8 Proven Psychological Strategies To Deal With Angry, Emotional or Difficult Customers

Every business has some angry, emotional, or difficult customers.

Even if most of your customers are happy, there will always be outliers.

If you’re starting a business, you hope that you always make customers happy. But that’s a high bar no business can meet.

While talking down an angry, frustrated customer will never be easy, there are proven techniques that make the process more effective and less frustrating.

The most effective of these techniques are grounded in psychology. After all, it’s important to deal with an emotionally challenging situation by responding in emotionally intelligent ways.

Emotional intelligence (sometimes also called EI or EQ) is the ability to identify and regulate your own feelings and the feelings of people around you. Leadership coach Brent Gleeson describes it as:

The act of knowing, understanding, and responding to emotions, overcoming stress in the moment, and being aware of how your words and actions affect others…

We know that having a high EQ makes for better teammates and better leaders.

High EQ also makes for better relationships with your customers.

Use your EQ and resolve issues faster by practicing the following key strategies to more effectively work with angry, emotional, or difficult customers:

Call them by their name

Whether you use the informal first name or a more traditional Mrs. Jones, calling your customer by their name is a way to convey a more personal level of sincerity.

By using their name rather than a cold, impersonal “I’m sorry, ma’am,” you’re acknowledging each customer as a person – a person with a specific problem and history that you actively want to help.

Try interjecting their name into your conversation as naturally as possible. It will sound forced and uncomfortable if you end every sentence with “Irene,” so make sure you’re addressing them the same way you would an unhappy friend.

Get in the habit by adopting a few simple, easy to incorporate phrases like:

  • “I’ll get right on that, Mrs. Albertine.”
  • “I hear what you are saying, Chris.”
  • “Alec, thank you so much for explaining the issue.”

It will be easier to get comfortable using customers’ names if you have a few at-the-ready expressions that are easy to use in most conflict-based situations.

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Practice reflective listening

You’ve initiated contact with your customer, and now they’re explaining their issue to you. This is where hearing and understanding what they’re telling you is only half of the challenge.

People are vulnerable when they express their emotions.

No one likes to ask for help.

When people reach out for assistance, it’s often during times when they’re frustrated, angry, or not in a calm place. To have someone show that they’re truly listening and validate their concerns can go a long way towards soothing hurt or upset feelings.

It’s not as straightforward as saying, “I understand,” or “I hear you,” because those words tend to sound weak and full of platitudes. Reflective listening to the rescue!

To start, let’s discuss what reflective listening is and is not.

Wikipedia defines reflective listening as a way of communicating that has two steps: “seeking to understand a speaker’s idea, then offering the idea back to the speaker, to confirm the idea has been understood correctly.”

For example, a customer might say to you, “I’ve been trying to get my Internet connection working for two hours, and I’m at my wit’s end.”

Using reflective listening, you could reply, “What I hear is you’re frustrated because your internet connection isn’t working. Is that right?”

You’re taking in what the customer has said and then repeating it back to them in a way that shows you understood. That shows the customer that you’re not only paying attention; you’re also thinking about what they’re telling you.

Done poorly, however, reflective listening can do more harm than good.

Merely repeating back what you heard without processing what is being said is nothing more than parroting. Customers can pick up on this quickly, and the result can be an even more negative response.

To effectively use reflective listening, you need to incorporate empathy.

As you hear the customer tell their story, put yourself in their shoes and try to imagine how they might feel. You’re not just listening; you’re attuned to your customer’s feelings and what they’re saying.

Empathetic listening can be tiring. It requires you to be emotionally present with your full attention, and that kind of focus can wear you out quickly.

But the results are often worth it.

As we wrote,

Showing your customers that you actually care about them and that you’re willing to learn and improve builds stronger customer relationships. And, stronger relationships pave the way for customers to return if they should ever need your product or service again.

People want to be heard and understood. By using reflective listening, you’re showing your customers that you genuinely care about their issues and what they’re going through.

Understand their baggage

When you’re talking to someone in a state of emotional upset, it can be hard to keep a cool head.

Resist the urge to allow things to devolve into a shouting match, and remember that the person with whom you’re speaking may have some damage they’re packing along for the ride.

Psychologists call the mental shortcut that people use to make emotionally influenced decisions the affect heuristic.

Your affect (a psychological term for emotional response) plays an important role in the choices and decisions you make.

The studies are clear: positive emotional responses lead to an increased willingness to engage with a person, product, or experience, and negative responses lead a person to feel that the risks attached are too high for too little benefit.

When you are dealing with an emotional customer, keeping your responses measured and calm is an excellent counter to this subconscious response mechanism.

Asking questions to understand better what’s upsetting your customer will help you both feel better about taking the next step. Try asking one of these questions:

  • “Tell me more about why you’re feeling unsure. I want to understand.”
  • “Is there a way for me to help you feel less nervous?”
  • “What can I do to make you feel comfortable enough to take the next step?”

These questions also redirect their mind from thinking you’re untrustworthy to proactively considering what they need to move forward.

It might help them stay calm, collected, and level-headed, a strategy that may prevent hasty, emotion-based decisions made in the heat of the moment.

Approach it like a beginner

Another challenge of talking with an upset customer is that you are often at different levels.

You probably have more knowledge, expertise, and experience with your product or service than your customer does (or at least you should!), and that imbalance can complicate things if it’s not dealt with early.

Try to approach what your customer presents to you as a beginner, or what Zen Buddhists refer to as Shoshin, or “beginner’s mind.”

Shoshin refers to the idea that you bring an attitude of openness, energy, and no preconceived notions to any subject, no matter what your skill level is.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos credits the beginner’s mind as being a crucial component of the company’s success.

The best inventors have a high level of expertise in a particular arena, and they simultaneously maintain a beginners’ mind. And that’s hard to do. But that’s what you have to do if you want to invent and pioneer. The world is so complex and deeply rich with the prior invention that it’s very unlikely that as a naive beginner you’re going to invent anything of use. So you have to be an expert in the state of the art and then somehow let that expertness not make you jaded.

While Bezos is talking about this in the context of creation, it’s equally as applicable when working with customers.

For example, over the past decade, crowdspring’s community of 210,000+ designers has helped tens of thousands of businesses, startups, agencies, and non-profits with logo design, web design, industrial (product) design, packaging design, and even naming businesses and products. Some of these project categories are simple (logo design and naming, for example). Other project categories are more complex (product design and packaging design, among others).

When our support team talks with clients concerning the more complex project categories, it’s important that we come to that conversation with a beginner’s mind because the client will be a bit less knowledgeable about more complex design projects, and it’s our job to simplify the projects for them.

Approach what the customer is telling you as though it’s the first time you’ve heard it. This allows you to open yourself up to different possible solutions and strategies that you might miss. Let go of being an expert.

This approach not only makes you a better listener, but it also helps you to open up to new ways of fixing a problem and how to express that to a customer in clear, concise language.

Break it down

Sometimes a customer comes with a problem or issue that’s multi-faceted and challenging. Where do you start?

One of the benefits of using reflective listening and approaching problems like a beginner is it allows you to break larger problems down into more easily manageable chunks.

As Henry Ford said, “Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs.”

You can start to break a larger issue into smaller pieces by identifying its different parts. Understand what the problem is and what’s involved.

Then start working on the problem from the beginning.

It’s difficult to figure out why something isn’t working by focusing on the result. What you need to do is start with the most pressing thing that’s blocking or preventing progress and figure out a way to clear it.

Once you’ve done that, you can move on to the next blocker. And then the next.

For really big problems, writing things down is a good way to keep your thinking organized and keep track of what you’ve tried or what’s left to do.

No matter how large or challenging an issue is, you can overcome them by breaking them into its components.

Use empathy

We know how important it is to respond to your customer thoughtfully, attentively, and with listening skills that make them feel genuinely heard.

These are all core constructs of demonstrating empathy.

We previously wrote about empathy when delivering great customer service:

Sympathy is rarely an ideal response to a customer’s problem. Instead, show empathy. Empathy allows to you be professional and caring at the same time. It also allows you to avoid becoming emotionally involved (like when you show sympathy).

Think about it this way: when you’re sympathetic, you simply feel badly for someone. Sympathy doesn’t communicate to a customer that you understand WHY they feel the way they feel – it only allows you to communicate that you understand their problem. A typical response – “I’m sorry” – is insufficient to solve a customer’s problem. You must do more.

When you practice empathy when engaging with your customers, you are better equipped to understand (and meet) their needs.

The opportunity presented to you when your customer is frustrated or upset is also important. As we wrote,

Your customer’s problems represent a major opportunity for you to build a relationship with them, surprise and delight them, and build a great reputation and engender strong word-of-mouth. How can you do this? It’s simple, really; building great relationships with customers is little different from building relationships with friends. It is a mater of spending time, paying attention, listening and responding.

The biggest benefit to responding with empathy is that you then make your customer feel understood and heard.

Once your customer feels like their problems have been thoroughly listened to and that you give a hoot about them, they will be far more amenable to hearing you out on how to improve the situation.

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.

You can show your empathy for an unhappy customer in a lot of meaningful ways.

Make eye contact, and be sure your body language reflects an open attitude and a sympathetic ear. Use any verbal cues like short, affirmative language or even head nodding to let your customer know you are listening, you understand their frustration, and most importantly – that you care.

Stay calm

When you engage with an angry or distressed customer, it can be hard to resist the urge to respond with equal anger and distress.

Don’t give in!

When you remain calm, you give the clear message that everything is under control. You avoid contributing to the emotional chaos and instead serve to remind the unhappy customer that you’re capable of handling their issue.

It’s not always easy to remain calm when someone is hurling insults and colorful language your way, but it’s not impossible. There are some practical strategies you can use to stay calm when someone is screaming at you.

For one thing, remember that it’s not you that your customer is angry with. Try to remove yourself (and your ego) from the situation, and always keep it at the forefront of your mind that their problem is not about you.

If your customer is talking to you over the phone, and they vent (and vent, and vent) with you on the other end of the line, take a breath… and hit the mute button.

If you mute your end of the call, you can let the anger and frustration from the customer pour out without worrying about how to respond or if the customer can hear your jaw clench.

Let them have their vent session – they’ll get it out of their system, and once they feel like they have had a chance to let it all out, they’ll be more likely to respond to your efforts to move the conversation along.

You should also remember to smile.

Yes, it does sound a little crazy – and it can be hard to do when you’re being hung out to dry.

Crazy aside, forcing your face into something resembling a pleasant expression helps your voice convey friendliness and calm. When your face is rigid and sour, your voice reflects it, too.

If your voice is strained, the customer is going to hear it. That will only create an increase in tension and prolong the conflict.

It probably (definitely) makes you feel silly, but plastering on a fake-but-big smile really will help everyone feel better.

Fake it until you make it!

Take a break

You did it.

The conflict is resolved, the customer has left the building, and you have emerged victorious, a hero in customer relationships battle.

Pat yourself on the back for overcoming a challenging situation, and then take a timeout.

Whenever you engage in a stressful experience, it’s important to give yourself healthy outlets to release all of that pent-up stress.

As we said, neither you nor your business will thrive if you neglect your health.

It can also help you recharge and regenerate, increasing your productivity. The folks behind the app DeskTime discovered that the most productive employees work for 52 minutes at a time and then break for 17.

The reason the most productive 10% of our users are able to get the most done during the comparatively short periods of working time is that their working times are treated as sprints. They make the most of those 52 minutes by working with intense purpose, but then rest up to be ready for the next burst. In other words, they work with purpose.

So take a break.

Breaks can mean taking a short walk, practicing some breathing exercises, or even just doodling for a bit.

Just make sure you walk away from that computer and phone and get a change of scenery. You’ll give your brain a chance to recharge so you can return to what you were doing refreshed.

Here are a few free apps to help you regain your calm, zen center while you take your well-earned break.

  • Breathe2Relax – Breathing exercises help to reduce the body’s “fight-or-flight” stress response and are an effective way to cope with negative moods. Breathe2Relax provides information on how stress impacts your body and teaches you how to respond using the stress management skill “diaphragmatic breathing.”
  • Personal Zen – clinically proven to reduce stress, playing the Personal Zen game retrains your brain to reduce stress and anxiety. Now, in addition to riding that elliptical for your physical health, you can exercise your brain for better mental health, too (and this is way more fun).
  • Adult Colouring Book – Coloring books are definitely not just for your kids! Treat your mind to some peaceful color therapy and color hundreds of designs in this free app. We dare you not to be soothed.

We discussed some great strategies to help you navigate the challenging waters of an unhappy customer experience.

You can use one, two, or all of these when you’re in the midst of a difficult conversation with someone who clearly isn’t happy with your product or service.

Just remember that an unhappy customer doesn’t have to stay unhappy. With the right approach and an armful of proven techniques, you really can turn their frown upside down.

And a happy customer?

That’s the most powerful brand ambassador there is.

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