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On how to deal with angry customers (+ Sonic the Hedgehog)


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When you think of an angry customer, your mind may go to extremes: someone who’s red-faced and loud, shouting, and flipping tables.

First off, let’s hope you never have to deal with a customer who’s flipping tables. But you will have to deal with angry customers at some point.

And though this may sound paradoxical at first, you should be glad for their complaints. According to research from Esteban Kolsky, founder of customer strategy consulting and think tank organization ThinkJar, only one out of every 26 unhappy customers will complain directly to you1. The rest won’t, but they may tell their friends, families, coworkers, or anyone else they interact with.

Therefore, it’s extremely unlikely that the angry customer you’re talking to is the only one who’s angry with your product or service. By empathizing with them and working to fix the problem, you can turn an angry customer into a satisfied one while strengthening your business.

In this article, we’ll look at:

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What should you say to an angry customer?

When you’re dealing with an angry customer, you need to keep a few things in mind.

At the top of the list is this: it’s nothing personal. Your customer is angry, but that anger is not because of you as a person. You just happen to be the face of your business that they’re communicating with. On top of that, they may be having a bad day: maybe their car’s engine light turned on, maybe someone bumped into them and they dropped their ice cream.

It doesn’t matter. What matters is they’re your customer, so this is your chance to help them feel better. Approach each angry customer as someone that you can help, and approach their issue as a problem that you can solve.

It’s easy to fall back on defensive behavior when confronted, and it’s also natural to want to win an argument. But remember, getting defensive or condescending won’t improve the situation. Think about it this way: this is a customer who has spent money on your product or service.

Trying to shift the blame to another coworker or department won’t enhance their opinion of your business, and talking down to them will just make them more angry. And this should go without saying, but this is an advice article, so I’ll say it anyway: do not raise your voice back at them. When you get in a shouting match with a customer, nobody wins.

Your customer is angry, so at first, you don’t need to say much—just let them talk. In order to have a proper dialogue with them, you need to let them know that you hear them and you understand. Here’s some wisdom from Reddit on dealing with angry customers:

If you don’t understand the problem at first, ask simple and non-judgemental questions until you’re sure that you do understand.

Once you do understand, apologize. Tell them you’re sorry that this has happened or that they’ve had this experience. One of the best ways to defuse anger is to empathize with the angry party. If you can find common ground—for example, you’ve had a similar situation happen to you—that’s even better.

You probably won’t be able to solve every issue right away, but it’s important to let the customer know that their anger isn’t futile. If their anger is due to a complex situation that’s going to take a while to resolve, let them know that you’re going to do your best. Perhaps you need to work with another individual or department to solve the problem—you can tell them that.

Depending on how your business is set up, you could encounter angry customers across a wide variety of communication channels. Here are some tips for the different places you might have to speak to them.

How to deal with angry customers face-to-face

Dealing with an angry customer face-to-face somehow manages to be the best and the worst of these scenarios. It’s the worst because it’s the most personal—a truly angry customer may be frightening or intimidating, and they may even say insulting things about you.

In that case, remember: it’s never personal. Any insult aimed at you is really aimed at the company. You just happen to be a representative of the company, a walking and talking target for their ire. And therefore, dealing with an angry customer face-to-face is also the best-case scenario because this gives you the most insight into them and their problem.

Never underestimate the importance of body language. Show them that they have your full attention: make eye contact, turn your body towards them, nod with their words. Showing them that you’re a human being who cares about their problem will naturally help their anger dissipate.

How to handle an angry customer in a call center/on the phone

Over the phone, you won’t be able to pick up on body language cues. But the need to listen, let the customer vent, and try to understand while apologizing is still there, and creating a dialogue over the phone is just as possible as in person.

However, phone calls do present other challenges. When calling in to a company, customers often expect to be faced with a robotic automated voice, a series of dial options that feel like they take forever to listen to, and long wait times. If the customer is already angry, this doesn’t help. (This is why you need an inbound calling strategy.)

By the time the customer gets to you, you might already have to apologize for the delay—before you even know what their problem is.

💡 Pro-tip:

Using the right call-routing technology can help stave off additional frustration from angry customers. For example, RingCentral Contact Center™ uses intelligent call routing to help connect customers with the right service agent for them, as fast as possible. It also helps you collaborate to solve customer problems: instead of passing a customer from one agent to another, you can call on internal experts in real time and make the customer feel like the agent is doing more to find a solution.

How to handle an angry customer in an email or text message

Emails and texts remove another layer, making the customer more faceless to you—and you more faceless to the customer. Typed-out messages are less likely to be intimidating, which is a plus. But they’re often lacking context, such as tone of voice, and reading complaints might give you more questions than answers.

So, as always, make sure you understand the root of the problem. In your response, keep your tone positive, and ask whatever questions are needed to solve the issue.

Having a complete picture of your customer can help these situations immensely. Have they sent your company emails before? Do you have access to those emails? Make sure you’re using the right technology to keep track of your customers and their complaints, so they don’t have to write out the same email multiple times.

Finally, speed is of the essence. Don’t let emails or texts fall by the wayside. Prompt responses make an impression on customers and show them that you’re putting resources into fixing their problems.

How to handle an angry customer on social media

Social media is a dangerous beast. An angry tweet or Facebook post can quickly go viral, causing damage to your reputation. On the flip side, engaging with customers on social media offers a chance for businesses to redeem themselves in the public eye (among other benefits).

However, it’s usually not recommended to keep a whole exchange on social media public. (More social media best practices here.) This tweet from Domino’s is a great example of how to proceed:

By responding customers and requesting a direct message, businesses are showing the social media sphere that they’re present and that they want to listen.

By responding to the customer and requesting a direct message, businesses are showing the social media sphere that they’re present and that they want to listen.

Engaging with unhappy customers actually has a quantifiable positive impact. The Harvard Business Review found that even responding to an upset customer is likely to set them back on the road to loyalty2: when a customer receives a response to their unsatisfied tweet, they were more likely to pay for that company’s services in the future, even if the responding agent wasn’t able to satisfactorily solve their problem.

Keeping an eye on social media channels is an important part of dealing with angry customers in today’s world. Use a tool that helps you monitor social media, contact customers, and manage interactions—ideally all in one omnichannel platform. This makes it easier for you to manage multiple conversations across different channels. For example, here’s how it looks in RingCentral’s Engage Digital platform:

A real-life example: how Sony Pictures took fans’ anger and turned it into approval

Let’s take a look at a (pretty big) company that successfully dealt with angry customers…

Sonic the Hedgehog is a legendary video game franchise. First launched in 1991, the series has sold approximately 170 million games, and its titular character, a speed-loving blue hedgehog, is one of the most recognizable and famous game mascots in the world.

Sony Pictures acquired film rights in 2013 and released the first trailer for their live-action movie in April 2019. Unfortunately, Sonic’s design struck all the wrong chords. Social media ignited as Sonic’s furious fanbase criticized his eyes (too small), his body shape (too long-limbed), and especially his teeth (alarmingly human).

By trying to make Sonic look realistic, Sony had created something that many fans found horrific, or as one popular gaming site called it, “A blight upon this weary earth.”3

Sony Pictures listened. A few days later, they announced that they would push the film’s release back by three months in order to rework Sonic’s appearance.

The original Sonic character design (left) vs the updated look (right).


The next trailer, released in November 2019, showed off Sonic’s new design—and received universal approval. Designers had scrapped the hyper-realistic version for a much more cartoony and faithful one, and the movie became the highest-grossing video game adaptation in North America. By listening to their angry customers, Sony Pictures averted a disaster and won widespread praise.

How to deal with angry customers… and turn them into happy ones

Before we conclude, here are some final tips and thoughts.

Always, always make sure that your contact information is easy to find on your website. Companies that hide this info typically only do so because they have insufficient customer service practices. Don’t be like those companies! Your customers are your number one asset. Make it easy on them.

One more unfortunate reality of customer service: sometimes, despite the best efforts of you and your staff, you won’t be able to solve the problem or undo the damage. You’ll have lost a customer permanently. But if it happens once, you’ll at least be able to try and identify the cause and make sure that it doesn’t happen again.

Most people don’t want to be the target of other people’s anger. But it happens, especially when you have dissatisfied customers. Every angry customer you get is a chance to create a happy customer and improve yourself along the way. So remember: the angry customer isn’t always right, but you can almost always learn something from them.






Originally published Feb 16, 2020, updated Oct 30, 2020

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