How Unrelated Anger Follows Your Customers to You

"Maybe they're just having a bad day."

Ugh. I've never liked that explanation for a customer's anger. It feels dismissive while avoiding responsibility. My view was that a customer might be a little upset to begin with, but any emotions they felt were largely our responsibility.

Newly discovered research proves me wrong.

An upsetting event completely unrelated to your company really does impact service. That customer is more likely to get upset. And, customers with anger baggage are less likely to listen to helpful advice from a customer service rep.

Here's the research along with what you can do about it.

Study #1: Anger Makes Us More Judgmental

Scott Wiltermuth and Larissa Tiedens conducted an experiment to test whether anger makes people more judgmental.

They first primed people to be angry, sad, or neutral. This was done through a recall exercise where participants were asked to recall an event that made them angry (angry group), sad (sad group), or just think about what they did yesterday (neutral).

Participants were then asked to rate how appealing they would find doing a task where they rated business ideas.

The result? People in the angry group rated judging others' ideas 16 percent more appealing than average.

Put this in a customer service context. 

Imagine a customer is stuck in traffic on their way to a store. The parking lot is jammed and they nearly get into an accident when a car swerves around them and steals their parking space. The customer is fuming by the time they walk into the store.

This customer will be more intently focused on service quality than normal. They'll nitpick minor service issues that most people would overlook. And, because they're already angry, they'll be viewing service through a negative lens.

 

Study #2: Anger Makes Us Less Open to Other Ideas

Maurice Schweitzer and Francesca Gino conducted an experiment to learn whether anger affects our openness to ideas from other people.

Participants were shown a picture of a person and asked to guess their weight. They were told they'd be paid for the accuracy of their guesses.

They were next divided into two groups - neutral and angry.

The neutral group was shown a movie clip that showed fish swimming in the ocean. The angry group was shown a movie clip that previous tests showed triggers angry emotions in viewers.

After watching the video, participants were shown another person's estimate of the weight of the person in the picture. They were then given a chance to revise their estimate.

Here were the results:

  • 68% of the neutral participants considered the other person's estimate.
  • 26% of the angry participants considered the other person's estimate.

This data shows that we're much less open to other ideas when we're angry, even if the thing that made us angry is completely unrelated.

Let's go back to that hypothetical retail customer who was angry about traffic when they walked into the store.

Customer service employees often suggest solutions to help fix a customer's problem. A customer carrying their anger baggage into the store will be less open to those solutions. When that happens, the anger continues and might even escalate.

 

What You Can Do

We can't easily prevent our customers from carrying around anger baggage accumulated from other sources.

However, we can do a few things to help them feel better and avoid making it worse.

Avoid broken promises. These are things we promised to do for customers, but didn't. Customers who are already upset will really be unforgiving when we don't keep our basic agreements.

Emotions first, then solutions. Our customers' emotional needs are often overlooked. Don't ignore their emotional state! Take a moment to help an upset customer feel better before jumping to solution mode. 

Empathize. It's hard to be understanding when a customer gets angry for what seems like no reason. Keep in mind they might be dragging along some anger baggage from somewhere else. Take a moment to empathize with them. You can use these five tips to help you. 

Finally, you can watch this short video for more information on serving upset customers.