5 Tips: What Being an Angry Customer Has Taught Me About Great Customer Service

I am notorious. I have, probably deservedly, developed a reputation around the office for being fierce when it comes to customer service. I don’t mean that I direct my savagery towards our own support agents, rather the pain I can sometimes cause customer service agents from other companies.

Every so often, I find myself on the short-end of some very bad phone support from an online retailer, reservations agent, cable provider, or cell phone company and I go, well, kinda berserk. I yell, I stamp my feet, and sometimes I have been known to curse. We work in an open office, so when it happens our own customer service team can not help but be aware of it and the looks of fear  on their faces can be positively shaming to me. So, I find myself in a kind of bi-polar state of righteous anger at the offending company and their ridiculously bad service, and chagrin at my own somewhat, um, over-the-top behavior.

It happened again recently – an occasion where my home internet service went out (Comcast. Grrrr.) – the combination of a service provider’s incredibly inane policies and their phone support agent’s absurdly bad communication took me from frustrated to fuming to foaming at the mouth in the space of 5 minutes. I am not proud of my behavior – my mom tried to teach me patience, pathos, and politesse; unfortunately in this case I ended up aggravated, angry, and antagonistic. Eventually I calmed down, but there are lessons that I learned about customer service and how companies and agents can do a better job to avoid those slippery situations that can spiral out of control. It is inevitable that angry customers that will come your way, how you deal with them is what can set your company apart.

1. Listen closely. Sometimes a customer is steaming from the moment you pick up the phone. Sometimes it can build to full-blown-tantrum in the space of a minute. Sometimes it takes several calls for the customer to get there. In all of these cases, the single most important thing a great support agent can do it to listen. Very carefully. When a customer is angry they are not typically their most articulate self and it may take a bit of skill and patience to really understand what exactly has set them off. The art is in asking the right questions, giving the customer a little space to vent, and then expressing back to them exactly where it was that the train went off the track. Once you are on the same page with the customer it gets much easier to help them find a solution to the problem.

2. Stay off script. One of the most infuriating things a customer service agent can do when a customer is already pissed is to read back to them from a script. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that the agent is not really listening to to you, and is not really responding to your issue. So, be flexible, recognize that every situation is different and every customer is unique. We try hard to respond intelligently and to be adaptable to the circumstances and the customer that we are dealing with in that moment.

3. Apologize. And mean it. We all screw up. As individuals and as companies, we make mistakes and sometimes those mistakes will impact a customer and sad to an angry reaction. Never ever be afraid to say that you are sorry, that you (or the company) screwed up, and that your will do your best to fix it as quickly as you can. If there is any one thing that you can do to defuse a tense interaction this is the one. Be humble, be kind, and be patient. And say, “I’m sorry.”

4. Take your time. One great strategy for calming an angry customer is to buy a little time. People do tend to cool off if they know that you are there to help and that you are working hard to find a solution. I often advise agents to ask the customer if they can have a little time to look into the issue and call back in 1o minutes. 90% of the time the customer will agree and 99% of the time the customer will be significantly cooled off by the time the agent calls back. This strategy does something else that provides a great benefit: it allows the agent to catch their breath, calm their pounding heart, and give a little thought to what they can do to help without the immediate pressure of a screaming person on the other end of the line.

5. Follow through. Anger can come in waves. And the easiest way to avoid the dreaded second wave is to follow through and do what you told the customer you would do. Sometimes this is easy, and sometimes complex, but please please please don’t let it fall through the cracks and remain incomplete or half-done. Take notes, remember what you promised and, most importantly, make that final call or send that art email to let the person know what you have done, how the situation has been fixed, how they can contact you again, and how you appreciate their patience and understanding.

Photo: Joel Dinda