Customer Anger is a Gift: Here’s How to Unwrap It

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Getting a call or email from an angry customer is a valuable opportunity for your business, though it may not feel that way at first.

The key to getting the most out of the gift of customer anger is learning how to unwrap it properly.

Anger.  A Gift?  Really?

Yes, really, customer anger is valuable for several reasons:

It’s a high-quality signal. Research suggests that customer anger is a more powerful predictor of defection than plain old dissatisfaction.

It's a chance to repair the relationship. A customer who expresses anger is still a customer. You have a chance make things right. Other unhappy customers will simply leave without saying anything.

You can use it to learn and grow. The issues that caused the customer’s anger may be affecting many of your customers, not just the handful who complain.  Once identified, these issues can be fixed.  In the words of Bill Gates, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.”

To Begin: Validate, Don't Escalate

When someone directs anger towards you or your company, a natural instinct is to defend yourself, especially if you feel they’re being unfair or unreasonable.

You might become angry in return, debate the customer's claims, or simply tune them out.

Unfortunately, these reactions are likely to escalate the situation, which may lead to the customer leaving and at the very least makes it harder to find opportunities for improvement in the midst of all the emotional "noise".

Try instead to immediately validate the customer’s perspective without defending yourself or your company.

This doesn't mean admitting fault for everything.  It simply means expressing genuine regret that the customer has had a bad experience.  Validating the customer's perspective helps the anger dissipate, paving the way for a productive conversation.

Below are steps to consider for individuals and teams.

Tips for Individuals

  1. Put your agenda aside and try to put yourself in the customer’s shoes.
  2. Listen and learn first; speak later.
  3. Be quick to apologize that the customer has had a bad experience. Make sure the customer feels heard.
  4. Apologize accurately. Own the errors you can verify and commit to research customer claims that can’t be immediately verified.
  5. Be patient, never take the bait, and stay empathetic… if you do this long enough, almost every customer anger storm runs its course.
  6. When the anger subsides, a productive, problem-solving conversation can take place.  Have that conversation.  Carefully.
  7. Commit to doing the right thing for the customer and follow up on those commitments.
  8. Thank the customer for his feedback.

Tips for Managers and Teams

  1. If you manage a front line team or department, make sure they receive training on how to manage angry customers.
  2. Empower your team members to do the right thing for the customer, within reason.
  3. Be available to take escalated calls, or quickly approve requests from staff – speedy resolution helps dissipate anger.
  4. Create a supportive environment where the team can lean on each other (and you) after dealing with an angry customer.
  5. Debrief after the dust settles: was this a true one-off issue, or something systemic which requires a people or process change to prevent in future?
  6. Encourage a growth mindset in your organization. If errors are treated as an inevitable part of growth rather than as a sign of failure, employees will be more likely to face up to mistakes with customers and learn more quickly from them.  This may sound like common sense, but it’s not the norm for many companies, and the research supporting it is relatively new.

Managing customer anger is one of the highest return-on-effort opportunities in customer experience management:  If you manage a customer’s anger well, they’ll often end up becoming a loyal advocate; if not, there’s a good chance they’ll leave you for a competitor and engage in negative word-of-mouth.

Despite these high stakes, many companies do not manage customer anger well.

Managing anger effectively doesn't come naturally at first and it's hard to actually do even when you know what you should do.  However, it is a skill that can be learned and the more you practice it, the easier it becomes.

The first step is to recognize customer anger as the gift that it is.

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