Crossed arms, heavy sighs, and short replies are some of the physical signs customers show when they're losing interest in what you're saying; and your shot at keeping their business might be fading fast.
Often, difficult or even angry customers aren't expressing frustration with you. These emotions are tied to external situations and psychological stimuli. So, put your great communication skills to work, draw on your superpower of reading the situation, and use these eight psychological tips for managing difficult customers to save your customer from churning.
1. Practice reflective listening.
When you're upset, does someone saying, "I understand," make you feel better? I didn't think so. This kind of broad statement will not calm the customer down. Take the following scenario:
Customer: "I'm frustrated because we have a limited budget and you're unwilling to offer us a discount."
Customer Success Manager: "I understand, but … "
You know the conversation above isn't going to end well.
Instead, practice reflective listening. Reflective listening requires that you understand what the other person is saying by interpreting their words and their body language. Once you’ve analyzed the situation, then you respond by reflecting the thoughts and feelings you heard back to your customer.
Example of practicing reflective listening:
Customer: "I'm frustrated because we have a limited budget and you're unwilling to offer us a discount."
Customer Success Manager: "So, what I'm hearing is that our pricing is a barrier for your business. Your budget is tight, and I'm not offering a discount that meets your needs. Is that correct?"
If you've adequately understood their sentiment, move on. If not, say, "Tell me more, so I can better understand." Never promise you'll fix the situation — because you might not be able to. Your goal at this moment is to make your customer feel heard and valued.
2. Consider their affect heuristic.
The affect heuristic is a mental shortcut that helps you make quick and efficient decisions based on how you feel toward a person, place, or situation. It explains the fact that we all make decisions and judgments based on our worldviews and experiences.
In these situations, objective facts carry little weight for us. Instead, we run the decision or situation through our internal "software" and develop our own opinions based on what we already know. One’s affect heuristic is subjective and based on their past experiences.
If your customer keeps asking, "What's the catch?" and delaying the onboarding process with rescheduling and endless due diligence, it might not be helpful to say, "You've already purchased an annual subscription for this marketing software. Can we move forward?"
Your customer could’ve had an experience where they unknowingly were trapped into a year-long contract with a vendor who did not deliver on their promises. Because of that experience, your customer is now viewing you through that lens.
Example of the affect heuristic:
Ask questions to understand the root cause of their apprehension. The questions below can help your customer relax, and yield insights into why they're unwilling to move forward:
- "I'd like to understand. Tell me more about why you're skeptical."
- "What can I do to relieve your fears?"
- "How can I help you feel comfortable enough to move forward?"
These questions also redirect their mind from thinking you're untrustworthy to proactively considering what they need to move forward.
3. Tap into the beginner's mind.
The beginner's mind — also known as the zen mind — is the strategy of approaching every situation as if you were a beginner. When you adopt this way of thinking, you enter every conversation with the "don't know" mind, which keeps you from prejudging a customer or their situation.
It also encourages you to live without "shoulds." These are nagging thoughts like:
- The customer should have already known they wouldn't have budget until next quarter.
- The customer should have read my email about their discount expiration.
- The customer should not have assumed I would be available for weekly consultations.
"Shoulds" put your mind on the defensive and jeopardize the productivity of the conversation before it even begins.
With the zen mind, you let go of being an expert. Sure, you're an expert in your product/service, and you might be an expert in customer service, but you're not an expert in this customer, their situation, or the conversation you're currently engaging in.
Example of tapping into the beginner’s mind:
So, instead of saying, "You told me you wanted to increase your inbound lead generation by 20% by the end of this month, and these delays won't make this possible" approach each conversation with the beginner's mind. Don't prejudge your customer's frustration, forget about what they should have done, and view each conversation as a new puzzle to be solved.
Try saying, "It looks like with these delays, we won't be able to meet our inbound lead generation goal. But, let's see what we can do to get the results we're looking for." This approach acknowledges the problem but immediately begins working towards a solution.
4. Let go of fear.
Fear of a negative outcome drives many of our reactions. Commonly, fear makes us want to control things. If a customer is being difficult, there is a fear of challenging them and damaging the relationship. If a customer expresses displeasure with your timeline or pricing structure, the fear is we might not be able to fix the situation.
First, let go of the idea that you need to fix anything. When sitting down with a difficult customer, your job is to listen, understand, and discern the next steps; not immediately produce a solution.
Example of letting go of fear:
So, instead of apologizing, slapping together a mediocre fix, or validating feelings, say, "It's unfortunate X happened. I'm aware of how this is affecting your business, and I appreciate your patience as I work to resolve this matter."
5. "Chunk" the problem.
Chunking is the process of taking one big problem and breaking it into several smaller, more manageable portions. These small portions are easier for us to tackle, and make us more willing to begin dealing with the issue at hand. Many people use chunking to organize their daily tasks or help to manage challenging problems.
Example of "chunking" the problem:
Does your customer always have a reason why they can't set up their account and get started using your software? At your next meeting, ask them to help you break down each of the final steps you need to take to get things moving. Simply seeing each task chunked can make it easier for your customer to digest what's left to do.
6. Remember that anger is natural.
Ever thrown out a price or time investment required, and watched your customer become frustrated, maybe even angry, at how high it was? Or maybe you've been on the other side? A customer tells you how much they want to pay for your new product upgrade, and it's so low it makes you mad.
The Recalibration Theory of Anger says this emotion is naturally wired into humans. In short, anger is our evolutionary way of bargaining. We furrow our brows, press our lips together, and flare our nostrils in to drive our "opponent" to place a higher value on what we have to offer.
Example of using anger to bargain with a customer:
When faced with an angry customer, avoid the (natural) tendency to justify your position. Instead, understand that they're merely feeling undervalued and attempting to control the situation.
Take your customer's frustration seriously, but not personally. Remain calm and actively listen to what your customer says. When you've confirmed you understand their frustration, thank them for communicating it, and tell them you'll get back to them with a solution.
When a customer's angry, no solution may make them feel better. Give them time to cool off, consult with your manager on the best way to move forward, and use our list of tips (further down the page) to help alleviate the situation.
7. Keep calm and carry on.
Conflict is a part of business and how you react under fire impacts the future of your customer relationships.
The adage, "The customer is always right" still rings true. You have far more to lose by taking the low road and stooping to a customer's level of hostility.
Treating someone with disdain or disrespect can reflect negatively on you and your company, so reputation management should always be top of mind.
Remember, people will often mirror the emotional signals you emit. If you respond with hostility and anger, don't expect friendliness and understanding in return.
Example of remaining calm:
Emotional intelligence can be used to calm the storm, so use these tips for navigating your next conflict:
- Maintain a calm and professional tone while also remaining assertive.
- Refrain from name-calling or finger-pointing.
- Never say or write anything that can be used against you.
- Always resolve disputes in person or over the phone. Email is not an effective tool for hashing out disagreements.
HubSpot Director of Sales and 30-year sales veteran Dan Tyre says, "If you're average, you'll fall prey to emotion. If you're great, you'll realize the opportunity and raise your game. Lean in, understand where [they're] coming from, listen closely, and have empathy."
8. Use your support resources.
My colleague, Clint Fontanella, likes to call these "the weapons in your customer support arsenal." These are the tricks you can use during a call, chat, or in-person interaction to deal with a difficult customer.
While they should be used on a case-by-case basis, here are a few resources your reps should learn to master:
- Placing a customer on a strategic hold to buy time or de-escalate emotion.
- Setting up a screen share or recording troubleshooting steps to explain a complex solution.
- Asking a colleague for additional confirmation when you know your solution will work. (This can build rapport with a customer who's dubious of your advice.)
Example of using your resources:
Let's say one of your most-loyal customers calls your support team with a common problem but they're convinced the issue is extremely complex. When you show them the proven solution, they insist that they've gone through the steps exactly how you outlined them. Now, they're starting to get frustrated because they suspect you don't trust that they followed your directions.
This is an excellent opportunity to use a strategic hold. Tell the customer you'd like to look into this issue to make sure that nothing is out of the ordinary with their product or service. You can tell them you're performing diagnostics, referring to a colleague, or simply "running tests" to ensure things are working properly.
After a minute or two of sitting silently, return to the call and ask the customer to perform the troubleshooting steps again, but this time, do it together. This puts you in a win-win situation, because either you'll spot the user error, or you'll identify the abnormality without making the customer feel like they're repeating steps for no reason.
These crucial steps all have one element in common in dealing with angry customers: listening. Listening to angry customers helps you understand how to interact with them in your business.
How to Deal with Angry Customers
- Remain calm.
- Practice active listening.
- Repeat back what your customers say.
- Thank them for bringing the issue to your attention.
- Explain the steps you'll take to solve the problem.
- Set a time to follow up with them, if needed.
- Be sincere.
- Highlight the case's priority.
1. Remain calm.
This bears repeating because it's so important - and so easy to get wrong.
If a customer sends you an angry email or starts shouting at you on a phone call, it's hard not to take that personally. You'll likely instinctively feel a bristle of indignation and defensiveness as thoughts pop into your head of how wrong that customer is, how hard you work, and you'll start to feel angry before you know it.
Instead, take a second to breathe and process what your customer is actually saying. In most cases, you'll hear between the angry words that the customer is struggling or frustrated with your product or service, to the point where they have to take it out on somebody. Understand that everyone is human and experiences moments of weakness, and don't take their anger personally or hold it against them.
That said, if a customer is so angry they're being rude, abusive, or aggressive in tone or language, you don't have to tolerate that behavior. If at any point in a customer conversation, feel free to escalate it to your manager for additional support.
Example of remaining calm
Let's say a customer calls your support team and is upset about their delivery date. They're agitated and are shouting for a manager the moment your rep picks up the phone.
This is where your rep should remain calm and try to identify the three "what's": "What's the problem?" "What are the customer's goals?" and "What are your options?" If your rep can keep their cool and determine these details, they'll have a much easier time de-escalating an angry customer.
2. Practice active listening.
Pay close attention to the words the customer is saying, instead of focusing on the anger behind the words.
By actively listening, you'll be able to figure out what's making the customer so angry and how to resolve the issue, instead of simply trying to comfort them and de-escalate the interaction. You'll be able to solve their problem and make them satisfied again sooner by paying close attention to the angry words so you can respond as quickly as possible.
Example of active listening
Let's say a customer walks into your store and says, "Your product stopped working a few days after I purchased it. I'm really surprised how poorly it's designed."
Focus on the words this customer used, specifically the word "surprised." This is how the customer described their feelings. They're not angry but rather surprised by your product's behavior.
In this case, you may be tempted to reply with something like, "I understand your frustration." But, notice how this response escalates the customer’s feelings. You're giving them permission to go from just feeling surprised about the issue to feeling frustrated that they're on the phone with you.
Instead, demonstrate active listening by using the same language your customer is using. Say something like, "That certainly is surprising! Let's see why your product has stopped working unexpectedly." This response acknowledges the customer's feelings without escalating their emotions.
3. Repeat back what your customers say.
A key part of active listening is making sure you and the customer are on the same page. Once you've determined the root cause of the anger, repeat back to the customer what you're hearing to make sure you understand each other, and to let the customer know that their concerns have been heard and will be responded to.
Example of repeating what the customer says
You can start by saying, "What I'm hearing is ... " to get the ball rolling. Then, like in the previous example, repeat their vocabulary back to them. And, if possible, highlight how the problem is preventing them from achieving their goal. This shows that you not only listened but understand why your customer needs your help.
4. Thank them for bringing the issue to your attention.
When your customer sounds angry and negative about a situation, thanking them for voicing their concern to you can go a long way toward building rapport with them. A simple thank-you to acknowledge their time and patience as you work to solve the issue will suffice.
Example of thanking a customer
The easiest way to thank your customer is to do it constantly. When the customer begins a service inquiry, thank them for reaching out to your team. When you're working on a case and there's a long period of silence, thank the customer for "bearing with you as you troubleshoot their case." And, when a customer provides you feedback, either positive or negative, thank them for sharing their perspective and making your support team better.
5. Explain the steps you'll take to solve the problem.
Make it clear to the customer what you'll do to get started addressing their concern. Whether it's something simple you can do over the phone, or if you'll need to go through a process with them, spell out your next moves so the customer feels heard and at ease.
Example of explaining the steps to alleviate the problem
One way to do this is by creating a timeline for your customer. List out every step you're going to take and when you expect to complete each one. This lets the customer know exactly what you're doing and when they'll have a resolution.
6. Set a time to follow up with them, if needed.
Sometimes, problems can't be solved in just one phone call and might require you to sync with your manager or file an internal request with the product team. If this is the case, let the customer know why you can't handle the issue on the phone with them, and instead give them a timeline of when they can expect to hear from you next.
The added benefit of this is that it will give the customer time to cool off, and it will give you time to get guidance and feedback from your manager about how to proceed.
Example of setting up a follow-up time
If you need to set up a follow-up time with a customer, the best thing you can do is explain why the break will benefit them. For example, if you need to speak with a product expert before you can troubleshoot, be transparent with your customer. Let them know that you can't take any further steps until you hang up the phone and speak with your reference.
If the customer is uneasy about this proposal, reassure them by providing a contingency plan. Let them know exactly when you'll reach out next and what information you expect to have by that time. This will help justify why a follow-up meeting is best for this case.
7. Be sincere.
Just as important as remaining calm when dealing with an angry customer, it's important to be sincere, too. Customers can tell when they're being spoken to in a patronizing or equally angry manner, so make sure your word choice and tone are deliberate and respectful. Nobody likes being talked down to, and even if the customer comes in hot with anger or a raised voice, make sure you take the high road to diffuse tension and make the customer feel like they're being taken seriously.
Example of practicing sincerity
Sometimes customers will call you with a "problem," but when your rep troubleshoots, it turns out to be user error. These situations can be tempting for reps to poke fun at customers who wrongly blamed them or your company for their misfortune.
However, it's important to remember that the customer's perspective dictates the quality of the service experience. Even if the customer is clearly at fault, it's their opinion that gets shared on social media and review sites. These are the cases where your reps need to work extra hard to politely explain why an issue occurred and how it can be prevented going forward.
8. Highlight the case's priority.
A common frustration for customers is the feeling that their support case isn't important to your business. This is particularly prevalent for businesses that have large or international teams supporting their customer base. When your company is dealing with thousands of inquiries each day, some customers feel like their case is expendable and that your team can afford to provide an occasional poor experience.
It's important to remove this feeling for your customer by highlighting how important the case is to you, your support team, and your business. Let them know what you're doing to notify key stakeholders and how this communication will directly lead to a faster resolution. Even if it's just one rep working on their case, the customer should feel like your entire support team is aware of their issue.
Example of highlighting the case’s priority
One situation where this is common is when putting customers on hold or asking to follow up with them. That's because some customers feel like this is an excuse for the rep to avoid a stressful confrontation and put their case on the back burner.
In these cases, support reps need to justify their actions. They need to explain how your support process works and why a break is necessary for their case.
For example, they can say something like, "It looks like I need to speak with a product expert about this error. That's going to require me to put you on hold to track them down, but the sooner I do that, the sooner I should have the tools I need to troubleshoot your case."
This response demonstrates the significance of the problem and the steps you'll need to take to troubleshoot it. You're telling the customer that you know what you need to do, but you need more advanced tools and resources to do it. Now it becomes clear that the sooner you put them on hold, the sooner they'll have their solution.
These crucial steps all have one element in common in dealing with angry customers - listening. Listening to angry customers helps you understand how to interact with them in your business.
Is it worth it to deal with angry customers?
In short, yes. Dealing with angry customers can be difficult but angry, demanding, or hard to please customers are beneficial to your company’s success by providing opportunities to improve your business.
Angry customers give your team opportunities to practice their conflict resolution skills. Many customers want to be heard and for their problems to be understood. By actively listening to a customer’s concerns, you can see an alternative point of view on how your business can improve a product or service and help to improve the structure of your business.
No company is exempt from having difficult customers, but allowing your customers to be heard and understood can increase brand loyalty, product or services, and conflict resolution training skills.
How would you handle an angry customer?
Anger is a natural emotion, but by actively listening, being sincere, remaining calm, having follow-up times, and prioritizing a customer’s case, you will be able to handle angry or difficult customers in any situation.
Using anger as a tool to bargain with your customer to give them the best results for a situation at the time can increase rapport with your business. Dealing with unhappy customers is never easy. But, despite the headaches, angry customers are good for business — you just need to know how to relate to them and solve their specific needs.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in August 2020 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.