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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

4 Brilliant Tips for Dealing With Angry Customers

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I’m not exactly a people person. Or, rather, I’m not exactly an angry people person.

But in my job in a technical support department, I have to talk to not-so-satisfied customers fairly often. And in the beginning, my conversations usually sounded a little like this:

“I’m so sorry, but…”
“What we can do is…”
“I know you’re upset and…”

I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. My customers were relentless, I was hesitant, and as a result, I usually wasn’t able to actually solve the problem—eventually, they’d just run out of steam and hang up, only to return later (and with a vengeance).

Then, a new employee, Dean, came on board. He sat cattycorner to me, so I constantly overheard his phone conversations—and immediately recognized the ease he had when he dealt with angry clients. He never lost his cool, hardly ever had to transfer the call to our boss, and somehow, never let the angry client affect his good mood. In fact, management began to trust him with the most difficult customer interactions, because it came to be known that he could handle the worst of the worst.

I continued to listen and often commented on his ability to calm even the angriest of clients. He shared some tips that have helped me learn to listen better, stammer less, and hang up the phone with a sense of accomplishment—instead a sense of dread in anticipation for the client’s inevitable callback. Here’s what he taught me.

1. There’s Power in a Name

One of the first things I noticed about Dean’s conversations was how many times he interjected the caller’s name into the conversation. If you listened in, you’d think he had known the client for years:

“I’m going to get right on that, Cheryl.”
“Cheryl, have you spoken to your IT department?”
“That’s OK, Cheryl—I’m looking up the information now.”

When I asked him about it, he was quick to note how powerful it is to continually use a caller’s name. Addressing your client with “I’m sorry ma’am,” for example, sounds a lot more formal—and much less sincere—than “I’m so sorry, Cheryl.” Once you use a name, you’re suddenly speaking with a real person; a client who has a job and a life and a legitimate reason behind his or her frustration, rather than a faceless “ma’am.”

2. Smile When You Talk

I first heard this piece of advice from an executive at my company during an all-hands meeting—and to be honest, it came across as an eye roll-inducing line of corporate-speak.

But as I watched Dean interact with customers over the phone, I couldn’t help but notice that part of his calm and friendly demeanor seemed to originate from the fact that he smiled when he spoke. It makes complete sense: Try greeting a pretend client as you would on the phone—out loud—first with a smile, and then without.

Donning a pleasant expression immediately helps your voice convey friendliness and openness. Staying straight-faced, on the other hand, immediately removes that kindness from your voice. You can easily hear more of a strain—indicating that you don’t really want to be talking to this person right now (which, no matter how true that may be, isn’t how you should want to come across).

You’ll probably feel silly, and in the cases of angry clients, you might have to fake it—but forcing a smile does wonders when it comes to calming someone down.

3. Connect With Your Audience

Whenever you’re preparing for a presentation, you’ll often be given the advice “know your audience.” Presenting information to the C-suite at your company, for example, will highlight big picture strategy—but explaining the same information to your co-workers will focus on its day-to-day impact.

In the same way, Dean developed a particular ability to gauge his audience on the phone and figure out exactly how to connect with him or her. The New Yorkers, he once explained, want to get straight to the point. The Southerners, on the other hand, often want to exchange pleasantries and chit-chat a bit before addressing the issue.

Beyond geographical personalities, though, it’s about picking up on the tone, knowledge, and personality of the person you’re talking to. Some customers have high technical knowledge; some need high-level explanations. Some need extra reassurance that things are going to be OK; others don’t want to waste time unless you can offer a solution on the spot.

This kind of mirroring can help you connect better with your clients; they’ll feel more like you truly understand what they’re saying—and that will help them be more open to your assistance.

4. Hit the Mute Button

Occasionally I’ll see Dean leaning back in his chair with a content look on his face, completely relaxed. “Dean,” I’ll say, repeating his name a few times to get his attention, thinking he’s spacing out or slacking off. He’ll look back and me, point to his headset, and silently mouth, “On the phone!”

At first, I assumed he must be on hold, listening to the elevator music on the other end. (Why else would he look so at ease?) But when he hung up the phone, he turned to me, chuckled, and admitted, “I just got a verbal beating.”

With the opposite temperament as I usually have when being on the receiving end of such abuse (i.e., tense, brow furrowed, and a rebuttal on the tip of my tongue), I couldn’t imagine how Dean did it and kept his composure. The key, he told me, was that he simply let the client vent. He’d put his end of the phone on mute (so the client couldn’t hear the background noise at our office) and just listen. He wouldn’t try to interject with a solution or even interrupt with clarifying questions.

Often, clients are looking to release their frustration. It’s not exactly fun to be subject to it; but it’s part of the job. But giving the client full rein over the conversation for the first few minutes helps him or her get out those frustrations, blow off some steam, and eventually, be able to focus on getting to a resolution.

Talking to a dissatisfied client will never be easy, but by using these techniques to put your customers at ease and show them that you want to help, you’ll get to a resolution much quicker.