Responding to the Angry Customer


If you work in any job with direct contact with customers, sooner or later you’re probably going to have to deal with someone who is in crisis mode. In this fast-paced lifestyle we lead, it’s not unusual for stressors to build up, one on top of the other, to the point where it becomes unbearable. Unfortunately, if you happen to work in the human services field, the likelihood is you may well find yourself on the receiving end of a consumer’s fit of rage.

Knowing how to respond in these situations can be the difference between your walking away afterward thinking you’d handled it well, and feeling like you’ve been chewed up and spit out without really knowing what was going on. You may not be responsible for “fixing” things at all, but that won’t necessarily stop the individual who’s yelling at you.

First things first, don’t make the situation worse by becoming angry yourself.  That only escalates things and doesn’t resolve anything at all. Customers often mirror the emotional behavior of the person that’s providing service to them, so be sure you remain calm. You don’t want the individual to escalate out of control.

Next, think about whether you can do anything to solve the problem. Is there something you can do within the scope of services you provide? If so, talk it over first with the individual to give them a sense of control over a situation that has left them feeling vulnerable. It’s a good first step toward calming them down.

If you can’t do anything about it, then ask them what they’ve done so far, and really listen. Be empathetic and let your concern show. Often you’ll hear things they haven’t tried because they don’t believe they’ll work, yet may be the very steps they need to take to resolve the situation.

One thing you do want to keep in mind is that you aren’t going to work any harder at fixing the problem than they are. While that may sound cruel, sometimes people develop a habit of expecting others to take care of their issues and it really isn’t helpful if you reinforce that belief by letting them get away with it. Better to provide support to them in finding the answers they need than reinforcing learned helplessness.

If there is nothing else you can do, don’t leave the individual without hope.  Look for other resources they might try, and express your concern that they are so stressed in finding an answer. Sometimes all you can do is validate the feelings of the person you’re serving, but sometimes that’s all they need to keep going.

None of us want to deal with an angry client, but sometimes it just falls on us that way. Take the time to show you care. Don’t let yourself become angry and compound the situation. Treat the person respectfully and with compassion, and don’t leave them without hope for finding an answer. Hopefully these tips will help you the next time you’re on the receiving end of a customer’s anger.

Christine Wistrom is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Great article Christine, and on target! I try and remember that the customer may just be needing to vent their frustration, and I allow them to, so they can “get it out” and then communicate more effectively. And, as you stated, the customer could be having a bad day and their current issue may be the icing on the cake for them and they’ve simply “had it” and they normally wouldn’t be responding the way they are.

As a public servant I always try and put myself in the shoes of the customer, who also pays my salary with their tax dollars.

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I recently had a state legislator tell a public group basically that we were ‘too much in the habit of expecting others to fix our issues,’ as a way to dismiss our concerns about school funding. This did not go well. So I would read that paragraph on not working any harder at fixing the problem than the customer does, with a careful eye. Is the customer really complaining about something they should be working harder at? Or is our system impenetrably confusing? I can say from experience that nothing feels more frustrating than to be told by a bureaucrat that the problem is mine more than theirs. Just word of caution. (And yes, there was also the person who expected me entirely side-step the hiring process because he was such a special candidate for a job… so I get the point… it’s just good to check ourselves on that one point.)