When customers attack: 12 CX strategies for resolving an angry support call

The only way to make an angry customer happy is to fix their problem—or at least let them know that they’re being heard—but before you can do that, you need to find the source of that anger.

People who work in Customer Experience tend to be empathetic, and having empathy means considering why an upset customer is in that state to begin with. For all we know, they could be going through some terrible personal crisis, and they’re sad and frustrated and they just need someone to listen to them.

You have to remember that when a customer is angry, it’s not really at you. So maybe if you can make this one annoying problem right for them, it might turn around their day. And if you can treat a person with kindness, maybe the next time they’re on the phone with someone they’ll pay it forward.

Here are some of the CX strategies I use to improve someone’s day, hopefully make them smile, and let them know we’re here to help.

Skip to the “tl;dr” version

The Power of Calm

Usually when someone calls in angry, I try to be a little more upbeat in my speaking tone. Part of that is because I hate to hear that a customer is struggling, and I get genuinely excited at the prospect of making a positive impact on their life. It’s really rewarding when someone calls in upset, and I can change their mood by the end of the call.

But also, my hope is that by remaining calm, I can convince them to be calm. I believe that people take on the energy you project. As Yoda says, “anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” If I start to lose my temper, they might think that maybe there isn’t a fix or maybe I can’t help them. But if I can stay calm through the entire exchange, a lot of the time the customer will mirror that energy.

When it comes to technical questions, you have to start by figuring out the customer’s particular learning style. You can usually tell off the bat what their learning style is based on how they explain the problem to you. Sometimes it’s very undetailed and vague, and when that’s the case you have to step back to a very basic level and figure out exactly where they’re at. (“Well, at the top of the page there’s a URL bar, what does it say?”)

Everyone has a different way that they prefer to be helped, whether that’s me walking them through the problem step-by-step, letting them explain exactly what they’re doing and then interjecting here and there, or just saying, “Okay, let’s set up a screenshare so you can see what I’m doing and follow along.”

The Two Kinds of Angry Customers (And What They Need)

Sometimes a customer will call in and they’ll be what I call “passive angry.” I’ll ask how their day is, and they’ll start out with, “Oh, it would be better if a, b, and c actually worked!”

That’s usually something I can deal with by being friendly, or using an icebreaker like, “Well that’s not great, let’s get on top of that!” and letting them know that I genuinely care and I’m not just there to get them off the phone. Of course, they also need to know that you’re doing your best to get the issue fixed for them.

Often, a passive angry person will be frustrated because they know they’re intelligent and they know what they’re doing for the most part, but they’ve come across some element of the product that they can’t figure out, and it makes them feel stupid.

With them, it’s about finding a way to patiently and sympathetically express, “Yes, you’re smart. Yes, this can be frustrating, but I’ve got your back. Instead of trying it this way, let’s try it this way. It gets you more details in the end, and the outcome in the long run will help you out.” Walking them through the proper steps and giving them context as to why we do things a particular way in Nutshell is usually all it takes to make them happy again.

The other type of angry customer is what I call “escalated angry.” They’re the ones who are more likely to scream when something’s broken—and I get it, because their CRM is their livelihood, and every lost minute is costing them money. If something breaks, it’s not okay, and we have to let them know that we know it’s not okay and we’re trying to fix it as soon as possible.

If they’re calling in about a critical, time-sensitive issue, some of those escalated angry customers will want to hang on the phone with you until it’s fixed, and I have to remind them that if I’ve got one hand on my phone and one hand on the keyboard, it’ll take me a lot longer to fix the problem.

And more often than not, when you email them a few minutes later to tell them it’s fixed, the email you get back is ecstatic. It’s like they’re not the same person.

Related: How we reduced our chat response time from two hours to two minutes

How to Disarm a Bomb

I’m a person too, and in the same way that you can get angry I can get angry. I’m not some higher being that’s never going to have their feelings hurt. But I also know that if I can stay focused on the phone, there’s always a way to help someone. There’s always something else you can think of that might get you to the goal.

The Nutshell CX team keeps a Google doc of things we can say if customers start to curse or swear at us. And it can be very helpful, because your brain goes blank after a while when someone is screaming at you. Sometimes you just can’t think of the next words to say. Having that Google doc in front of us reminds us that we’re there to help, not argue, and it gives us some practical prompts of what to say when the call starts to go amok.

Generationally speaking, it seems like people curse a lot more often and more confidently nowadays than they used to. A customer might say something like, “Oh my God, this is such a piece of [expletive].” So you’ve got this person who’s clearly really angry, but they could be speaking in a joking manner, and sometimes I’ll let that first one fly.

But if I can tell that they’re getting angrier and angrier, and they’re not listening any longer, that’s when I step in for the first time and say, “I get that you’re angry, and I would be too, but I’m here to help and swearing at me only gets in the way of that.”

If they’re so mad that they start to swear, it’s also really important to set some boundaries and immediately say, “I’m here to help you out, but this is where I’m going to draw the line because I can’t help you if you’re going to treat me disrespectfully or attack me personally. Directing your anger at me won’t help me help you.”

That almost always works. Reminding them that you’re on their team, as well as setting some boundaries, is just the thing they need to get them back on track. And when it doesn’t, that’s when I tell them, “Okay, you’re getting distracted by your anger now, and it’s distracting me from helping you. I would like to help, but I’m going to have to let you cool off. You can call me back when you’re ready, or I can call you back later, but I am going to have to end the call now.”

Sometimes that last threat of telling them that you’re going to end the call is the point where they realize, “Okay, if I don’t get it together she’s not going to help me out, and I need to get this problem solved now.” But it can also remind them that you’re human just like them, and that at the end of the day, we all need to be as nice to each other as we are to our grandmas. No one swears at grandma. [TWEET THIS!]

To Transfer or Not to Transfer?

When I was first starting out in CX, I would transfer calls to my manager or another support specialist when a call started to turn sour, simply because I would get frustrated and I didn’t feel like I could help anyone feel calm any longer since I was having a hard time staying calm myself.

As time went on I realized that not transferring a call is better because it means the customer will get their answers that much quicker. If I transfer them to one of my colleagues, that’s one more person they have to repeat their story to. Sure, some customers do settle down when you offer to transfer them upward—because they feel like “the manager” will have a better chance of actually helping them—but most of the time they’ll just feel like, “This is the second person I’ve talked to and this is getting ridiculous.”

I personally hate when I get transferred. It drives me nuts. If I ever have to call in somewhere for support and the support rep has to transfer me because they can’t fix my problem, I can’t help but think, “Do you even deserve this job?”

So if someone wants to be transferred, I always let them know, “I’d be happy to transfer you, but that’s one more person you’ll have to talk to. That’s one more time you have to repeat your story, and that’s one more person who’s going to tell you the same things I’m telling you, because there’s nothing that they know that I don’t know.”

I don’t say that out of arrogance; I say that because on my team, we’re all at the same level. We work really hard to make sure that we’re all on the same page, we’re continuously educating ourselves, and there are no weak links. So if we transfer you, you’re not going to get anyone who will magically know something that another person doesn’t.

Supporting the Support Team

I think it would be blasé of any CX specialist to say that they don’t take the job home with them sometimes. You can try all you want, but if someone curses at you and marginalizes you and makes you feel like you’re “less than,” or useless, or can’t do your job, it’s going to affect your psyche.

Going for a walk around the block after a bad call tends to help. the last thing I want to do is immediately jump into the next support call and let those negative emotions color the interactions I have with another customer.

More importantly, I know I can rely on everyone in Nutshell’s CX team as a support network. We work in an open office space, and it’s great to have teammates who are immediately there to say, “You handled that call like a boss,” the second you get off a frustrating call, or who send you encouraging messages on Slack like, “I’m proud of you for getting through that one.” Having that validation that you did the best job you could helps us not take the stress home with us.

None of us come in here on autopilot. We do this job because we care about people, and there’s a cost to caring. That’s why CX teams really have to prioritize their mental health—it has to be taken as seriously as physical illness. [TWEET THIS!] At Nutshell, we take mental health days when we feel drained because feeling mentally or emotionally diminished in this role causes a ripple effect on our customers.

In the end, we’re all humans. We all have good days and bad days, but those that are in CX have a special role. We want to make those bad days into good days, we want to make you smile and feel like you did a great job. We want to pay it forward. One great call can lead to another, and another. If we’re nice when someone is mean, maybe that same person can do the same thing for someone else.

Christina David is a Customer Success Specialist at Nutshell. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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“tl;dr” version:

1. By remaining calm, you can convince a customer to be calm.

2. For technical questions, start by figuring out the customer’s learning style.

3. A “passive angry” customer needs to know that you genuinely care about their problem.

4. An “escalated angry” customer needs you to understand their sense of urgency.

5. Having a shared document of CX responses gives you practical prompts for what to say when a call turns hostile.

6. Set clear boundaries for how you will allow a customer to speak to you, and stick to them.

7. If a customer continues to behave in a disrespectful manner towards you, threaten to end the call.

8. Transferring a support call only extends the amount of time it will take to get a customer’s issue resolved.

9. If every member of your team has the same level of knowledge and authority, you won’t need to transfer a customer in the first place.

10. Go for a walk after a bad call.

11. Rely on your team members as your own support network.

12. There’s a cost to caring; CX teams have to make mental health a priority.

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