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How to handle angry customers

How to Manage Your Angriest Customers

A few years ago, David Cohen told us to “just fix people’s contacts” and we’d have a business. Turns out that he was right. But things are never quite as simple as a distilled quote. No matter what you’re building, there will always be bugs. And with those bugs come angry customers. We’ve seen our fair share of this, since solving the world’s contact information problem is no small goal.”

Whether you’re just starting to build your company or if you’ve been in business for decades, knowing how to deal with angry customers is something that everyone in your company should learn. We’ve picked up a lesson or two, and we’d like to dig in to share them with you.

Apologize First

Our CEO learned this one the hard way, from our Customer Experience lead. No matter whether something is your fault or not, apologize first. This is where it’s important to remember that you can frame an apology a number of ways. For instance, “I’m incredibly sorry that this is causing you problems” goes a lot further than “you’re holding it wrong”. There was no admission of guilt in that apology, but it quickly defuses a customer who’s screaming on the other end of the phone.

Empathize

em·pa·thize – verb em-pə-thīz: to have the same feelings as another person

One of the most annoying things that I hear from customer service people is “I sympathize with _____”. Let’s face facts – I don’t want your sympathy, I want you to fix my problem. But in order to do that, you need to understand how I’m feeling. That’s empathy.

For most of us in the world of startups, empathy is easy because when our customers are upset, they’re likely experiencing the same pain points that made us start the business in the first place. But as your company grows, keeping that same level of empathy becomes more difficult.

Want to avoid that pitfall? Hire people who are passionate about your product and the problem that it solves. Sometimes that will mean paying more money, but think of that spend as an investment in the lifetime value of your customer.

Drop the Emotion

It’s far too easy to get caught up in the moment, especially when someone is badmouthing you, your company or your product. But you can’t let that talk get the better of you. You have to step back, find the pain point and let the customer’s emotion flow.

That’s not to say that you should put up with verbal abuse, because it’s bound to happen at one time or another. But if someone is simply mad and passionate, do your part to listen to their emotion without reflecting with your own. The key takeaway here? a lesson that you learned as a child: don’t make decisions when you’re mad.

Train Your Team

We all prepare for customer service by making sure that we have people on board to handle problems and questions when they arise. But funny enough, your customers don’t really care who is on the customer service team. They care about getting their problems fixed or their questions answered. With that in mind, everyone in your company has a shared duty for customer service.

Take a look at Zappos. The company has a somewhat famous policy of making all employees go through 4 weeks of customer service training. We’re not condoning that every company go to this length, but the sentiment is worth your attention.

It might seem counterproductive to pull a software engineer off of her job for the day and have her work the help desk, but making sure that she sees first hand what her customers are going through is important. Not only does it give her an opportunity to see things through the customer’s eyes, but it also lets her get a better understanding of what the CX/CS team deals with on a daily basis.

What can you do? We have a policy that every employee spends at least one day per year on the help desk. While that might not be the right answer for your company, it’s a starting point. It’s worked well for us, and we’re scheduling our 2015 times lots right now.

Dig Deeper

Here’s where the mea culpa comes in to play. If it can be agreed that every complaint has a valid reason behind it, then we need to look at what the angry customer is saying and find the real problem. They hit a button and deleted all of their contacts? Why was that button allowed such power without confirmation? Why wasn’t the customer reminded that they could “click here” to undo the action?

If you’re just applying Band-Aid fixes to broken arm problems then you’re going to have a repeated cycle of mad customers and continuous problems. It’s only by dedicating to solving the underlying causes of problems that you’re finally going to reverse the downward spiral.

Reiterate & Fix

You’ve apologized, you’ve listened carefully without emotions getting in the way. You’ve found the heart of the problem. Now it’s time to make sure that your customer knows that you understand, and then fix the issue. It will sound something like this:

“Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, and again I’m very sorry for the problems that this has caused you. To make sure that I have this correct: You called me today because ___________. Is that correct?”

Once the customer verifies the problem, you have to either tell them what you’re going to do to fix it or tell them how soon you’ll be back in contact with an update. Providing this closure will often prevent another phone call 10 minutes later, with the hopes of reaching a different person. But if you make a promise to call them back, you’d better make sure that you do it.


Customer service is just as much about psychology as it is about technology. Understanding your customer’s point of view, showing yourself as their advocate and then fixing their problem is the only real way to move forward. Anything less is only going to cause more issues in the future.

Images: Lego – Pascal via Flickr, Military – US Army via Flickr

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