How to Handle Irate Customers

John Tschohl Headshot

When a customer comes in to register a complaint, the instinct for some employees is to shutdown or to try and avoid the situation altogether. That’s understandable because most of us don’t like confrontation, but it doesn’t get you, or your company, anywhere. What it does do is encourage the customer to leave and never return.

There are several things that annoy customers, including not being understood, not being valued, not getting their money’s worth, and not being believed. What do they want when they have a complaint about a service or product? They want a satisfactory resolution. There are six steps that you, as an employee, can take to ensure that that is what they get.

Listen. Let the customer tell you their story. Listen carefully and pay attention to what he is saying, including how he is saying it, what he is emphasizing, and what he is expecting. Make eye contact to show you are actively processing his comments. Listening shows you care about what he has to say.

Put yourself in the customer’s place. Empathy is one of the most powerful tools in an employee’s arsenal. You’ve probably been in that customer’s place at some time; how did you feel? Showing empathy breaks down walls and establishes a connection between you and the customer.

Ask questions. Ask relevant questions; it establishes a dialogue that you can build on and shows that you are concerned. Be sure to ask open-ended questions, such as, “What would it take to solve this situation?” Also ask closed-ended questions that will give you one-word responses and provide you with raw information rather than feelings or emotions. You might ask the customer who else they have talked to and whether or not they were satisfied with the resolution.

Suggest alternatives. After getting information from the customer, you should process it and identify ways that will lead to a satisfactory solution. Offer options that you think will appeal to the customer. Be prepared for the customer to dismiss some of those alternatives and keep moving forward with other suggestions. That might be a refund or a replacement.

Apologize. Say, “I’m sorry,” even if you aren’t responsible for the problem. Don’t lay blame on someone else. By all means, don’t get defensive; that will only escalate the situation. Don’t take the complaint personally. Apologizing for the situation moves an encounter from gripes to solutions.

Solve the problem. Use what you have learned about the situation and the customer, cash in all the goodwill you have built up, and rehash appropriate alternatives to solve the problem quickly and efficiently. As a final step, provide the customer with your contact information and encourage him to contact you if he has any questions or lingering problems.  

When you are calm and compassionate while dealing with irate customers, you also will be confident and competent. Your goal should be to solve the problem and keep the customer. It might cost your company $25 to solve the problem but the lifetime value of that customer could very well be thousands of dollars, so the payback is enormous.

These six steps for handling irate customers are as much about building yourself up as they are about resolving a customer complaint. In the process of using them, you will become more confident, and you will improve your customer service skills — both of which are highly valued in today’s workforce.

John Tschohl is the founder and president of the Service Quality Institute with operations in more than 40 countries. He is considered one of the world’s foremost authorities on all aspects of customer service. For more information on John Tschohl and the Service Quality Institute, visit

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