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How to Deal with Angry People (or Wisdom from the Customer Service Industry)

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I spent the majority of my high school and college years as a Market Research Interviewer — i.e., telephone survey girl. And now my husband is a Customer Relations Specialist in his company’s Retention Department — meaning his job is to call up customers who’ve canceled, find out why, and (if possible) try to get them to change their minds.

Let’s just say we both have plenty of experience dealing with angry people.

And when you’ve done it enough, you do more than just build up a thick skin — you also learn a few strategies that help bring a hostile person down to earth. Whether you’re faced with an upset client, a co-worker meltdown, or one of those bosses who communicates solely by yelling, keeping these pointers in mind can help de-escalate even the most volatile of situations.

Kill ’em with kindness. It’s hard to maintain a good rage when you’re faced with someone who insists on remaining calm, polite and reasonable. Not sickly-sweet, I’m-only-being-uber-nice-to-irritate-you-more, mind you. (We’ve all done it at one point or another.) But genuinely nice.

Let them vent. Let them know you’re on their side. Statements like, “I understand,” “That must be so frustrating,” and “Let’s see what we can do to fix this” can go a long way towards making someone feel heard and understood.

But, be firm. Be patient and empathetic — but also know where to draw the line. If someone is so irate you clearly won’t get anywhere with them, you need to politely but firmly let them know this is unacceptable. If things get out of hand, don’t be afraid to tell someone that if they can’t conduct themselves professionally, you will hang up or walk away.

Some people use anger as a battling ram, hoping to get their way simply by beating their opponent into submission. Make it clear that they won’t achieve anything by being hostile.

Resist the urge to fight back. Holding your ground and being the bigger man are all well and good — but sometimes you can’t help but feel angry when you’re being vehemently cursed at. Whatever you do, don’t resort to anger yourself. It never leads anywhere good.

Just like above, don’t be afraid to remove yourself from the situation if you start to feel too caught up. If it’s a phone call, transfer the call to someone else who can field it or ask to call the person back when you can both discuss this more rationally. If it’s an in-person confrontation, simply say you need some air before you lose your cool, and excuse yourself.

Try to respect the person. This can be difficult when someone is throwing a literal temper tantrum. But talking down to someone who’s upset only makes them more upset.

Remember that everyone is human, remember how you feel when you get upset, and force yourself to talk to the person as if they’re a reasonable, respectable adult — even if they’re acting like a screaming, out-of-control toddler.

Listen for the real problem. You might be tempted to jump in as soon as there’s a pause to counter a point, offer reassurance or explain your side. But take the time to really listen to what the person is saying.

Oftentimes people aren’t angry people for the reason we think they are. Your client may be complaining about a $2 surcharge on an invoice, but deep down, what’s really bothering him is that you haven’t been returning his calls as promptly as you should. Try reflecting back what he’s saying to get to the root of the problem: “It sounds like you’re upset with _______” or “So what you’re saying is, you’d like to see_______.”

Speak slowly. It might sound silly, but keeping your voice soft and speaking in a careful, measured tone can do wonders to diffuse a tense situation. Think of the public speaking tip that you should always speak a little slower than feels natural to you. Talking too quickly can make you sound nervous, frustrate the other person and only adds to the general air of franticness.

Don’t take it personally. If the problem isn’t something you created, remind yourself that the person isn’t mad at you directly — they’re mad at your company, at the stress of the project, at the fact that they didn’t get enough sleep last night. Distance yourself from any feelings of resentment or offense that will only add to the negativity.

But, if the problem is something you created…

Apologize, genuinely. We all make mistakes. As my boss wisely told me in my first year at the firm (after a pretty dumb mistake I’d made), “The important thing is that you acknowledge it immediately and do whatever it takes to make things right.”

This means putting on your big girl panties, your grownup hat, or whatever other metaphorical accessory you choose, and biting the bullet. Don’t make excuses. Don’t try to bargain or justify. Just apologize, genuinely and promptly, and ask what you can do to rectify the situation. In some cases, that will make you look more professional than anything else.

Let it go. Sometimes even the most seasoned customer service reps can’t hang on to that particularly irate customer. It’s OK. Just know you did your best and try not to let it get to you. (It gets easier with practice, I can promise you.)

Kelly Gurnett, a.k.a. “Cordelia,” runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits, where she documents her attempts to rid her life of the things that don’t matter and focus more on the things that do. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

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  • http://www.economytravelunitedkingdom.com/england/london Nadel Ricafort

    Just to your best to convince him/her to calm down so that he/ she can deliver the message or complain to you accurately.

    • http://www.cordeliacallsitquits.com Cordelia

      That’s a good point–you can explain to the person that you want to really understand what they’re saying, but you can’t unless they can explain it calmly and politely. That tells them they need to bring it down a notch while also enforcing the idea that you’re there to help.

  • http://www.economytravelunitedkingdom.com/ Jezreel Ricafort

    If the customer is angry just tell him/ her that if he never talk nice and appropriately i will hang the phone.

    • Jrandom42

      And then they call your supervisor and then the vice president of customer relations, and then they spread scurrious lies on Facebook, and other social media outlets. Finally, Anonymous takes up their cause, ferrets out all your personal data and then posts it on the web for everyone to see and ridicule.

      • http://www.cordeliacallsitquits.com Cordelia

        Wow. Sounds like you’ve had quite the bad experience. While there will also be that extreme person who will take things to a ridiculous level, these tactics do work with most mature adults. I’m sorry to hear you’ve apparently encountered one who wasn’t.

  • http://www.lusundraeverett.com/ LuSundra

    Ha! I have to resist the urge to snap back. Sometimes it works, and sometimes the other person is just so belligerent that you just can’t help it. This is a work in progress for me. I appreciate the post.

    • http://www.cordeliacallsitquits.com Cordelia

      These tips are definitely a lot easier said than done. But the more you do them, the easier it does get. (Not to say that even the most veteran customer service rep doesn’t occasionally loose his cool too.) :)

  • http://www.annsrunningcommentary.com/ BrennanAnnie

    I cannot tell you how right you are about the apology thing. I tell my kids all the time that an apology will get you further than you can imagine. Half the time that is all people are looking for. But you do have to listen first so you know what you are apologizing for. An apology cannot be genuine without that. Great post. Thanks for sharing.

    • http://www.cordeliacallsitquits.com Cordelia

      Exactly. People are so used to hearing excuses, justification, and getting the run-around that they’re often taken aback when someone genuinely admits they were wrong and are sorry for it. If you’ve made a mistake, you can’t undo it; but admitting it and apologizing can go a long way towards amending things.

      Good point about knowing what you’re apologizing for–an “I’m sorry” can seem hollow if you can’t say, “I’m sorry for ______.”

  • Jrandom42

    These tactics only work if the angry customer is not armed.

    • http://www.cordeliacallsitquits.com Cordelia

      Obviously that wouldn’t fall under the typical situations covered by a general tips post.

      • Jrandom42

        Can’t tell if they’re armed until you’re looking at the business end of a knife or gun.

        • http://www.y8playgames.com/ y8

          First time here. Awesome blog and great post. Well done.

    • http://fadi.el-eter.com/ Fadi El-Eter

      I wonder what kind of business you have or work in!

  • Elayna Scott

    I know it is hard to listen over the phone to someone esculating about an issue. Doing all the above things are great. I also find it effective to send them a thank you email for sharing thier feelings and a recap of what you understood the conversation resolution if their was one. If not, letting them know that you are willing to let go of the esculation and deal with the real issue makes you look good and you dont want to stop the engagement. Sometimes a “thanks for communicating” email bridges that gap.

    • http://www.cordeliacallsitquits.com Cordelia

      That’s a really good idea. It keeps things professional and amiable, plus it gives the person an additional chance to calm down and reconsider their reaction.

  • http://belleinthenorth.wordpress.com/ Michelle

    Not only speak slowly, speak quietly. This way they’ll have to shut up in order to hear what you’re saying. Works like a charm. I use it with kids, too.

    • http://www.cordeliacallsitquits.com Cordelia

      Excellent suggestion!

  • suea

    I have found that oftentimes just letting them vent and get it all out first works well. I’ve let people rant on and then have them say, “Are you still there?” They often want to get a rise out of you, so when you don’t let them, they often stop. And, yes, I then try to get to the issue of why they called and see if I can resolve it. Sometimes they’re just having a bad day and whatever caused them to call is just a part of why they’re angry/frustrated.

    • http://www.miniclipfriv.com/ friv

      very amazing opinion and as ususal, i like it and very enjoyed.

  • Aubrey

    Nice tips!

  • http://www.frivminiclips.com/ Friv

    i like it and very enjoyed.

  • http://www.freey8games.net/ Y8

    Nice, thanks for sharing.

  • Islam Pakhtoon

    Amazing article so much i’ve learnt