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Keeping cool when things heat up: how to support angry customers

Main illustration: Jordan Bruner

One of the unavoidable realities of working in customer support is responding to customers who are upset or angry. Learning the best ways to handle those situations helps not only satisfy the customer, but also to keep your cool.

Before starting in customer support at Intercom, I worked as a bartender in Chicago’s Wrigleyville neighborhood. The area was exciting, busy and filled with people who had started drinking early and kept going all night. While working there, I saw firsthand how poorly handling an angry, upset or otherwise emotional customer can turn a small issue into an explosive one that can have a lasting impact on your business.

A bad support experience can lead to bad reviews haunting your online presence

Chances are your users won’t try to throw a pint glass at you, but a bad support experience can lead to more stressful conversations, churn, and bad reviews haunting your online presence.

Taking time to listen and really hear your customers, no matter why they’re upset, can be challenging. But turning around their bad experience, showing them that you’ll be empathetic to them as a person, can reaffirm why they were passionate about your product in the first place.

How do you handle a customer who comes in angry? How do you respond when they’re threatening to cancel their subscription or report you to the Better Business Bureau if their issue isn’t fixed immediately? It starts with leaning on a few of the same principles I picked up while bartending and adapting them for a live chat context.

When faced with an angry customer, take a breath

It’s easy to get defensive when receiving critical feedback from customers, especially when working through live chat. Unlike with other service jobs, you don’t see your customer – just an avatar and some angry lines of text. This can make it temptingly easy to cut them off or deflect with phrases like, “We don’t plan on having that feature” or “I’m not in charge of the engineering team. I don’t know if they’ll change that.” But this doesn’t do much to solve your users’ problems.

Take a minute to think about what your customer is asking

Don’t forsake your speed of response and spend an hour thinking things through (which could make the situation worse for the customer), but do take a minute to think about what your customer is asking, and why they’re asking it. Do they need help getting a part of your product to work, or a feature that would make their lives easier? Why is it important for them? Consider this to help you craft a response that is both more personal and goes further to connect with your customers. Take a breath and think about the best next move to make. (If you’re short on time, Front have created a few templates to responding to these delicate situations)

This isn’t to say that every customer is going to be easy to handle, and it’s important to know when you’ll need to say no and how to do that. Is what they’re asking for in line with your company’s values? Is this a bug that can be fixed or rather an expected behavior that you’re not going to be technically able to change? Letting them down gently requires some tact (more on that later), and taking a moment to think will help you get that across better.

Of course, some customers can be cruel. In that case, it’s also important to know how to cut the cord.

Remember, your customer has a life outside of the messenger

A typically mild mannered customer can blow up for reasons that have nothing to do with the issues you’re helping them with. Anything in their life could be affecting their mood and reactions. This doesn’t mean that you need to find out what, if anything, is wrong – you’re not here to play therapist. The important thing is to have that understanding and empathy in your head as you work with them.

I find it helpful to treat upset customers like they had just got caught in the rain. It’s an unfortunate thing to happen, but it’s not life or death. From there, I try to figure out if it was a sunshower or a thunderstorm – that is, is this a small annoyance or was it a more harrowing experience?

A feature request that would cut significant time out of someone’s day is a sunshower; a bug that deleted a customer’s data would be a thunderstorm. Adjusting your tone to account for the experience the customer had can go a long way to making sure they understand that you can empathize with them.

What you say and how you say it

It’s important to remember that there isn’t a single tone that’s going to work in every situation. The key is to treat the customer like an individual. So when an upset customer is reaching out to you, using your fallback lines like “Happy to help!” or “Have a wonderful day!” can sound just as robotic as using a neutral tone.

If the customer says:
“Why does the product always have this bug?”
Don’t say:
“Happy to take a look at what you’re running into!”
“I understand how this can be frustrating. Can you give me some additional details into what you’re running into and I can take a look?”

Chances are none of your customers really want to talk to you

If the customer says:
“You’re not listening to me!”
Don’t say:
“Tell me more about what’s wrong.”
“Apologies if I’m coming off as inattentive! To make sure that we’re on the same page, can I get some clarifying information from you?”

If the customer says:
“This is unreasonably expensive!”
Don’t say:
“I’m sorry you feel that way. We believe our prices are very fair.”
“I definitely understand how cost is a big factor in the products you use. Let’s take a look at how you’re utilizing the program and see what your options are.”

Pay attention to tone

No matter how good your customer support is, chances are none of your customers really want to talk to you. They weren’t able to find an answer on their own, something is broken or not working how they expect – now they need to talk to a stranger and ask for help. Here, paying close attention to how they speak can help you give the support a customer needs.

If the customer approaches you analytically with hard numbers, using a relaxed and familiar tone isn’t going to elicit the same response as mirroring their specificity. Using timestamps and specific data is giving those sorts of customers the response they need, and that’s a major part of being personal– catering the conversation to that individual customer.

Other customers can be more comfortable with a relaxed tone, and can end up having gif-laden, emoji-filled conversations where they form a bond with their rep. Some, particularly the upset customers, want things to be solved. And tense conversation can make gifs seem out of place.

Don’t sell your product short

There’s a certain holdover from the the “Customer is always right” mentality that ends up causing more harm than good. That way of thinking led to a whole school of customer support that feels the need to apologize for every issue as if it was a personal affront to the customer. While McDonald’s might be able to withstand their employees’ apologies for the ice cream machine needing repairs, your team should embrace the territory of producing a new piece of technology.

Real customer support is based in empathy, in understanding why your customer is upset

Bugs happen. Rollouts can go poorly. New features that sounded good on paper can end up being an unnecessary burden. A customer might want your product to do something that doesn’t align with your company values. Instead of apologizing to your customers as soon as they’re upset, let them know how you’re team is handling the issue.

Don’t apologize for bugs, but let your customers know that you’re working on them. Don’t apologize for a feature not working the exact way a customer wants it to, tell them why it was made that way. Don’t apologize for a delay, but thank them for being patient.

None of this is to say that you’re getting around angry customers or placating them enough to move on. Real customer support is based on empathy, understanding why your customer is upset and doing what you can to let them know they’re valued and have been heard. Connecting with the customer, being open to exploring both sides of an issue, yours and theirs, helps cement the relationship between them and your company.

It can be difficult to support an angry, rude or upset customer, but that’s when good support is the most vital. Engaging with your most passionate users not only helps you avoid churn, but helps turn them into your biggest advocates. Having a difficult conversation yield a positive outcome can get you a glowing endorsement from your customer. And just like defusing the tensions in a bar, it starts with empathy, and making sure that the customer feels heard before things heat up.

The Growth Handbook v1 – Desktop Article – horizontal 2019