Maybe you’re not exactly a people person. Perhaps you’re just not an angry people person. But when your job involves dealing with less-than-happy customers, you need to know how to respond. 

It only takes one ordeal to cripple a business. The infamous “United Breaks Guitars” incident reportedly cost the airline a cool $180 million. That’s not the type of thing any customer service rep wants to be responsible for. Luckily, it’s not a risk you have to run, as it’s certainly possible to keep your cool and bring even the most furious customers to calm. 

Let’s begin by understanding what you’re dealing with when facing an angry customer. 

Understanding Anger

Why do we get angry? According to an evolutionary model known as the recalibration theory, anger is a “bargaining emotion” that arises when our brains deem something unfair. Then we pull an “angry face” to warn the other person that we mean business. 

In doing so, we suggest the possibility of violence, which is meant to put us in a better position to get what we want. Since it’s also a stress response, emotion, and reasoning don’t function as well as usual, which is why angry people tend to be irrational. 

It’s important to realize that most angry customers don’t voice their frustration – they simply leave. Those who stay and share their annoyance, therefore, represent a valuable opportunity to learn and make things right. Here’s how to do that.

1. Practice a Philosophical Approach

When it comes to dealing with angry customers, a bit of philosophical wisdom can go a long way. You could follow the stoics of ancient Greece, who strived to let no pain or hardship end their peace. Or, you could become a Zen master who recognizes that it’s not the event or person that causes your stress, but your reaction. 

Consider it the fear of not being able to solve the problem, or rather calm down the customer. Of course, it’s an irrational fear, as you’re not responsible for the outcome – you can only try your best to make things right. And if you focus on doing that, you can let go of any stress. 

That said, it’s still important to maintain a sense of empathy and compassion for the customer. Putting yourself in their shoes can definitely help, as will remembering that they’re not angry at you specifically. 

2. Calm With Questioning

As you might have learned through experience, arguing with someone whose amygdala is up in flames is to no avail. Anger makes you incapable of listening to reason. There’s no point in trying to tell the customer that their frustration is unfounded, even if it’s objectively true. 

Even a calm mind isn’t as easy to change as we would like to think. One thing that can help is self-affirmation or making the person feel good about themselves. This is where the questioning technique comes in handy. 

It’s as simple as asking the customer to explain what’s frustrating them, with follow-up questions to help clarify the situation. This makes them feel that they are being listened to while also equipping you with valuable information. Questioning has the added benefit of bringing the customer back to a rational state of mind. 

Here are a few more ways to make the customer feel better when speaking to them: 


  • Use Their Name: Injecting their name into the conversation makes it feel more sincere and less formal. 
  • Smile When You Talk: Donning a more pleasant expression when you’re on the phone helps your voice sound more kind and friendly. 
  • Know Your Audience: Subtle mirroring can go a long way in making you more relatable. A New Yorker might want to get straight to the point, for example, while a Southerner will likely want to exchange pleasantries. 
  • Let Them Vent: Nobody wants to be interrupted. Put yourself on mute while the client blows off steam. 


3. Apologize Where Necessary

It’s unlikely that you’re the cause of any anger-inducing problems that your customers might have. That makes explaining your involvement (or rather lack thereof) in causing the issue a natural response. But that’s beside the point – especially when you’re the face of the company. 

Remember: if they don’t hear an apology from you, they probably won’t hear it from anyone else. It’s, therefore, a good idea to provide one. This comes with an important side note: 

Taking the blame when you shouldn’t will appear as dubious as it is. If the company is to blame, then the apology should be aimed in that direction – not at yourself. But sometimes, it’s the customer who’s at fault. They might be furious that their new jacket shrunk in the washing machine. That’s when the apology can look something like this:

“Please accept my most sincere apologies for what happened to your jacket. I can understand your frustration.” 

You provide a genuine apology without accepting the blame. 

4. Alleviate With Justification

In one legendary study by Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychologist, the conditions under which people were willing to let someone push in at the photocopier were tested The results proved that justifying your request with a simple “because” greatly increased the likelihood of people allowing you to cut in line – even if the reason is borderline nonsensical. 

You can use this to your advantage when sharing something negative with the customer. Offering an explanation makes it difficult to get angry at the problem. This is particularly helpful after questioning. 

Granted, your average customer isn’t standing in line for a photocopy, so be sure to make your justification reasonable. You can’t just say, “because those are the rules.” This highlights the importance of knowing what you’re talking about. Having a deep understanding of the company and its product or service will equip you with a solid “because.” 

As you can see, it’s not impossible to turn almost any situation with an angry customer into a positive experience. With enough practice, you can ensure that anyone who comes in to voice their frustration leaves with a smile on their face and an interest in doing business with your company again.