What’s the best way to respond to an angry customer?
It’s one of the most stressful parts of working in customer service. It’s also an issue that came up repeatedly in a recent survey we conducted of 2,300+ customer service professionals and businesspeople.
When we asked about your biggest challenges, we heard answers like this:
- “Angry customers”
- “Dealing with difficult customers”
- “Handling angry or toxic customers”
- “Angry and impulsive customers”
- “How to handle the not satisfied customers”
This article will cover a variety of proven strategies to deal with exactly this issue.
But first, let’s talk about why it pays to engage with angry customers.
Note: This post includes a wealth of information that could easily serve as a reference for you (and your team) during irate customer scenarios.
What mad customers do
When customers get really upset, they cause all kinds of problems for your support team and your company as a whole.
A study from Echo Research Group looked at what customers most commonly do when they lose their temper.
The most common action?
Insisting on speaking with a supervisor (three out of four customers did this).
Fully one in four customers turned to social media to vent their frustrations.
And there are other negative consequences for your team as well:
Even so, it’s tempting to simply let an angry customer be angry—to accept losing them as a customer and hope they go away without doing too much damage to your reputation in the market.
Plenty of companies ignore customer complaints directed to them on Twitter and other social media platforms, for example.
For one reason or another, they’ve decided it’s not worth the effort to engage with an angry customer.
As we will see, according to the research, this is probably a mistake.
Service recovery paradox: Why it pays to engage with irate customers
It’s tempting to just ignore angry and irate customers sometimes. They’re not going to buy again anyway, right?
The “service recovery paradox” is an idea that’s been floating around CS circles for as long as there have been customer service teams:
Angry customers can be converted to loyal customers if they experience a positive customer service experience.
So loyal, in fact, that they become more likely to buy from you again after a customer service interaction than they were before.
Can you really screw up, fix it, and gain a more loyal customer as a result?
Research: Customer loyalty after engaging with customer service
Interestingly, there are three research papers that back up the service recovery paradox—at least to a point.
Study #1: It’s not a black and white issue
First is a report by Mangini that showed:
“The recovery paradox is most likely to occur when the failure is not considered by the customer to be severe, the customer has had no prior failure with the firm, the cause of the failure was viewed as understandable by the customer, and the customer perceived that the company had little control over the cause of the failure.”
In other words, the service recovery paradox is real. But it’s not black and white.
In some situations, customers give you the benefit of the doubt and allow you some grace to try and fix their issue. This is especially true for minor problems or situations where the customer sees that you’re having a problem that’s out of your control.
Even enraged customers can be won over sometimes—if you can successfully de-escalate the situation.
More on how to do that in a moment.
Study #2: Sometimes customers are just looking for a little empathy
An innovative study looking at customer service interactions on Twitter also found evidence of a lift in customer loyalty after a customer service interaction.
The research demonstrated that those who received a customer service response after Tweeting at a brand on Twitter were more likely to purchase from that company in the future.
The study included both angry customers and also customers who were reaching out with questions but who did not seem upset—not yet anyway.
“Customers who had interacted with a brand’s customer service representative on Twitter were significantly more likely to pay more for the brand, or choose the brand more often from a comparably-priced consideration set, compared to our control group of customers who had no such interaction.”
Regarding difficult customer examples, researchers had this to say:
“Handling angry customers is a daily task for any customer service rep. While most companies do earnestly try to solve customer problems, inevitably there are some problems that cannot ever be fixed…
“But sometimes customers are just looking for a little empathy. When customers used a negative or even an angry tone in their initial tweet to a brand’s customer service team, we saw that the best approach was to respond to negative comments instead of ignoring them.
There is hope for the angry customer.
They want a response. And if given the chance, some can be converted from angry customers into a loyal one.
Study #3: The power of an apology
In one study at the Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, 37% of customers were satisfied with service recovery when they were offered something of monetary value (e.g., a refund or credit).
But when the business added an apology on top of the compensation, satisfaction doubled to 74%.
This reinforces the idea we’re driving at: it is worth your time to engage with unhappy customers.
When handled correctly, many of them can be converted into happy customers—or even raving fans of your brand.
How to turn unhappy customers into raving fans of your brand
If you’ve been in business a while, you know what it’s like to receive a message from an angry customer.
It’s frustrating, to say the least. The really bad ones can ruin your whole day.
Usually, angry customers aren’t mad at you. They just want to be heard.
That’s why every customer complaint is actually an opportunity to fix problems that may be much bigger than you realize.
After all, for every one customer complaint, 26 other customers probably feel the same way but don’t say anything.
With that said, customer complaints are not created equal.
As our friend Jessica Malnik writes, “When the customer is upset, you have ‘one-shot’ to publicly diffuse the situation and create a better experience for the customer.”
Here’s how to respond in five of the most common support situations.
Scenario #1: A crisis
Sometimes you run into scenarios that affect many (or all) of your customers. These include:
- Security breaches
- Major product bugs
In these situations, it’s time to pull out the crisis communications plan.
If you don’t have one drafted already, work with your support, PR, and marketing teams to pull one together.
Your crisis plan is like reputation insurance for your company.
It’s a pre-arranged set of actions and messages you can deploy at a moment’s notice if a major disruption happens in your business.
We won’t go into detail about how to create one here. But if you don’t have a crisis communication plan, grab your support, PR, and marketing teams and use our crisis communication handbook to put one together.
Scenario #2: One-on-one support issues
Most unhappy customers fall into the “one-on-one support issue” category.
They’re angry about an issue, but it’s an issue that’s only happening with their specific account, not with your customer base as a whole.
Your first goal with an angry customer is to de-escalate.
Here’s a five-step process you can follow in this situation:
Step 1: Respond quickly
Your first response to the customer should happen within 24 hours, and even that might be too long. According to HubSpot, 72% of people who complain on Twitter expect a response within an hour.
Step 2: Listen to the customer
Don’t jump to conclusions. Instead, try to understand what’s happening. The quickest way to take control and begin to turn around negative customer experience is to actively listen.
Step 3: Repeat the problem
This may seem like an unnecessary step. But so many situations escalate because of a misunderstanding between you and the customer.
Repeat back to the customer what you hear them saying. This step all by itself is often enough to calm an angry customer.
Step 4: Classify the problem
Did you and your company screw up? Is it a product bug? Is it a perceived injustice or misunderstanding with the customer?
Each of these situations calls for a different response.
If you screwed up, take ownership of the mistake and take steps to fix it.
If it’s a product bug, replicate the problem and document the issue as thoroughly as you can. Then, get it to your product team.
Step 5: Follow-up after the resolution
Here’s where doing things that don’t scale can work to your advantage.
A couple of days after the customer issue has been closed, reach out to the customer just to check in and ensure their problem is truly resolved.
Even the most difficult customers will appreciate this gesture, and it can go a long way toward rebuilding trust between with upset customers.
Scenario #3: Product feedback and feature requests
You’re always going to have customers who ask for features you don’t have.
The key insight here?
Feature requests usually come for power users—people who already value your product.
They’re trying to help you make the product better, and the right response is to acknowledge that you appreciate their ideas and suggestions.
That’s true even if you have to tell them their suggestion isn’t going to make it on the list of planned features.
As you get more product feedback, set up a system where you can send requests to your product team on a regular basis.
At Groove, we count requests in an internal Trello board. Each time we get the same request, a tracking card gets a “vote,” to help us see how popular the different requests are.
If we commit to building a feature, we add it to our public roadmap.
When users write in about a feature that’s on our roadmap, we can let them know we’re already working on. We also share a link to the board so they can track its progress for themselves.
This lets them know we’re listening to them. It also keeps us accountable for developing the features we’ve committed to on our roadmap.
Scenario #4: The support ‘regulars’
Most companies have a few support “regulars,” people write in once a week with a problem, question, suggestion, or (seemingly) just because they wanted a distraction from their normal work.
They never seem to be satisfied no matter how many times you address their concerns. As soon as one problem is solved, they’ll email you about something else, and the cycle continues.
For customers who never seem satisfied, try to find the root issue behind all their support requests.
A simple framework you can use with them is the 5 WHYS approach, a problem-solving approach made famous by Toyota as part of the Toyota Production System.
To use this framework, simply keep asking “why” until you get to the root cause of the customer’s issues.
There is nothing magical about the number five, by the way.
Just keep asking “why?” until you get to an answer that is clearly the “real” issue.
You’ll know you’ve found it when you get to an answer that’s the first link in the chain of events that causes the current frustration your customer is feeling.
You’ll also know if you ask “why” one more time and the answer becomes trivial or nonsensical.
For example, here’s an example I overheard the other day between a friend and her teenage son.
This examination only takes three questions, not five, to find the root cause.
See if you can find the root cause behind the constant problems your regular support customers are having.
It may simply be that your product isn’t right for them. If so, there’s nothing wrong with letting them know you’re not right for their needs.
Scenario #5: Antagonizers, instigators, and jerks
These are customers you usually see on social media channels rather than in your actual support inbox. They thrive off controversy and they love the response they get from picking a fight in a public forum.
If left unchecked, these customers can create chaos.
So, keep your head, respond in polite but professional terms to diffuse the situation.
(We’ll share a fantastic example of this in a moment.)
Finally, there are the jerks. These are customers who:
- Make personal attacks on people, not problems
- Give mostly non-constructive feedback, including excessive use of profanity
- Are prone to spiteful outbursts, both privately and on social media
The best thing to do in these situations is to gracefully part ways with the customer.
Here’s an example I love of a company doing just that:
A side note about legal issues:
Sometimes your company might be involved with a lawsuit or a legal threat, and you might receive a message related to it in the support inbox.
Train your support reps not to engage with these types of messages. Have them alert their manager, who can make a decision on what to do next.
In most cases, the proper response is simply to forward the message to your legal team.
How to handle irate customers: A real example
As we all know, in the early days of a startup, product issues do happen, and they happen often. You’re focused on making the product better, but especially at the start with your resources spread thin, this is an uphill climb.
The single best way to compensate for that shortcoming is to offer undeniably excellent customer service.
Proposify’s focus on stellar support is what got them through their early days, including in today’s example.
We’ll look at the juicy details of what happened, and analyze Kyle’s response to seeing what we can learn about dealing with angry customers on social media.
An angry Tweet comes in…
Proposify, a SaaS company whose product helps people put together super-polished proposals, got a Tweet from a less-than-pleased customer.
The customer certainly had a legitimate complaint, and their frustration caused them to package the complaint in a sarcastic Tweet.
At this point, the Proposify team had a few options:
- Apologize. (Do this no matter what)
- Defend themselves (Don’t do this. It only makes you look bad.)
- Try to resolve the issue.
Here’s what they went with:
Was their response perfect? Some might not think so.
The “just looking to publicly shame us?” bit could come off as a bit passive-aggressive to some.
But here’s what’s important:
- The response included an apology.
- The response offered help.
- And the response was authentic.
The last point is important; not every company’s tone has to be all smiley faces and sunshine, and you don’t have to be a pushover to deliver great support.
Proposify is a company with a personality, and they weren’t afraid to show it here. The customer’s Tweet was a bit snippy, and Proposify responded in kind.
But it wasn’t a Twitter fight that Kyle and his team wanted.
That’s why immediately after responding, he reached out to the customer directly…
While the execution of the Tweet can be debated, there’s no question that Kyle’s email is excellent on all fronts.
Let’s break it down:
Here, Kyle does something really important: instead of making assumptions about what the customer meant, he asked for clarification. It’s an obvious but underused tactic in a world where many support departments are focusing on the first-contact resolution, leading to scrambles to try to answer questions that agents don’t even understand.
Importantly, Kyle offers to help resolve the issue once the question is clarified.
Kyle also stays positive and compliments the customer’s ideas. Note that he doesn’t necessarily promise to add the feature (a promise we can’t always make right away), but he still gives credit for good suggestions.
… Kyle does a great job in explaining why a particular feature doesn’t work the way the customer wants it to, rather than simply telling the customer that it doesn’t work.
This is important; people respond to story, and sharing how the issue was a struggle for the team likely went a long way in making the customer empathize with the business and be more understanding of the issue.
Next, Kyle apologizes:
Again, notice that while Kyle is eagerly helping the customer solve the issue, his tone firmly makes it clear that the way the customer voiced their concern isn’t the most effective way to get help from Proposify.
This was a very smart, above-and-beyond move. Kyle didn’t need to offer a refund, and the customer never asked for one.
The offer was a textbook move for excellent customer service, and explained well by Fog Creek Software (makers of Trello):
“We don’t want your money if you’re not amazingly happy.”
—The Fog Creek Promise
The refund is not necessarily because the customer’s issue demands it, but because it demonstrates a commitment to making things right, and to delivering an amazing experience.
It’s a move that shows that Proposify values their long-term relationship with the customer far more than that month’s bill.
Kyle ends by continuing to build rapport with the customer.
We’re a lot less likely to stay angry at people that we know and like, and building rapport is a great way to get your customers to know and like you.
So, what happened?
Soon after, Kyle got this response:
This response speaks for itself, but it’s truly amazing: the situation was completely diffused, the customer was sold on the resolution, and they even apologized for their initial Tweet.
And a bit later on, the customer even followed up via Twitter:
Takeaways: There is hope for angry customers
We’ve covered a lot of ground in this article, but let’s end where we began.
Dealing with angry customers can be the worst.
But you know what feels great?
When you completely turn a situation around and (eventually) receive a big thank you for your work solving a customer situation.
We’ve all gotten those messages that say:
“I’m sorry I yelled at you. I was just upset I couldn’t figure out what was going on.”
So stick with it.
The numbers don’t lie. The work you do with angry customers is worth it in the long run.
Just don’t be afraid to part ways with the jerks. 🙂
Note: If you found this post valuable, be sure to grab the reference guide we put together that includes all the takeaways and best practices in a PDF you can share with your team.