Director of Customer Success
Everyone has a “crazy customer” story. But in my experience, whether you’re working in customer service or sales, a lot lies below the surface of the “angry customer” stereotype.
While there are always a few irrational cases, the majority of angry customers are genuinely (and legitimately) upset about a product, experience, or service with an organization.
Dealing with upset customers involves more than just appeasing them. It’s a skill set that is critical to customer retention, sales, and the health of your company.
Irritated customers provide valuable feedback you can use to improve your product, customer service, and revenue.
As the Director of Customer Success at Copper, I’m on the frontlines working with customers every day. Most importantly, I’ve learned how to turn “negative” customers into positive relationships and valuable feedback to make our company better.
Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to deal with angry customers and use those conversations productively to improve your product and brand.
Step 1: Listen
Step 2: Identify the issue
Step 3: Apologize
Step 4: Present a solution
Step 5: Use the feedback
1. Listen (actively) first.
The first thing you need to do when speaking with an angry customer is to listen.
Try to avoid passively listening—instead, concentrate on what they’re saying. Stay engaged, focused, and withhold judgment.
Here are a few tips to start the conversation smoothly:
- Begin with a neutral statement. “Let’s go over what happened,” or “Please share why you’re upset.”
- Be empathetic. Take yourself out of the equation and put yourself in a customer service mindset. This isn’t personal.
- Demonstrate understanding. Use their name. Summarize the facts back to them. Ask follow-up questions. These tactics show you understand them, are involved, and actively listening.
You’ll also want to pay attention to the tone, knowledge, and personality of the customers.
Do they have a lot of technical knowledge? Or are they just looking for a high-level explanation? If you run a software company, an IT administrator will expect a different answer than the CFO.
Depending on the situation, they may also be looking for different resolutions. Some customers need to be reassured. Others need a solution to the problem right away. Some angry customers need to vent.
Listening to not only what they say but also how they say it will set you up for the next step: identifying the issue.
2. Identify the issue.
Identifying the underlying issue is one of the most crucial parts of learning how to deal with angry customers.
It sounds simple. They’ll tell you immediately, right?
Irate customers often call in a moment of panic, frustration, or irritation (sometimes all three). They may not tell you all the details you need. Or, they might simply forget a critical component that could impact your response.
Before offering any solution, you need to understand the full story. If you go in and quickly fix a small feature and it still doesn’t help them, it’s like covering a boat leak with a Band-Aid—useless.
In my experience, customers are often angry about the product. The two most common reasons are:
- Expected performance: There’s nothing wrong with the product or service, but it’s not doing what they expected.
- Bugs and service outages: Product and service glitches are more challenging because they don’t always have a quick solution.
It can be tempting to come up with a quick fix, but ask questions before jumping in with solutions.
Pro-tip: Gather every fact you can to ensure you understand the customer’s complaint and can present the right solution.
I like to use a few different methods to achieve this.
First, don’t make a move without reviewing their history in your CRM.
Look at the status of the account. Who spoke with them last? What product or service are they using? Are there any notes on the account regarding their complaints? You may be able to identify the issues immediately with data from your CRM.
For example, here's how a customer record would look in Copper:
Few things are more irritating for customers than having to repeat themselves or answer basic questions they’ve already provided info about. Your CRM is an excellent way to do some background research and be prepared.
My other favorite way to identify the issue is to use the “5 Whys” approach.
The “5 Whys” is an iterative questioning technique that identifies the cause and effect relationship in a particular product.
In other words, it’s a way to identify the root cause of the problem. An irate customer may not provide context on why they are so upset. It may have been a series of frustrations or events that built up over time. The “5 Whys” is an effective tactical conversation trick to make sure you understand the real issue the customer is upset about.
The premise is simple, but it takes a little practice: essentially, you ask the question “Why?” in different variations.
Let’s look at a retail example and see how it works:
1. Why is the customer upset?
They’re upset because they’ve been on hold for over an hour.
2. Why can’t they get a hold of anyone?
The lines have been slammed all day and all customer service specialists were tied up.
3. Why did they need to call someone?
Their online order didn’t arrive when it was expected.
4. Why did they need the dress to arrive when it did?
They are wearing it to a wedding the next day and now have nothing to wear.
5. Why is this wedding so important?
It’s a close family member’s wedding.
Suddenly, the conversation takes on a new meaning. The customer isn’t upset about the long hold time—well, they are, but it’s also more personal than that. They need a dress to wear to a close family member’s wedding.
While they may have started upset about the hold time, the underlying reason they’re stressed is about what to wear on a day that’s very important to them.
Know thy customer 🔍
Learn how to keep customers happy by gathering + using data effectively with this free handbook.
This is a short but sweet step.
Once you’ve identified the issue, be empathetic. Show understanding of why the customer is frustrated.
Apologize if need be (and not everything can be solved with just an apology anyway), but make sure the customer knows without a doubt that they’ve been heard and understood.
4. Present a solution.
Now that you’ve uncovered all the facts, identified the root cause, and empathized, it’s time to present a solution.
First, don’t oversimplify. You can’t fix everything; you need to be realistic.
Say an angry customer calls and says, “We’re having issues getting users to engage with the product.”
Here’s an example of a great specific solution:
[Emphasize the apology.] “I’m so sorry for your experience today.”
[Provide a solution.] “Why don’t we implement a training plan and schedule training sessions with your employees to increase engagement. We’ll monitor their progress for a few weeks and follow up with interviews to measure improvement.”
[Give concrete timelines and details] “I’ll follow up directly after this call with an email with dates and times that our training specialists are available. They are available early next week to get started. I’ll also include the date and time for the follow-up interviews.”
[Contact information] “By the way, my name is Alex. If you have any further questions, you can call me back at this number or email me.”
[Confirm the solution.] “Is there anything else I can help you with today?”
Why this works:
It’s specific. You explain each step you’re going to take with the client. If there are a few possible routes, lay out the options, and make sure they understand each one before moving forward.
Don’t forget to give concrete details. If you’re going to follow up, state how and when you will do so. The goal is to solve the problem, instill confidence, and answer any questions they have.
5. Use the feedback.
Now that you’ve handled the immediate situation, it’s time to think big-picture.
Angry customers are a gold mine of information. They help you identify flaws, trends, or issues with your product or service.
Document all customer complaints. It could be a communication issue that the customer service team needs to know about. Maybe it’s an industry-specific complaint that the marketing team can help address. Or it’s a product glitch the product development team needs to know about.
You could set monthly or quarterly meetings to review customer complaints. Just don’t let it sit there! It’s a valuable source of feedback that can have a significant impact (positive and negative) on your business.
The secret to dealing with angry customers...
Dealing with angry customers successfully doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time.
And there will always be one or two that are particularly frustrating, no matter how many years of experience you have. Stay calm, patient, and treat each one as a learning experience.
While they may be frustrating at the moment, successfully addressing their needs could transform them into powerful advocates for your company for years to come.