I saw a brilliant bumper sticker yesterday. It said: “Wag often. Bark less.” It’s a great philosophy to live by. Here in Customer Support, we don’t hear from the Waggers, we often hear from the Barkers. Obviously this is a good thing, since how can we help you if you don’t call us? The ones who bark really loudly, The Angry Customers, are a unique challenge. Over the years, after lots of experience and observing others who are really great at Customer Support, I’ve developed the following strategies to transform the Barker into a Wagger:

1) Remember to listen. I get in deep trouble when I make assumptions early in the call. Remembering to stay quiet and let clients finish their story allows them to get the details out. In addition, being fully heard relieves their tension. It always seems just when I think I know exactly where they’re going, they drop a detail that takes us in a whole new direction. Listening without interrupting (a lifelong challenge for me) is a basic civility that does a lot to engender good will.

2) Don’t take it personally. This is a really easy trap to fall into, isn’t it? The minute we get defensive though, we are less effective and frankly, not professional. I spoke with an angry recruiter this week who said, “someone on your team gave me bum information.” Even though I suspected she was wrong and felt protective of my teammate, I knew to walk around that trap rather than step into it and argue with her. Whenever I stay focused on facts and solving the problem rather than dwelling on accusations, I move more swiftly toward resolution. I’m not saying this is always easy, just necessary if you want the barking to stop.

3) Empathize early.  If you were to show me your paper cut, I would physically feel its sting.  I’m hard-wired for empathy. In terms of Customer Support, I can express empathy for the pain of a customer’s late payment without accepting blame for it. Connection builds trust and loyalty. From the customer’s perspective, it’s much harder to bark at someone whom you perceive as your friend. Friends empathize easily with each other, and who among us hasn’t felt the pain of  late payment or the frustration of not understanding how something works?

4) Remind them you’re on their side. Customers often forget that when they bark loudly at us, they “bite the hand that feeds them.” We have to find gentle ways to snap them out of this mindset. Frequently in these situations I will say, “Oh (insert name here): I am completely on your side.” After I’ve stated this, it’s like walking out of the desert into an air-conditioned room: instant palpable relief.

5) Press the pause button. No one likes to be put on hold, but sometimes both sides need a momentary break. I have been known to put someone on hold, get out of my chair and do 10 pushups, and come back, completely refreshed. Sometimes making room for a moment of silence for both sides can ventilate the conversation in a way words can’t. Sometimes it seems like no matter what I say, they get madder. Putting them on hold leaves an opening for a shift in their perspective.

Angry customers are inevitable when working in Customer Support. Darn it, it’s still not a perfect world! I succeed best when I use strategies that de-escalate tension, support the angry customer’s needs and win her over. All go a long way toward building her loyalty, good will and referrals. After four years in Customer Support here at dotStaff™, I’ve learned that while I can’t control my client’s reactions to events, I can control mine.

What helps you achieve optimal results when an angry client calls? How do you know you’ve handled an angry customer well? What is your measuring stick for success? I would love to hear from you!