7 Science-Backed Strategies for Dealing With Angry Customers
De-escalating a tense situation starts with understanding your own emotions and how to maintain an inner calm.
The goal of the average freelancer, entrepreneur or service provider can be summed up in this basic algorithm: Get a client, land a gig, get the job done, get paid promptly, and get a repeat.
If you hope to achieve that goal, the last thing you want to do is incur your client's wrath. There's a problem, though. Some clients always can find reasons to blow a fuse. It doesn't matter if you're the greatest freelancer in your niche or have more than a decade of experience. You could approach your projects with Albert Einstein’s dexterity and Leonardo Da Vinci’s creativity combined -- delivering impeccable services well before deadline. And yet, there might be one or two clients you simply can't please.
Not to worry. Science assures us these seven methods can help defuse your customer's rage and calm your own frustration levels, too.
1. Calm the heck down.
Suppose an angry client calls and starts yelling about how dissatisfied he or she is with your service and level of work. Most people's automatic reaction is to yell back. Don’t. Don’t say a word, and don’t interrupt. Let your customer vent. Research shows that your ability to think critically and make intelligent decisions plummets when you let anger drive your actions.
These conversations snowball into yelling contests that leave both of you bitter and the issue unreconciled. These interactions also rule out any possibility of repeat business in the future.
Now that you're calm, make a conscious attempt to listen to your client as she or he enumerates everything that went wrong. Active listening is a proven way to influence your clients and win them over. It goes well beyond keeping quiet and giving someone your full attention. It requires your stamina, patience and concentration. Even FBI hostage negotiators use active listening to de-escalate incidents and save lives.
It might help to grab a writing pad and jot down a few notes as you listen. This ensures you don’t forget any important details as you think about possible solutions to the problem. Freelancers who embrace the high art of listening usually have a healthier annual bottom line.
3. Ask questions.
Rather than make defensive statements that try to shift the blame away from yourself, ask open-ended questions: "What would you like me to do?" or "How would you like me to remedy the situation?" are good starters. This will loosen up your client because it creates a strong impression you're on his or her side. Once you learn how your customer would like errors to be corrected, extend extra help at your expense. Thank her or him for the feedback and offer a genuine apology for the mishaps.
4. Gingerly try some (internal) humor.
According to the American Psychological Association, humor can work toward reducing tension in high-pressure situations. Professionals believe humor can help restore a more balanced perspective. When you find yourself thinking of a customer as a single-celled life form, try to imagine what that would look like. Picture an amoeba sitting at a desk and talking on the phone -- or doodle a sketch. Doing so might take the edge off your fury and make you open to discussion that leads to a mutually agreeable resolution.
We’ve all heard laughter is the best medicine. It relieves stress, elevates mood, enhances creativity and makes you more resilient. Just take care not to use harsh or sarcastic humor with your customers. It's merely another form of aggression, and your client might interpret your attempt to be clever as a dismissive attitude.
5. Don’t take it personally.
Realize that your customer isn’t trying to assassinate your character. The anger she or he is feeling has little to do with you on a personal level, so don't beat yourself up. Sure, your client feels bad about services you or your staff performed. But is the problem necessarily with you as an individual? No.
In fact, there are times another person's rage isn't about you at all. Recognizing this truth can have a major influence on your coping abilities. A 2012 study revealed that people who understood they didn't cause another's anger weren't upset by the situation.
6. Know when to disengage.
“In any exchange with an overly angry person, there may come a point when you need to disengage from the situation,” according to professor and anger researcher Ryan Martin. As chair of the Psychology Department at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, he studies many different facets of the anger experience. This includes the consequences of problematic anger and how people express their anger online.
There are several reasons that disengaging might be the smartest move. First, you need to stay safe and protect yourself. Second, the chance of a positive outcome is rather slim the longer the situation escalates. Your client may be so angry that a healthy, reasonable conversation simply isn't possible in the moment. If that’s the case, it's best to suggest, "Let’s talk about this later when we’re both more calm." Then, move on.
7. Let your client have the last word.
It isn’t over until the conversation actually ends. Wrap it up on a good note by allowing your client to have the last word. If you absolutely must offer a final comment, take care not to make defensive statements. She or he is likely to see through you if you use the guise of last words to summarize why you’re right and he or she is wrong. Clinical psychologist Albert J. Bernstein says this is a good way to send your client back into “attack mode” and scuttle all the progress you've made. His book, "Dinosaur Brains: Dealing with All THOSE Impossible People at Work," explains the brain science behind confrontations and suggests productive ways to handle difficult discussions in the workplace.