• Sharon Oatway

Managing Irate Customers

10 strategies for supporting customers through high-emotion situations.


Does it feel like there are more irate customers? There are!

We’ve all had them – irate callers. Over the last few years, it probably feels like your customer service center is handling more upset and frustrated customers than ever before. The fact is, as a percentage of calls, you are. There are generally two reasons why this is the case, and it all has to do with the introduction of self-service:


  1. Given that most of the ‘easy’ problems are resolved via self-service, the more challenging problems are arriving at in the customer service center. Where in the past an agent may have handled one irate call a day, they are now handling a much higher percentage of challenging problems and callers.

  2. Plus, after spending time trying to resolve the problem/issue themselves via self-service without success, customers are arriving at the call center even more upset and frustrated than at the outset.

Irate customers typically do not wake up in the morning that way. Something has happened to trigger their emotions. In fact, the conversation Customer Service Representatives have can trigger negative emotions -- causing the conversation to take a turn for the worse in an instant. Something the CSR may have said or done has ‘pushed their buttons’ and the customer is reacting to what they perceive to be a lack of respect or sense of urgency to help them.


Some customers may deliberately come across as angry in the hope that being more assertive will change the outcome. And then again, it may have little to do with you or your organization. The customer may be facing a personal challenge (be it health, financial, or emotional) and it is overflowing onto other aspects of their life.


Regardless of the reason, there is no question that these are very difficult conversations to have. The important thing to remember is that the customer is upset with the company and/or the situation – it is not personal.


Managing irate customers is a critical CSR skill.

One of the most important things a Customer Service Representative can do is learn how to support angry and disgruntled customers. However, it is important to recognize that not all irate customers are the same. They include:

  1. Customers who have a legitimate complaint or grievance with your company. These callers aren’t just ANNOYED but rather the situation has escalated to the point where they are irate. [This is the group we will address in this article]

  2. Customers who are repeat or chronic complainers. You know who they are! More often than not, they will have no legitimate grievance against your company. At times, this may mean the customer tales a simple issue and blows it completely out of proportion.

  3. Customers who are, by their nature, bullies. These customers have a personality and attitude that they put to good use getting what they need/want. Somewhere along the line, they have learned that being aggressive is the only way to get things done or to get what they want. [Some organizations train customers to be their way as it works!]

How to identify an irate customer

We all know that mistakes happen -- it’s a fact of life, and it’s forgivable. But, from time to time, the magnitude of error or the frequency of failings makes it difficult for customers to accept any longer. Just because a customer is irate, doesn’t mean that they will be raising their voice. Sometimes an irate customer can be silently at the boiling point – sullen, passive, or indifferent – but fuming. In this case, you will want to listen for verbal clues the customer may use like: “Ridiculous!” or “Unbelievable!”. They may express their exasperation like: “You must be joking!” or “Oh my gawd!” They may also revert to sarcasm like this: “Sure. I’m happy to wait three weeks while you get your act together.”


An irate customer is at a different level of emotion than someone who is frustrated or upset. They may be very direct and say something like: “I want to lodge a complaint”, “This is completely unacceptable”, “I’m really angry”, “I’m so sick of this!” or even something stronger like: “This is disgraceful!”.


You may hear them prefacing a sentence with “You people…” as in the case of “You people never get this right” or “You people have TERRIBLE customer service!”. Or they threaten to take their business elsewhere.


Repeat callers usually have a legitimate reason for being irate. They may have contacted your organization before – even multiple times, using multiple channels -- about the same issue, resulting in a lot of effort on their part. You may hear them say: “This is the second (or even third) time I’ve called!”, “That’s NOT what your colleague said”, “‘I spoke to someone last week and they said they would call me back”, or “I was promised this would be taken care of.”


An irate frame of mind restricts the customer from hearing what you have to say. They are so wrapped up in their own story that they can’t grasp yours. That’s why addressing this resistance upfront is critical to achieving your goals. The customer has a problem that is emotionally charged for them and you are there to help navigate your organization to find a solution.


How to support an irate customer with a legitimate grievance


1. Prepare your state of mind to focus on what you can do to help.

  • Never take what is being said personally. Remember that the person on the end of the phone is not upset with YOU. They are upset with the situation. So, relax and let the customer say what they need to say.

  • Try not to get defensive. While your natural instinct may be to defend your organization, avoid the temptation. Under no circumstances should match the customer’s demeanor and respond with a raised tone of voice or aggressive language. Going into battle will only exasperate the situation. Instead, work to stay calm and rational. Focus on finding solutions, not dwelling on the problem.

  • Pay attention to your voice. Speak slowly and deliberately and watch that your tone of voice doesn’t become patronizing or condescending.

  • And last, don’t be afraid to reach out for help when you need it. There will be times when a situation will spiral out of control and the best plan is to hand it over to another person.

2. Use your best listening skills.

  • The first thing an angry customer wants to do is vent. In order to do that, they need someone to listen and, for better or worse, you are that person.

  • Start the conversation by giving the customer permission to speak their mind with a neutral statement, such as "Let's go over what happened together." This subtly creates a partnership between you and the customer and lets them know that you're ready to listen. Then patiently listen. Hear them out. Don’t interrupt. Just listen.

3. Paraphrase what they have said.

  • Once the customer has finished telling their story, paraphrase or summarize what you have heard.

  • Stick to the facts and be as direct and honest as the situation allows. Something like this: “So it sounds to me like we’ve let you down. You’ve called multiple times and received different answers. Those answers have been confusing and you feel that you’ve been getting the run-around. Have I got it right?”

4. Reassure the customer.

  • One of the most important things to do now is to reassure the customer that you appreciate the fact that they have reached out for help and you do intend to help. The last thing you want to do is downplay or diminish the importance of the customer’s belief in their position – even if you think it is incorrect or misinformed. It can be as simple as: “Calling was the right thing to do” or “Thank you for all that great feedback.”

  • Your willingness to help is essential. If the customer senses insincerity or indifference, it will cause them to stay angry and even escalate. After all, it’s exasperating to express a complaint to someone who obviously doesn’t care.

5. Genuinely apologize.

  • There will be situations when apologizing -- “Sorry about that…” to an irate customer can fuel feelings of resentment à “Sorry doesn’t solve my problem!!”

  • That’s why it is always best to deliver a heartfelt apology along with empathy and a strong sense of ownership, like: “I can hear that you are frustrated. I would be as well. I’m so sorry you’ve had to call so many times. Let me see what I can do to fix this once and for all.”

  • Apologizing doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with the customer. Rather it is an acknowledgment of how the customer feels. By apologizing in an empathetic way, you highlight your awareness of the customer’s feelings. You can see yourself in their situation and will do what you can to help.

6. Ask curious questions to get to the root cause.

  • Having acknowledged the customer’s situation and made it clear that you are going to help, now is the time to probe to get to the root of the concern. To address defensiveness and inspire dialogue, ask for the customer’s perspective -- rather than leading them deliberately to yours – by asking genuinely curious questions.

  • These types of open-end questions will compel a greater response from the customer and will also provide you with valuable clues into how you may address their concern. Something like: “What would you like to see happen?”.

7. Present recommendation(s).

  • Finally, present your recommendation(s) on how to move forward by reinforcing what the customer has told you, making a personal recommendation, and then asking for their agreement, like: “Based on what you have told me, I suggest we place another order today and arrange for expedited shipping. How does that sound?”


Dealing with abusive customers

An abusive customer is at a whole other level. No employee should be expected to put up with personal insults. The key to managing abusive customers is to just listen calmly and remind the customer that the use of profanity or any other abusive behavior is never acceptable. It is best practice to warn abusive customers at least three times before ending the conversation with each warning increasing in directness and firmness.


Use of HOLD function

Avoid putting an irate caller on HOLD, where they may feel abandoned and out of control. This will only exasperate the situation and their emotions. Instead, manage dead air by informing the caller what you are doing while they wait.


What about you? How are you feeling?

You have just had a difficult conversation and, even if you’ve handled the situation in the most professional way possible, it’s still a stressful experience. Rather than let that stress linger inside you, it may be helpful to take a ‘time out’. Take a short walk, treat yourself to a snack or find someone to talk to. Take a deep breath and remember -- the great thing about working in customer service is that the next customer is a whole new ball game!

Sharon Oatway is the President & Chief Experience Officer at VereQuest and a skilled business executive, entrepreneur, consultant, speaker, and author.


VereQuest is a consulting firm specializing in driving and sustaining the quality of the customer's experience in the contact center environment. We help our clients win the loyalty of customers through a wide range of proprietary tools and techniques from coaching, e-learning, and quality monitoring to in-depth customer journey mapping.


For a list of our customizable e-learning -- including content related to this topic -- click here.


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