to confusion and panic. A culture of de-escalation is central to effective crisis management.
Misunderstandings are bound to happen when different personalities come together to complete a common goal.
With the right de-escalation training, you can ensure that minor issues don't turn into major battles that ruin relationships and damage your bottom line.