Dealing with angry customers can be unpleasant and frustrating. The receiving end of a tirade is not a happy place to be, especially when the situation isn’t your fault. Not only can it be challenging to effectively help someone who’s upset, an unpleasant interaction can throw you off your game for hours afterwards. You might feel like you have to build up emotional armor to keep yourself from being hurt, and you may even start to resent your customers. You may look down on them. Why don’t they get it? Why do they have to be such jerks? So…mean?

Whoa who whoa, wait a minute! Now it sounds like we’re the jerks. How did that happen? Let’s take a step back.

Understanding anger

It’s our job to help customers who need help. They’re having a problem, and problems are frustrating. So isn’t it reasonable to expect that some of them will be frustrated, upset, or even angry? We as customer service professionals are expected to work through angry situations, and empathy helps us do that. And understanding why someone is upset makes it easier to empathize with them.

Anger is often described as a secondary emotion—a self-protective reaction to suffering, either pain (physical or emotional) or fear (anticipated pain). Emotional suffering can often be traced to a gap between expectations and perceived reality. Anger says, “I deserve better than this!” (in contrast to a depressed feeling like, “This sucks, but it’s all I deserve”). Note that “secondary” doesn’t mean anger is any less valid, just that there’s another underlying emotion behind it. Emotions don’t excuse abusive behavior, but understanding the drivers of anger can help us be a little more forgiving of outbursts when they occur.

Emotions don’t excuse abusive behavior, but understanding the drivers of anger can help us be a little more forgiving of outbursts when they occur.

It’s possible to acknowledge frustration in customers, empathize with it, and even forgive their behavior when it isn’t constructive, without taking that personally or letting it bring us down. This doesn’t mean that customer support professionals should take abuse, but there is some heat in the kitchen of customer service, As Rev. John Watson said, “"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."

So what drives a customer to get angry in the first place? Knowing what contributes to customer anger and frustration can often help you solve their problem and help get them (and keep you) in a better mood.

Product problems

Customers are usually pretty up-front with their feelings in these situations. There’s a gap between their expectations of your product, and the reality they’re encountering. Your customer might feel shame for not being able to get things to work—no one likes feeling incompetent, and asking for help can be challenging and stressful to people who are used to being self-sufficient.

Why?

  • Your product is more challenging to set up and/or use than they anticipated

  • Your product doesn't do what they thought it would

  • Your product isn't making life as easy as they think it should

  • Your product has stopped working, partially or completely

  • They’ve tried to figure it out already, without success.

Alternately, they might feel lied to or betrayed by your company, or even the product itself. If they have reasonable expectations that aren’t being met, you can apologize and work to find a solution. If their expectations are incorrect, whether because they assumed, missed, or misinterpreted some information, or if they were given inaccurate information, it’s important to reset their expectations and to see if there’s a way to prevent others from having the same experience.

Support woes

It happens. Customers get frustrated with customer support. They may be upset over an escalation, or simply because they don’t trust that you’ll be willing or able to help them. It may be that they’ve had bad experiences with your organization before, but they may have just been burned often enough in the past that they no longer trust that any company cares about their needs.

Why?

  • They've been waiting longer than anticipated for a response

  • They think they won't like your answer

  • They’ve been passed around from agent to agent without concrete results

  • They have other unresolved issues with you

  • They had one or more bad previous support experiences—with your team or other companies

  • They have an incorrect expectation of the level of support they are entitled to.

And what’s even more challenging? The customer may have had a phenomenal service experience with a different company, perhaps not even in your industry, and they now expect that same level of support

Similar to product-related issues, there may be an expectations gap that needs to be bridged. A customer might be feeling abandoned, powerless, or victimized. There’s often a great opportunity in these situations to show that you really do care. The commitment you bring to solving their issue not only can help rebuild trust in your organization, but in their faith in customer service. And who knows, you might set the gold standard for expectation transfer.

What's hitting the fan

With emotional anger, the customer is dealing with the immediate and near-term consequences of the current unacceptable situation. There are a lot of feelings that might be coming up for them—guilt, anxiety, fear, loss of self-esteem, powerlessness, and even protective defensiveness on behalf of their customers. They may communicate these feelings up-front, or may bring them up later if they feel like they’re not getting their needs met.

Why?

  • They can’t accomplish the tasks they need to do and this could have personal and business implications

  • Your product might be just one of many tasks they have responsibility for

  • Their customers are unhappy and some are leaving

  • Their personal performance can suffer, leading to lost opportunities, or getting fired.

Meet their emotions head-on: Reassure the customer that you’re on their side, and put them in a better place to listen to your solutions.

Anticipation anquish

When customers face consequences that can be more long-term, or that threaten their standing among peers, anxiety and fear can take over. The concern over a negative future can be highly stressful and lead customers to lash out. There might be pre-existing resentment towards you if this customer advocated for a different product and lost that debate.

Why?

  • They advocated adopting your product to their company or family, so it’s their neck on the line if it doesn’t work

  • They (individually) represent your product to their coworkers or family, so if it doesn't work, it makes them look bad

  • Their company has invested significant time, money and resources in your product—if they can’t get things to work, they may have to research, choose, purchase, set-up, and train their team/family on a replacement

  • They actually wanted a different product, and resent that yours was chosen instead

  • They may be under stress from economic pressures, company problems, or hand-me-down stress from their boss.

These can be some high stakes with visceral feelings attached, so providing reassurance can help get your interaction focused on the immediate (and hopefully solvable) problem at hand.

It's not you, it's me

There are many things completely beyond the scope of work that can add to a person’s baseline stress, increasing the likelihood that any new problem encountered might be the “straw that breaks the camel’s back.” Health or family issues, unrelated troubles at work, being overcommitted—any of these can make it hard to work even when everything’s going well,

Why?

  • Health issues

  • Personal or family conflicts or crises

  • Economic pressures

  • Unmet personal goals

  • Personal overcommitment

  • Politics

You’ll rarely know when these are what’s behind someone’s anger, and it’s neither your job to diagnose or fix these issues. But we all experience these kinds of stress, anxiety, and grief, and that puts us all in the same boat. If we can be understanding and forgiving, we can help each other out and make each other’s day a little better.

Be kind

We can’t see into someone else’s mind, only what they express to us. But knowing what might be behind someone’s emotion can help keep you empathizing through a challenging interaction. Ultimately, your role is to do your best to help them, and improve the chances of them being understanding, even if and when the outcome is not what they hoped it would be. As the current Dalai Lama says, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”

Once upon a time Dave took care of customers in frontline and managerial support roles. Now, as a Zendesk customer service evangelist, he brings best practice lessons to the wider world. Dave’s most challenging relationship is with his many hobbies: he’s a sci-fi/fantasy/history nerd, internet fact-checker, actor/improviser, and occasional TV theme song cover band member. Find Dave on Twitter:@dave_dyson.