Angry Customers Happen. Here's How to Handle Them

BY Jessica Helinski
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Angry customers and prospects are an inevitable part of the sales experience. You’re never going to be able to make each and every person happy all of the time. So, you need to be sure you’re capable of expertly dealing with the inevitable moments of dissatisfaction. “Often, difficult or even angry customers aren't expressing frustration with you,” writes HubSpot’s Meg Prater in a recent article. “These emotions are tied to external situations and psychological stimuli.” 

But, customer unhappiness aimed at you, no matter what is fueling it, is cause for concern and swift action. By handling these situations with professionalism and care, you can save the relationship from going sour, ruining your chances of landing or maintaining the business. 

Angry customers and prospects: how to deal

Prater shares several ways to soothe frustrated customers, and her suggestions actually tap into psychology to make sure your efforts are successful and will resonate with the customer. 

Practice reflective listening. Typically, to assure someone that they are being heard, one says, “I understand.” But, does hearing that response really make you feel much better? Not really. A better way to let angry customers know that you hear and grasp what they’re saying is to use the reflective listening method. “This approach requires you understand what the other person is saying by interpreting their words and their body language,” Prater explains. “Then, respond by reflecting the thoughts and feelings you heard back to your customer.”

It can look something like this:

Angry customer: "I’m very unhappy with your inability to discount despite my small budget."

You: “I’m hearing that our pricing is a barrier for your business. Your budget is tight, and I'm not offering a discount that meets your needs. Is that correct?"

By recounting your understanding back to angry customers, you are practicing reflective listening, which shows you truly are listening and comprehending. Also, if what you repeat back isn’t what they were trying to communicate, this presents the opportunity to remedy that. And, Prater warns, don’t immediately promise a resolution. “Never promise you'll fix the situation,” she writes, “because you might not be able to. Your goal in this moment is to make your customer feel heard and valued.”

Consider their affect heuristic. Have you ever heard that term before? She defines affect heuristic as the following: 

It helps you make quick, efficient decisions based on how you feel toward the person, place, or situation you're considering. Simply put, it's the fact that we all made decisions and judgments based on our worldviews and experiences. It's our bias.”

By considering the affect heuristic of angry customers and prospects, you’re looking beyond their words at what actually is influencing their frame of mind and the cause of their concern. The best way to go about this is to ask questions that can uncover a potential bias caused by a bad past experience or something else that is unknown to you. Prater suggests the following as example questions: 

  • "I'd like to understand. Tell me more about why you're skeptical."
  • "What can I do to relieve your fears?"
  • "How can I help you feel comfortable enough to move forward?"

Questions like these can dig a bit deeper to get to the root of the customer or prospect’s skepticism. Then, you’ll be better prepared to address issues. 

Adopt a beginner’s mind. This tactic requires you to approach angry customers and their situations as if it were the first time, aka you’re a total beginner. “When you adopt this way of thinking, you enter every conversation with the ‘don't know’ mind, which keeps you from prejudging a customer or their situation. She adds that it also eliminates the “shoulds” from your mind, as in, “The customer should have known that their budget wouldn’t fit our pricing.” Getting rid of the “should” thoughts can keep you from feeling defensive or angry, which threatens having a productive discussion. 

Release your fear. Angry customers can actually be scary to deal with; you don’t want to jeopardize the relationship or the partnership. “If a customer is being difficult, we're afraid to challenge them because we might risk the relationship,” Prater writes. “If they express displeasure with your timeline or pricing structure, we're afraid because we might not be able to fix the situation.” See how even a little bit of fear can have a big impact? When dealing with angry customers or prospects, stop fear in its tracks by immediately adopting the idea that you don’t need to fix anything. Your job is to listen, understand and then figure out the next steps. By telling yourself that you don’t have to immediately have a solution to soothe the other person will immediately eliminate at least some of that fear. 

Keep calm. It’s important to remember that your job isn’t always going to be sunshine. Interacting with angry customers is just part of the sales experience. It’s up to you to maintain a calm and professional demeanor even when faced with someone who is not happy with you. “Treating someone with disdain or disrespect can reflect negatively on you and your company, so reputation management should always be top of mind,” Prater points out. She also adds, “Remember, people will often mirror the emotional signals you emit. If you respond with hostility and anger, don't expect friendliness and understanding in return.”

Cultivating and tapping into your emotional intelligence can help you maintain your composure and communicate efficiently with angry customers. Prater suggests:

  • Making sure that your tone of voice is calm and patient.
  • Avoid snarkiness and finger-pointing.
  • Before saying something, think, “Could this be used against me?” The answer will likely let you know whether or not you should say it. 
  • Communicate via telephone or video chat with an angry customer; disputes are rarely handled well through email.

Incorporating emotional intelligence into your actions will keep you from letting your own feelings override your rationality. A little bit of empathy and leaning in goes a long way. 

These, and the other tips from Prater, can help you prepare and handle encounters with angry customers and prospects. And remember, each and every time you encounter one of these difficult situations and you handle it expertly, the better your relationship with the client or prospect will be. And, the stronger you’ll be as a seller.