You might ask, If it’s so easy to eliminate anger through empathy, why do people get so damn mad at each other every day? The answer is that empathy is difficult to acquire. As humans, we are trapped in our own perceptions, and we react automatically to the meanings we attach to what people do. Getting inside the other person’s skull requires hard work, and most people don’t even know how to do this.
- Feeling Good, David D. Burns M.D.
Angry customers are one of the most difficult things to deal with in customer service. It’s hard to help someone who is complaining, venting or even cursing at you—whether face to face, on the phone, in a chat, or over social media or an email exchange. It’s even hard to want to help them. And then even after you have, these exchanges are also hard to shake and can throw off your whole day, making it hard to help the next person, who may be perfectly nice.
Your instinct might be to yell back, be sarcastic, disengage, hang up, or close the ticket. But, in most cases, you can’t really do that without consequence.
I’ve been there and feel your pain. I’ve been the front-line agent answering the phone to a yelling voice, and I’ve also been the manager that angry customer wanted to talk to. So, how do you deal with angry customers in a way that allows you to give them the help they need without feeling wounded in the process?
I’m going to let you in on a little secret: It’s not about you.
Their anger is not about you. While that makes it seem even more unjust and undeserved—and it is—knowing that it’s not about you can allow you to give angry customers the help they need in a way they can hear, and with a heart full of empathy. And you’ll survive the interaction unscathed, too.
Knowing that it's not about you can allow you to give angry customers the help they need in a way they can hear.
But first, let’s talk about anger and how it works. This is key to weathering the storm.
Anger is what now?
To me, anger is a secondary emotion. Anger is a reaction to pain that feels undeserved. The pain can be physical or emotional, and it can be anticipated or unexpected. At least in my experience, anger is always preceded by pain. The pain is felt, and then there’s an evaluation. If the pain feels deserved, the secondary emotion might be sadness or depression: "I deserved this."
If the pain feels like a normal part of life, you might be resigned to, or accepting of, the customer’s anger. But if the pain feels undeserved, then anger rears its ugly head: "Why me? Really? Really?! I don’t deserve this!" Whereas anticipated pain might sound more like: "I knew this was going to happen," unexpected pain comes as a result of a gap in expectations between what you thought would happen and the reality of the situation.
When pain feels undeserved, it leads to reactions and thoughts like: "I deserve better than this!" and impacts our self-esteem. I’d expect most angry people—including angry customers—feel this way sometimes.
Whereas anticipated pain might sound more like: "I knew this was going to happen," unexpected pain comes as a result of a gap in expectations between what you thought would happen and the reality of the situation.
A formula for getting angry
When something painful happens that your customer doesn’t feel like they deserve, like your product not working as anticipated, or when it’s hard to set up, customers are likely to feel misled, which can result in anger. But that’s only part of the equation. Let’s break it down even further; all of these factors play a role in customer anger:
1. The situation: This is what’s happening right now. A customer’s perception of the situation may or may not be accurate, but generally they’ll communicate what they’re feeling. If there’s any piece of the customer’s experience that your company may share responsibility for, it’s probably here—if, for example, someone made a commitment to follow through with a customer and didn’t deliver. But most of the time, the situation—and the customer’s anger—didn't start with you.
2. The ramifications: This is about consequences. The customer is upset over what will happen if whatever’s going on isn’t resolved. Perhaps they’re worried they can’t complete a job or will miss an opportunity. It could involve embarrassment or humiliation in front of family or peers. Or perhaps there’s money, career advancement, job security, or loss of business potentially at stake. For example, if your car breaks down on the way to the store, that's bad. If your car breaks down on the way to a wedding, that's worse. If your car breaks down on the way to your wedding, that's a disaster. Or: if you can't build a report for your weekly team review, that's not great. If you can't build a report for a meeting with your boss, that's worse. If you can't build a report for the quarterly shareholders meeting, that's a disaster. Same situations, different ramifications.
A situation that might otherwise seem fairly insignificant in the grand scheme of life may actually be very high stakes for the individual you’re working with. Their anger may result from stress, not so much because of the immediate situation, but because of what it means to them.
A situation that might otherwise seem fairly insignificant in the grand scheme of life may actually be very high stakes for the individual you’re working with.
3. Baseline stress: How stressed are you right now? Hopefully, reading this article isn’t too stressful and there aren’t any ramifications for you, should you not absorb it (though I do hope you find it useful). But beyond this immediate moment, you may feel stress about any number of things in your life. That’s normal—we all carry stress levels that vary depending on what’s going on in our lives. This is called baseline stress, and it can add to the stress of any situation.
How many times have you gotten angry about some small thing that wasn’t inherently important, and didn’t have huge ramifications, just because you were stressed about something else? This happens to all of us—reacting in a large way over something small—and it happens to your customers as well. Any number of things might amp up emotions in the background, including:
- Unmet goals
- Unrelated job stress
- Family conflicts
- Health issues
- Economic pressures
These may have little or nothing to do with the situation at hand, but these underlying factors can set someone off. Your customer will probably not tell you about unrelated things on their mind, and it’s not your business to ask. What’s important to understand, though, is: their baseline stress is certainly not about you.
As a side note, rating baseline stress on a scale of 1-10 can be a useful tool in any relationship. If a friend or partner has a baseline stress level of 8, you’ll probably want to show extra care in how to deal with them and be more forgiving if they snap at you over something small. Even the act of thinking about your own stressors and how much they’re affecting you can help provide more perspective in any situation and allow you to take better care of yourself.
4. Coping skills: Everyone has their breaking point. When a situation, its ramifications, and one’s baseline stress exceed their ability to cope, anger is the result. If, by contrast, a person’s coping skills are sufficient when the situation, its ramifications, and baseline stress is rearing its ugly head, they might be able to keep a lid on their anger.
But if a straw can break a camel’s back, then coping skills are the camel’s backbone. Put another way:
Aside from whatever coping skills someone’s developed over their lives, a number of factors can affect a person’s coping skills in any given moment. Tiredness, hunger or thirst are good examples.
Your stance as someone in a support role
Whether you’re a customer-facing support representative, or the manager an angry customer demands to speak with, the customer’s anger has little to do with you when these factors are at play. The customer is already angry, and they were angry before you began talking, or the anger was brewing. Yet you’re in the position of bearing the brunt of their venting. You don’t deserve this pain—you’re human, too. So what are you supposed to do to avoid feeling angry as a result, or burned by the white heat of the customer’s anger? Stop caring? Don a suit of armor? Develop full-body calluses so you no longer feel anything?
Whether you’re a customer-facing support representative, or the manager an angry customer demands to speak with, the customer’s anger has little to do with you when these factors are at play.
No, that’s not a good plan. Your ability to feel, to care, to empathize—these are strengths, and you don’t want to lose them. You don’t want to become someone who dreads or despises your customers, even the angry ones. Instead, take control of the situation by making a choice about where to stand.
Here’s a thought exercise to illustrate what I mean:
1. Imagine yourself facing an angry customer. They’re giving you their worst. Expensive, movie-grade computer graphic lasers, missiles, and flames are shooting out of them, right at you, surrounding you, burning you. It’s no fun, and if you want to survive, you’re going to need to become fireproof—at the risk of losing your empathy. So that’s not what you do.
2. Instead, step over and stand right next to that customer, shoulder to shoulder. Face what they’re facing. Now all those impressive and scary special effects—which, again, are not about you to begin with—are aimed out into space, away from you. You’re by your customer’s side, able to see what’s happening, but out of harm’s way.
This is a deep metaphor. You’re by your customer’s side. You can see things from their point of view. You can even put your (metaphorical) arm around them, and comfort them. And best of all, you don’t need to wear a suit of armor, no matter how big their special-effects budget is. Isn’t this where you want to be?
The Reverend John Watson has been widely quoted: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." So when a customer unloads their anger on you—influenced by their situation, its ramifications, their baseline stress levels, and when these factors have overwhelmed their ability to cope—remember that they’re fighting a hard battle that you can know little about. And they’re losing the battle. It’s not your job to fight the customer. Instead, it’s your job to help.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean you deserve to be abused. There are people who will present as angry as a tactic, using harsh, insulting, and even degrading language as a means to achieve their goal. Your company should have policies in place to protect you.
Verbal abuse can hurt, but if you can envision the other person as someone who is in pain, for whatever awful reason, who thinks abusing you is going to help, it becomes easier to handle it when they lash out, without letting it scar you. Just remember: it’s not about you, and you can choose where to stand. Hopefully, it’s by their side.