How to Handle an Angry Customer

how to handle an angry customer

How to Handle an Angry Customer

Angry customers are a fact of life. You may be familiar with a Ben Franklin quote that ends with, “…nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” We’d like to amend this to include the Karen’s we face in today’s world to, “…nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes, and irrational, insatiable customers.”

Have you ever witnessed someone going off on an otherwise competent and helpful waitress or hotel clerk?

As a disinterested third party, it’s easy for you to see the jerk for what he or she is. As the frontline employee on the receiving end of a verbal assault, it can be frightening or infuriating (or both). Moreover, because frontline employees often have limited options for positive outcomes, saying anything to a screaming jerk can easily backfire.

If your frontline team must occasionally deal with jerks, and they can’t solve the issues that incited the customer’s rage (because of company policies or simply unreasonable customers), it’s important to have an escalation process that allows your employees to move the jerk up your chain of command.

Managers have more leeway to make a situation right (even when your team did nothing wrong); and, let’s be honest, this is why they get the big bucks. There is never a reason to make your frontline employees face angry customers who cannot be satisfied.

Whether it’s a frontline employee or a manager stuck dealing with an angry customer, your company’s formal resolution steps should include working to defuse the situation by attempting to shift the customer’s focus away from themselves and onto the real issue. Once it stops being personal, your team has a chance to satisfy even irrational customers.

Six Quick Lessons

Given nearly every frontline employee and manager is likely to face an angry customer, being prepared with these six quick lessons will help those on the frontlines avoid or resolve potentially explosive situations.

Additionally, and more importantly, these will allow the frontline team to keep their cool (and maintain their sanity).

Of course, the best way to diffuse an angry situation is to never get involved in one in the first place. Too often organizations are misguided when it comes to providing great customer service. They wrongly believe that great customer service comes from making the angry customer happy.

This is called reactive customer service; and reactive customer service – no matter how good or thorough – can never be considered great customer service. Great customer service comes only from never making the customer angry in the first place.

Becoming a true CX juggernaut encompasses not only responding when a situation arises, but ensuring that your systems, rules, and processes are designed to avoid making any customer unhappy with you, your product, or (especially) your service.

For the frontline team, this means understanding the organization’s tiny hurdles and miniature hassles, and having a plan to help customers circumvent these. It also means anticipating when a given issue could cause an otherwise calm customer to erupt. Finally, it means ensuring they’re doing their part to manage customer expectations throughout the customer’s interactions with your company.

Lesson #1: Frontline employees should identify and articulate (to themselves) their overriding goal with their job. For many on the frontlines, the primary goal might be to feed their family – that is, to remain gainfully employed and/or move up through the organization. (We like to shorten this goal to an acronym, FMF – Feed My Family.)

Of course, we’re assuming everyone on the team wants to at least stay gainfully employed as they work through customer service issues. (However, if that’s not the case for you, then there’s no reason for you to continue reading – feel free to curse at the customer, grab your coat, and head on home.)

For those who do subscribe to the goal of FMF, it’s critical to remember the customer is not always right, but they are always the customer. Simply put, they pay our salaries; they make it possible to feed our families. Therefore, the employee’s words and actions should support their desire to stay employed and feed their family.

Lesson #2: Pointing out where customers are wrong is not in the job description. The job of a frontline employee or manager is most often to just let the angry customer vent and then assure them (if it’s a true statement) that their concerns have been heard and that someone will be working to resolve their issues.

In cases where someone on the frontlines can solve the issue, the goal is to do so without further enraging the customer. And while this may seem straightforward to many, the reality is that some employees or (especially) managers feel the need to “teach” the customer as they deliver the good news:

“Although you didn’t read the sign properly, we will go ahead and honor the lower price.”

Great! You’ve schooled them! You’ve proven they were wrong and that we are better than they are because we’re going to give in to their mania.

It’s easy to see how this unnecessary response does little to satisfy an unreasonable customer. Deliver the good news and move on; this is not a teachable moment in your history with this customer.

Lesson #3: Kill them with kindness. As we wrote in the Exceeding Expectations post from this series, make the real jerks understand their jerkiness by killing them with kindness. Killing them with kindness simply means the angrier they get, the kinder, quieter, and gentler you become. This approach has been proven to defuse even the angriest of customers.

Assuming you cannot solve their issue because of some internal policy or they’re simply being irrational, it’s important to let the customer vent, though it’s equally important for you to become so sticky-sweet-nice and understanding that it hurts your teeth.

The madder they get, the nicer you get.

The louder they get, the quieter you get.

The more they talk, the less you talk.

Eventually, even some of the craziest of crazed customers will calm down and give you a chance to help them. (Not all, of course. There are some people you will never be able to calm. Your company’s rules and processes for handling these rare situations should be clearly spelled out to avoid exacerbating an already tense situation.)

Lesson #4: No matter what they say or do, the only person who can make you feel small is you. Don’t let entitled idiots with poor manners change who you are by bringing you to their level. Rise above – you’re better than that.

Every successful leader we’ve worked with held an entry-level position at some point in their life. What helped them succeed was often the desire to do more, to become more. However, they never looked at what they were currently doing as meaningless or trivial.

Your frontline team needs to understand they serve a purpose at your company – one that is so important that you placed them in front of your company’s customers. Whether this means they’re speaking with customers on the phone or in-person, they are most often the ones who makes the first impressions for your company.

Lesson #5: Let ‘em vent. Why, why, why do some employees feel they must make their point? Why do some feel the need to defend themselves or the company in the face of an irrational customer?

(Certainly, underappreciated and/or underpaid employees are more likely to take a customer’s attack personally. They don’t like what they do or for whom they work. Moreover, they may feel as if they have no voice at the company. Therefore, while it may appear they are defending the company by trying to make their point with the irrational customer, most often they are just lashing out because they’re frustrated with their employer.)

Trying to make your point to an angry customer is nonsensical, and it’s guaranteed to make you the focus of their anger instead of the issue.

What’s most aggravating about employees who try to make their point or defend themselves to an angry customer is they often do so when the customer is finally ready to move on. Let’s give you a quick real-world example.

A couple was trying to get a table at a casual restaurant in Las Vegas where they could see most of the restaurant was empty. It was 10:40 in the morning, though since most of Vegas is pretty much open 24/7, they didn’t think anything about trying to grab lunch before 11 a.m. They walked up to the hostess and asked for a table for two.

“That’s going to be about 20 minutes,” she replied.

“There are quite a few tables open, why can’t we just take one of those?” They asked.

“We’re changing over from breakfast and won’t be serving lunch for about 20 minutes,” she responded.

“So, can we just take a table and have a couple of drinks while we wait?”

“No sir; we’re changing over from breakfast and won’t be serving lunch for about 20 minutes,” she reiterated.

This restaurant was within walking distance of dozens of similar restaurants, so the couple gave one final confused look before turning to go somewhere else. “That’s weird,” the man said. “But okay, I guess we’ll just eat at one of your dozens of competitors.” (Yes, it was a little snarky of him to throw that shot in there, but it truly seemed like an odd, customer-unfriendly policy.)

That’s when the inevitable happened. The hostess just couldn’t let them walk away. She replied, “It’s not my policy, it’s the restaurant’s.”

The couple was walking away. They would never have remembered this odd policy and would likely have tried the restaurant later during our visit had the hostess not felt the need to defend herself after the man was done venting. Instead, she took a risk that she could ignite an angry response from the customer just to have the final word.

The couple understood throughout the conversation that the hostess working at 10:40 a.m. was not the one who created the policy. They were never unhappy or angry with her, just her company. Why did she take it personally? Why didn’t she just let them vent and walk away?

We can appreciate that a very basic human need is the need to be understood. That said, let us never forget: The customer is not always right, but they are always the customer.

Allow the customer to vent, let them get in the last word, and whatever you do, don’t escalate a situation that has basically been resolved.

Lesson #6: Don’t be defensive. The words you use should be proactive; directed toward solving the issue, not reactive in defense of your position or the company’s position.

In the Las Vegas restaurant example, the hostess could have merely let the customer have the last word and it would have been over. Instead, the hostess felt the need to defend herself.

Additionally, instead of her “don’t blame me” statement, she could have just as easily said something like, “I’m sorry we won’t be able to serve you today, though rest assured you’re not the only customer who’s raised this issue, and I will make sure my manager is aware this policy is hurting our business.”

By replying with a proactive statement like this, she would’ve appeared helpful (and human). Moreover, there’s almost no chance this type of response would escalate a situation (where a defensive “don’t blame me” reply could anger some customers).

Being defensive is easy. You don’t have to try to be defensive; it comes naturally for us humans. What’s hard is being proactive and using positive language that helps resolve negative situations more quickly. For example:

Instead of:

“Don’t blame me. I don’t make the policy.”


“I will make sure my manager is aware this policy is hurting our business.”

Instead of:

“I’m doing everything I can to help you.”


“We will do everything we can to solve this issue.”

Instead of:

“You failed to follow the directions provided.”


“Let me help take you through the steps necessary to…”

This post is part of a series of excerpts from Ridiculously Simple Customer Experience, a book written for everyone in any organization that has customers. That is, it was written for those in both the public and private sector; and for everyone in these organizations. From the frontline, customer-facing employees to the CEO and board of directors.

Each chapter in Ridiculously Simple Customer Experience concludes with Key Learnings and Chapter Exercises to make certain you and your team take the efficient path to becoming Customer-First. As you’ll learn in this ridiculously short book, building and maintaining a CX juggernaut isn’t hard… in fact, it’s ridiculously simple. Buy it now on Amazon!