How To Handle Irate Customers

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How to Handle Irate Customers

Irate, rude, unhappy and sometimes abrasive customers can drain you emotionally. If you’re handling complaint calls or talking to customers who are hot under the collar, your job is a tough one. It takes time and training to learn how to handle and work through these situations.


Do any of these challenging customer interactions sound familiar?

  • “The information you sent me is wrong! What’s the matter with you? Can’t you read?”
  • “My bill isn’t RIGHT! And this is NOT the first time, either! You all NEVER get anything right!”

Here’s a question for you: When is it OK to be rude or hang up on a customer? Our answer is simple: never. It’s never OK to be rude or hang up on anyone, even though we may feel like it sometimes.

Working with difficult customers goes with the territory—it’s part of your job. But while it’s never okay to be rude or hang up on a customer, there are guidelines and helpful hints that will save the day for you. Our highly effective Four Point Plan will help you calm customers who are fuming and reduce the stress you’re under.
Point #1: It’s Nothing Personal.
The distressed callers are unhappy about a problem. They’re venting their anger at you, but it’s nothing personal. The customers don’t even know you. Your job as a representative involves taking responsibility and taking the blame for something you probably didn’t do. Most irate customers will begin to unload their anger before you get a chance to say anything more than your greeting. You may think that angry customers are unhappy with you. Once you have the situation in proper perspective, you realize they aren’t angry at you, personally. Their anger is directed at something your company did—or didn’t do—and you are representing the company to them in this moment. The fact is that you are the front line for your organization. When you answer the phone or greet a customer in person, you are the company to that person. If they have a problem with the organization, you are the lucky one who gets to hear about it. Even when your customer is unhappy and shouting—and maybe even slamming things around on their end of the call—that angry customer is unhappy about a problem. If your job includes handling problem calls, bring along a shield to protect yourself.

  • It’s not personal. The customer is angry at a situation, not at you.
  • You’re the lightning rod, not the target.
  • Don’t be rude or match the customer’s anger with anger of your own.
  • It’s never OK to be rude or hang up on a customer!



Point #2: Use the ASAP Technique.

Try to reduce the customer’s anger by following these steps.

  • APOLOGIZE, and acknowledge the customer’s feelings. You’ll probably spend about 80% of your time massaging the feelings and, hopefully, about 20% actually working on the problem. Feelings are key. We need to apologize sincerely and immediately. Then follow up with action. Just lamely saying “I’m sorry” won’t work. There is an important difference between an apology and sympathy (or empathy.) Apologizing says that you regret the problem occurred. Sympathizing tells the customer you understand his/her feelings about it. You should always put yourself in the customer’s place. How would you feel if this happened to you? Let the customer know that.


  • SYMPATHIZE, and empathize with the customer. Pretend it’s you having the problem. How would you want to be handled?


  • ACCEPT the responsibility of the situation. If you’re representing your company, you have, indeed, accepted 100% responsibility of the situation.


  • PREPARE to  help—and be very willing to help, because if the customer senses an insincere apology or a ho-hum attitude that will make the customer stay angry. Most customers want sympathy or empathy almost as much as they want the problem fixed. It’s disturbing and frustrating to tell your complaint to someone who obviously doesn’t care.

Let’s see how it works when we put it all together.

Customer: “I want my money back, and I want it now! I am sick and tired of all your mistakes.”

  • A APOLOGIZE and acknowledge the feelings.
    • “I apologize for the inconvenience. No wonder you’re upset.”
  • S SYMPATHIZE and empathize. This is key!
    • “And I don’t blame you. It’s got to be very frustrating.”
  • A ACCEPT the responsibility and reintroduce yourself. The reintroduction is very important.
    • “Let’s see how I can help. Again, my name is Paige, and your name is?”
    • “Lauren. Lauren Perkins.”
  • P PREPARE to help and be sure to use the customer’s name. It will help defuse the anger.
    • “Thanks, Ms. Perkins. Again, my name is Paige, and I’m here to help. Now, please, tell me what happened!”
    • “OK. Here’s what happened … .”

The ASAP technique will work most of the time, but there are some people who are difficult to satisfy.

Use the Telephone Doctor’s ASAP technique:

  1. Apologize.
  2. Sympathize and Empathize.
  3. Accept Responsibility.
  4. Prepare to Help.



Point #3: You Can Satisfy Most of the People Most of the Time.

The majority of people making a complaint call want the opportunity to vent their feelings, and they want to deal with someone who obviously cares and can fix the problem. They need to hear a sincere apology. Use our ASAP technique. This will help you handle most of the situations. Now we all know that there will be exceptions. There are a few people, who, despite your very best efforts will need to be passed along to a supervisor. There is no need to tie up your supervisor with situations that you can handle yourself, and, on a positive note, the ASAP technique will handle and satisfy most complaint calls.

  • You can satisfy most people most of the time.
  • Know your organization’s procedure for escalating irate customers when necessary.



Point #4: Use the Swear Stopper technique.

Every once in a while, someone will use a swear word or really abusive language, and that’s unfortunate. If customers only realized you’re there to help, and if they could only hear themselves when they become irate it might change the picture. But there are some people out there who still feel the need to be sharp-tongued. It’s very unfortunate. If customers use abusive or offensive language, use our Swear Stopper.

  • “What the #%!!@# is wrong with you people? Every %!!@ thing is wrong! What kind of IDIOTS you got working there?!?”

Time to use the Swear Stopper!

  • “Excuse me—I can handle your problem. That’s no problem. I’m not able to handle your abusive language.”

When someone swears at us, our instinct is to say something like this:

  • “Hey, you jerk, KNOCK IT OFF! You can’t talk to me that way!”

We need to fight our instincts, however, and remember the customer is not angry at you, personally. Be aware that you’re the lightning rod, not the target. Sometimes people don’t even realize they are swearing. So we need to make them aware that the problem can be solved without using abusive language.

Let’s re-examine step by step what to do when someone is swearing at you. Pleasantly and firmly take immediate control of the conversation.
First, interject.
  • “—Excuse me … .“

The interjection is important to get attention and take control of the conversation. It’s time for calm, cool confidence.

  • “—I can handle your problem. That’s no problem. I’m not able to handle your abusive language.”

The customer’s reaction will range from grumbling all the way up to an apology. Again, take control of the conversation, repeat the fact that you will start to handle the situation in an affirmative, pleasant manner. Your customers need to hear that relief is coming their way, so, after taking control, immediately start asking questions to stay in control.

  • “Now, please tell me what happened, and I’ll get the ball rolling to fix it.”

There are extreme cases where nothing seems to work, even though you’ve done your very best. At this time, don’t take it personally, but politely let the customer know you’ll bring in your supervisor.

  • “NO! That’s NOT good enough! You all messed up EVERY SINGLE BILL. Someone’s GOT IT IN FOR ME!!!”
  • “Well, sir, we don’t want you to be unhappy. Let’s see if my supervisor can help us. Are you able to hold?”

Well done! Remember, you still need to be sympathetic and sensitive to their feelings, but, at no time does that mean you should accept foul language. So stay calm and be firm. Don’t accuse or argue. Merely state what you can do. And, don’t forget, you’re the lightning rod, not the target.

Here’s a Bonus Tip: Make no excuses on complaint calls. Why not?
Because when you say, “Gee, I’m sorry. Our computer’s down.”

  • [The customer hears “I’m not gonna help you!!”]

And when you say, “Hey, I’m the only one here.”

  • [The customer hears “I’m not gonna help you!!”]

And when you say, “Um, I’m new here.“

  • [The customer hears “I’m not gonna help you!!”]

What’s the customer supposed to think? Excuses only fan the flames on a complaint call.

Use the Telephone Doctor’s Swear Stopper technique:

  • Interject immediately. Say, “Excuse me … .”
  • Assure the customer you can help. Say, “I can handle your problem. That’s no problem.”
  • Address the offensive language directly. Say, “I’m not able to handle your abusive language.”
  • Keep control of the call. Begin asking follow-up questions immediately.


Now let’s review our Four Point Plan.

  • Point #1 It’s nothing personal. You’re the lightning rod, not the target. The customer is unhappy about the problem, not you, personally.
  • Point #2 Use the ASAP technique.
    1. APOLOGIZE for the problem and acknowledge the customer’s feelings. Don’t let the customer confuse your calm confidence with disinterest or indifference. Be sure you’re sincere and not just mouthing the words, which could be an easy trap to fall into at the end of the day. When you say, “I am sorry that happened,” be sure to mean it.
    2. SYMPATHIZE and empathize with the customer. Draw out what happened. That’s so important so that you can truly treat whatever the problem. Don’t guess or assume. Determine the difficulty and then treat the problem as though it happened to you.
    3. ACCEPT the responsibility for the situation, because even though you may have had nothing to do with the cause, it is your responsibility to help resolve the problem or bring it to a happy resolution. None of that “It’s not my job” attitude—because it is your job.
    4. PREPARE to help. Ask questions.
  • Point #3 You can satisfy most of the people most of the time. Feel good about yourself!
  • Point #4 Use the Swear Stopper for the customer who uses abusive language or swears. Take control of the conversation with the technique.
    • Interject: “—Excuse me. I can handle your problem. That’s no problem. I am not able to handle your abusive language.”

Don’t forget the Bonus Tip!


  • No excuses. Excuses mean that what happened wasn’t our fault and it says, “I’m not gonna help you!”

Every organization is made up of people, and people can make mistakes. It follows, then, that no organization is perfect and will sometimes make mistakes that may upset customers.  Remember, it’s not the mistake, but how you handle it that will make the difference in what type of customer service you provide. 

 A company’s reputation is built not so much on how few irate customers they have, but in how those customers are handled and how their problems are resolved. This is the key element that will set your organization apart from the rest. 
 © We encourage you to distribute this message to colleagues. When you’re ready to empower your staff with proven customer service and team building skills, please let us know.