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The dark side of customer service

ByPaul Bichsel

Dealing with angry customers can be unpleasant and frustrating. The receiving end of a tirade is not a happy place to be, especially when the situation isn’t your fault.

Not only can it be challenging to effectively help someone who’s upset; an unpleasant interaction can throw you off your game for hours afterwards.

You might feel you have to build up emotional armour to keep yourself from being hurt, and you may even start to resent your customers. You may look down on them. Why don’t they get it? Why do they have to be such jerks? So…mean?

Whoa whoa, wait a minute! Now it sounds like we’re the jerks. How did that happen? Let’s take a step back.

Understanding anger

We as customer service professionals are expected to work through angry situations, and empathy helps us do that. Understanding why someone is upset makes it easier to empathise with them.

Anger is often described as a secondary emotion—a self-protective reaction to suffering, either pain (physical or emotional) or fear (anticipated pain). Emotional suffering can often be traced to a gap between expectations and perceived reality. Anger says, “I deserve better than this!” (in contrast to a depressed feeling like, “This sucks, but it’s all I deserve”).

Note that “secondary” doesn’t mean anger is any less valid, just that there’s another underlying emotion behind it. Emotions don’t excuse abusive behavior, but understanding the drivers of anger can help us be a little more forgiving of outbursts when they occur.

Acknowledging frustration

This should always be your first step when managing an angry customer. It’s possible to acknowledge frustration in customers, empathise with it, and even forgive their behavior when it isn’t constructive, without taking that personally or letting it bring us down. This doesn’t mean that customer service professionals should take abuse, but there is some heat in the kitchen of customer service, and there are ways to avoid getting burnt.

Knowing what contributes to customer anger and frustration can often help you solve their problem and help get them (and keep you) in a better mood.

Product problems

Customers are usually pretty up-front with their feelings in these situations. There’s a gap between their expectations of your product, and the reality they’re encountering. Your product may be more challenging to set up than they thought, has stopped working, or they’ve tried to figure out a solution on their own without success.

If they have reasonable expectations that aren’t being met, you can apologise and work to find a solution. If their expectations are misaligned, whether because they assumed, missed, or misinterpreted some information, or if they were given inaccurate information, it’s important to reset their expectations and to see if there’s a way to prevent others from having the same experience.

Support woes

It happens. Customers get frustrated with long wait times, being passed from agent to agent, or simply be annoyed because they don’t trust that you’ll be willing or able to help them. It may be that they’ve had bad experiences with your organisation before, or been burned often enough in the past that they no longer trust any company to care about their needs.

Similar to product-related issues, there may be an expectations gap that needs to be bridged. A customer might be feeling abandoned, powerless, or victimised. There’s often a great opportunity in these situations to show that you really do care. The commitment you bring to solving their issue can not only help rebuild trust in your organisation, but in their faith in customer service.

What’s hitting the fan

With emotional anger, the customer is dealing with the immediate and near-term consequences of the current unacceptable situation. There are a lot of feelings that might be coming up for them—guilt, anxiety, fear, loss of self-esteem, powerlessness, and even protective defensiveness on behalf of their customers. They may communicate these feelings up-front, or may bring them up later if they feel like they’re needs aren’t met.

When customers face consequences that can be more long-term, or that threaten their standing among peers, anxiety and fear can take over. Things like economic pressures, company problems, or hand-me-down stress from a boss can involve high stakes with visceral feelings attached, so providing reassurance can help get your interaction focused on the immediate (and hopefully solvable) problem at hand.

Always meet a customer’s emotions head-on: reflect and validate that their tasks and customers are important to you. Reassure the customer that you’re on their side, and put them in a better place to listen to your solutions.

Be kind

There are many things completely beyond the scope of work that can add to a person’s baseline stress. Health or family issues, unrelated troubles at work, being overcommitted— we all experience these kinds of stress, anxiety, and grief, and that puts us all in the same boat.

We can’t see into someone else’s mind, only what they express to us. But knowing what might be behind someone’s emotion can help keep you empathising through a challenging interaction. Ultimately, your role is to do your best to help them, and improve the chances of them being understanding, even if and when the outcome is not what they hoped it would be.

As the current Dalai Lama says, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”

Paul Bichsel is the customer success director at Zendesk ANZ.

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