Soothing the Angry Customer


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There are legions of stories about customers who are so unhappy about a company’s product or service that by the time they call into the contact center, they are not only angry but at times downright abusive.

Disgruntled customers also have plenty of other ways—more than ever, in fact—to express their displeasure, thanks to social media. One nightmare scenario in September involved British Airways losing a customer’s luggage. The customer was so incensed over what he perceived to be the airline’s lack of customer service that he spent $1,000 buying promoted tweets on Twitter attracting the attention not only from Twitter users, but of media on both sides of the pond. The fact that it took hours for British Airways to respond to the tweets only added fuel to the fire. It probably didn’t help when the airlines said that it didn’t respond to the tweets right away since they didn’t monitor Twitter 24/7.

While there are a million reasons someone might be angry at a company, whether it is the company’s fault or the customer is in the wrong, it’s the company’s job to acknowledge the complaint and remedy the problem.

“It’s not about the blame game,” says Deborah Navarra, senior analyst at DMG Consulting and a former contact center agent, supervisor, and manager. “The customer is coming in [to the contact center] with an ‘us against them’ mentality. You’ve got to try to diffuse that and have them understand that you’re really there to help them.”


When callers become angry and frustrated, the best thing to do is to let them vent, Navarra says. “They’re upset and they want you to know why they’re upset, and they want you to know how much they are upset and…what inconvenience or obstacle is in the way. Then you have to convey that you’re there to help and…be an ally for them.”


Navarra believes that an agent needs to convey confidence and let the customer know that he or she has the ability to take ownership of the issue and get it resolved. Navarra also says that a customer representative may need to apologize, but not in a patronizing way. “Saying ‘I’m sorry’ … does nothing,” she says. “It would be better to say ‘I’m sorry that you were declined at the point of sale’ or ‘I’m sorry that you didn’t receive your replacement card.’”


Agents also need to somehow convey to customers that they understand them and say, “Here’s my name and here’s what I am going to do to solve this problem.” Even if it’s only telling a customer that you will call them back even if you don’t have an answer but just to let them know what you’ve done so far.

However, some agents won’t feel comfortable putting themselves out on a limb unless there are procedures to help them do that.

“It’s a matter of training and communication skills,” Navarra says. [Agents shouldn’t] take angry calls personally and should take ownership of the situation. If [agents] can’t do an adjustment themselves, they need to go to an escalation team or a supervisor to get this done.”

Ideally, call centers want agents to feel comfortable about taking ownership of the problem themselves, but an agent’s arsenal (especially that of a new agent) should include the option to transfer to an escalation team or a supervisor who can handle the call, Navarra says. “Some customers can really come into the call center in a full-out attack mode. An inexperienced agent might not be able to handle that kind of call.”    

“It takes some time and maturity to understand that someone is this upset,” she says. “But you also don’t want your agents upset; you want a support system. You also don’t want your agents to become so jaded and removed from your customer that they don’t have empathy. That’s a valuable quality in a customer service position.”

Taking a Proactive Approach Versus a Reactive Approach 

Varolli, a cloud-based outbound customer engagement solutions provider acquired by Nuance Communications last month, offers technology such as an agent dialer platform that allows agents to flag a call whether the agent is on-premises or working from home so that a supervisory team can be alerted, monitor the call, and have one of its members insert themselves through barge-in methods.

However, the company believes that the easiest way to deal with an angry customer is not to have one in the first place.

“You can take a proactive approach to dealing with customers through multiple channels,” says Keith Mourer, director and contact center specialist for Varolii. “Our approach is getting customers’ information so that they can make decisions before they turn angry.”


For example, a notification might be sent to a customer that his or her contract is about to expire or a text may be sent to let a traveler know there’s been a gate change at the airport. “Any sort of proactive notification in multiple formats, in multiple channels, can help alleviate a lot of problems,” Mourer says.


This helps increase customer satisfaction, and it also lowers the number of inbound calls. “Sending out notifications proactively is pennies on the dollar compared to one of those calls coming into the contact center,” Mourer says. “You’re not driving inbound calls to the call center, which cost an average of three dollars to six dollars just to pick up the phone.”

Cluing into the Customer Journey 

Scott Hays, senior director of product marketing for KANA Software, believes that customer service is getting better and that the bar in providing it has been set higher than ever before.


“Consumers have raised expectations, whether it’s a bank or a retailer,” he says. “As a consumer, you’re going to hope that every company understands that they’re in a competitive market with regard to the customer experience that they provide and [that] they [had] better raise their game.”

Hays says that KANA gives clients as much context as possible to help a customer’s journey. “We’re all about gathering and presenting information to help the customer service experience, whether it’s Web self-service on the customer’s part or agent-based service,” he says.

The journey may include a customer’s history of incidences, complaints, requests for or changes of information, products and services a customer owns or uses, even down to a customer’s recent Web browsing history and potentially even his or her social activity, Hays says.


“It’s about understanding these contextual clues that will help in the dialogue with a customer and [that] can be delivered to an agent’s desktop without them having to look for it,” Hays says. “A consumer expectation of a company knowing who they are puts the “R” back into CRM, the relationship. There’s no reason why that should be lost just because you’re communicating over a computer or a phone.”