6 Tips for Handling an Angry Customer

Coffee and News. My early morning routine.

Coffee and News. My early morning routine.

I wake up to the world a little slower than most. Before engaging, I enjoy making a cup of coffee and perusing the world news before tending to my to do list. This morning brought about a YouTube video that had me shaking my head in wonderment. For decades, it has been drilled that the customer is always right. This is not the case, but how we handle an upset customer can lead to a more positive outcome. I have seen many managers escalate a bad situation because they take a customer to task when defending a policy or procedure.

What is great service really? The foundation of service is the ability to have empathy and treat people with respect. I often point out that as humans there are two universal truths that apply regardless of culture and background. 1. We wish to be treated with respect and dignity. 2. We’d all like to use a clean toilet. (Many businesses rarely do either of these things well).

In this YouTube video, the customer has crossed the line. Not all customers are right!

In my past, I have had to appease many angry customers for one reason or other. As a former golf professional, the list of angry customers was long when looking at the many variables that caused upset. Agonizing pace of play, poor turf grass, poor quality of range balls and high summer heat set people off! Below are a few tips on how to handle upset customers.


1. Lose the Audience. Oftentimes, when people are upset, emotions are heightened in front of an audience. The wronged customer is not only proving his point to you, but also to onlookers which normally leads to louder shouting as emotions boil over. So, lose the audience. Typically, when a manager is called in to handle a situation, emotions have already boiled over. Handle this by listening and allowing the customer to expend the initial burst of energy. Once expended, invite the customer to step into a private room to discuss the matter. Being calm in the midst of someone’s anger sets the correct tone.

2. Listen. In most cases, people are visibly angry because they don’t feel like they are being heard. Customers feel like they’re not being heard (even though everyone has heard them) because he / she feels like a) they have been wronged and b). they’re not being treated well in the face of this wrong. Before doing anything else, allow the customer to express themselves. Do not interrupt even if you disagree. Just listen.

3. Set the Tone. Dictate the tone of the conversation by doing two things. Firstly, be calm and deliberate in your tone of voice. I always wanted to bring the customer down from their heightened emotion. If I met the customer at his heightened state, then the outcome will not end positively. Secondly, be aware of  nonverbal communication. Don’t take a defensive stance that visually demonstrates you have no interest in solving the problem. Stand tall and be attentive and definitely put your phone on silent. A ringing cell phone that distracts your attention or a squawking walkie-talkie pulling your attention just adds frustration . The customer wants to be heard with your undivided attention.

4. Validate. Repeat What You Just Heard. This is a classic technique I learned in marriage counseling! (Those sessions helped in at least one area!) Once the customer has passionately told you what has happened, repeat back what you just heard in a calm tone. Again, don’t inject what you personally believe. The aim is to get the customer calm and ensure that they know that they are being heard. This is half the battle towards a positive outcome.

5. Empathize. I’m not a big believer in defending a policy or procedure if the outcome only leads to a customer feeling angry or upset. Policies and procedures are guidelines for daily operations and consistency. However, the key word here is guideline. Paint outside the lines and don’t  be handcuffed by policies to take care of the customer properly. Rather than defending, I re-frame the situation. If I were the customer, what I would I like to have as an outcome in this situation? An example of this is gift certificates. Typically, gift certificates  have an expiration date and due to policies and procedures, front house staff won’t accept them especially if they’re expired by a significant amount of time. In order to empower my front house staff, I challenge them with the question…”What would you want if you were the customer in this situation?” If the answer is for the company to honor the gift certificate that expired a year ago….then honor it.

6. Don’t Take It Personally. Never make it personal. Understand the customer isn’t personally upset at you though they are expressing their anger towards you. This will help keep things clear in your mind and how you think through the issue at hand. Rather than defending yourself because you are feeling the wrath of someone, be objective and not subjective. You’ll only become subjective and lose sight of the big picture if you make it personal. As Covey rightly said, begin with the end result in mind.

Have questions about handling upset customers? Leave your comments below of your scenarios and we’ll discuss it! The customer isn’t always right, but let’s be sure our managers and front house staff are taking correct steps to better take care of the customer!

About James

James La Barrie is passionate about marketing and changing a company's service culture. Originally from the Caribbean island of Antigua, James melds his approach of marketing and delivering elite service together as one. James has injected his 'service marketing' approach throughout his career to transform companies from good to great.


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  • Lance Smith

    This is a great article to read. I am in the field of technical support with an emphasis on customer satisfaction. I have recently realized I have been handling the customer service side the wrong way half of the time. I realized I get very defensive when someone tells me what to do very aggressive and bluntly. I work with cell phones, so issues like dropped calls comes up a lot. Even though I coach the customer on what causes a dropped call, research some internal data that shows me why and where the calls dropped (network outage, cell congestion ect…), customers still get upset and believe something is wrong with their phone. It’s hard to translation from getting defensive and bluntly telling them there’s nothing I can do for them being it’s a network issue, to trying to calmly explain the situation. These 6 things you list are spot on. I’ve been trying to read up on articles on how to improve customer satisfaction, and these 6 hit the mark. Great article

  • http://amazethecustomer.com/ James La Barrie

    Lance, I’m happy to know that the article was helpful. I have worked with many frustrated customers and have found these tips really work. Thank you for your feedback! I’d love to hear about your success rate using these tips and others in your research. Knowledge is power! Let us know how it goes and what else you’ve found helpful!