How to Deal with Rude and Upset Customers

Everyone who works in customer service or in a customer-facing job needs training for dealing with rude and upset customers. It’s even more important in today’s world of cell phone videos, social media, and the divisive state of our country. It seems like people are emboldened to spew anger and bully workers despite being filmed by a stranger on their cell phone. The pandemic has now put workers on the front-line of the great mask debate.

Whether your role is serving customers in person or over the phone, the approach is the same and the steps below will be helpful. In person you need to consider eye contact, body language, and your personal space too. 


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Tips for Dealing with Rude and Upset Customers

I was introduced to the customer service industry in the 80’s when I was a receptionist for the St. Louis Cardinals. This was back in the days of one phone number for a business so all calls to employees had to be transferred via a switchboard. No one had a direct dial phone number. We handled thousands of calls every day. This also pre-dates the Internet so the general public had limited access to information around game dates, promotions, stadium policies, media contact information, etc. We had to have a basic understanding of every department: sales, media relations, promotions, player development, stadium operations, accounting, HR, etc. 

You might be surprised but sometimes fans of the beloved St. Louis Cardinals could occasionally be rude and upset. We never wanted to take the loyalty of the fans for granted so it was important to use the skills below to solve their problems and listen to their comments.


Be Prepared

Every call and every person who comes to the customer service desk is like a pop quiz. You never know what they are going to ask or request. You need to be prepared with an understanding of the company’s products, services, policies, and operations should you get a question or find an issue to solve. A rude or upset customer’s emotions will only escalate if you have to answer with “I don’t know.”

Hopefully your customer service training has included everything you need to know about the company and you are clear on your role and authority in solving problems, offering refunds, etc. Ideally your training would also include topics like emotional intelligence, active listening, assertive verbal skills, and communicating with confidence.


Let Them Talk

The first thing to do when faced with an angry or upset customer is to let them talk. Give them the space to vent their frustrations and don’t interrupt. Let them tell their full story and listen carefully.

If the customer starts going into great detail, it may be helpful to take notes. Let them know you are taking notes if they hear you typing. Document the details in your customer account software. This can be helpful if the same customer calls back and speaks with a different customer service representative in the future. At the Cardinals we had serial complainers and our notes helped us to see what efforts had been made in the past on behalf of those customers.


Repeat the Information

Once the customer gets to the end of their story, repeat the information back to them. “Here is what I heard…” This step will reassure the person that you were actively listening and that you have all the pertinent details. Hopefully, this step will start to calm them down and de-escalate the emotions.

If the customer is being rude, you don’t want to repeat the rude language back to them. Stick to the facts of their problem and leave their emotions out of it. If they are using profane or abusive language, it is ok to interject.

  • “While I’m more than happy to help you with your question, I cannot if you continue to use that language. Is that understood?”
  • “If it happens again I will have no option but to end our discussion. I will hang up on our call/ask you to leave/call security. Is that clear?”

Remain Calm

 This may be the hardest part of dealing with rude and upset customers but you have to remain calm. Watch your tone of voice and body language. Sit/stand up straight to convey confidence and control your breathing, even if you are on the phone. Try not to take what they say personally but do try to empathize with their situation.

There are some cases where the best course of action is to remove yourself from the situation for your own safety. If their language appears to be racially motivated or based on your gender identity or sexual orientation, you should call your manager or security to intervene.


Trust Them

It’s easy to get jaded when you work in customer service. The reality is that there are many people out there who will lie, cheat, and scam companies to get something for free. I have to believe that in most cases, people are telling the truth about the problem, product, or issue that has them so upset.

Obviously, you need to follow your company’s policies on returns or problem solving. This can make your job easier and empower you to quickly solve the issues. A perfect example is Costco. They have a risk-free 100% satisfaction guarantee. I had a friend who returned a kitchen table after a year! The table had cracked and Costco took the table back, no questions. No judgement from the customer service rep either.


Sincerely Apologize

If a customer is rude and upset, something occurred to trigger those emotions. It’s important for you to take responsibility on behalf of the company. Taking the blame will help to diffuse the anger.

  • “I am really sorry that happened.”
  • “We messed up and we will fix it. “

Try to empathize with their situation and put yourself in their shoes. If you had saved up money to buy something and it broke, you’d be upset too. Handle the situation with the same tact and service that you would like to receive.


Solve the Issue

Ideally, you will be able to solve the issue or execute the fix during the conversation. Apply a credit for a billing error. Replace a broken product. Offer a freebie or a coupon for a future purchase. Hopefully, you are empowered by your company and have the authority to take these actions.

If a customer is asking for something and you can’t do it, tell them all the things you can do to help. Let’s revisit the Costco table example. Let’s say the customer demands that you come to the house to pick it up and you know that is not the company policy. What can you do? “I’m so sorry, I know you are frustrated. While we’re unable to come to your home to box up the item, I can reimburse you for the packing supplies and coordinate UPS to pick up the packages from your home.” 

In some cases, there is no solution. In my experience at the Cardinals, people would be upset that a game was cancelled due to a rain out. They could still exchange their tickets or get a refund, but I couldn’t help their disappointment. I still had to remain empathetic and polite while on the call with them.


Be Respectful and Polite

Unfortunately, dealing with rude and upset people is part of the deal when you work in customer-facing roles. If you can’t handle it, you need to find a new profession. You must always be respectful and polite, even in the face of horrible, rude behavior. You are representing the company. You are a brand ambassador and your actions reflect on the company.


Someone Will Always Be Upset

I learned the lesson at the Cardinals. You can never make everyone happy. Someone will always complain. Someone will always be upset.

One year we had a rainout in the last week of the season on a Tuesday. The game was rescheduled for that following Thursday. This was in the 90’s before the Internet, before social media, and before mobile tickets. We didn’t have enough time to publicize the game and sell tickets so the plan was to just open the stadium and let people come in to watch for free. Free. Yes, I got a complaint.

A man called in to complain because he wanted to buy a ticket. I explained our situation and that we were not selling any tickets. You just had to come down, choose your seat and enjoy the game. He wanted to buy the tickets behind home. He couldn’t get down to the stadium early to get in line. 

I explained we were only expecting a few thousand people to show up in a stadium that held over 50,000. There would be plenty of great seats. He still wasn’t happy. Even when you give away the seats, you can never make everyone happy.

Dealing with the public is unpredictable and can be a crazy ride! Customer-facing employees need to be prepared for any situation, question, or crazy request a person can concoct! And even if you know that you can never make 100% of the people happy 100% of the time, you need to at least try.


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