A Customer is Yelling. What Would You Do?

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Here's what I know about the man who was yelling inside of the post office.

He was a real estate agent. His client mailed him a set of keys, and the envelope ripped in transit, causing the keys to be lost. The real estate agent was demanding that the postal service pay to have the house rekeyed.

I know this because he yelled it at the supervisor who was assisting him. 

The guy was unquestionably a jerk. He yelled. He was physically imposing, especially compared to the tiny supervisor he was yelling at. And he wasn't even yelling at the right person. His client, who inexplicably mailed house keys via regular mail in a plain paper envelope, is the one he should be frustrated with.

The supervisor did almost everything wrong. And despite years of experience, training, and writing about how to handle these situations, I can't promise I'd do any better.

Can you honestly say you would?

Angry customer yelling.

What the Supervisor Did Wrong

The customer walked up to the post office counter and asked for a supervisor. He calmly stood to the side until she arrived, and then angrily demanded she fix the situation.

Unfortunately, the supervisor made several mistakes in quick succession.

Failure to recognize the fight or flight instinct. When we encounter an angry person, we instinctively want to argue with them (fight) or get away from them (flight). The supervisor clearly displayed a number of these symptoms. She immediately reacted to his anger. Her body language became adversarial, facing the customer directly with a serious look on her face. Her tone of voice was cold and direct.

Failure to listen. Upset customers often need to vent to release their anger. In his book, Be Your Customer's Hero, Adam Toporek refers to this as letting customers "punch themselves out," like a boxer who grows tired in the later rounds of a bout. The supervisor spent little time listening and quickly shot down the customer's request. Hearing a hard "no" only put more gas on the customer's anger fire.

Failure to empathize. Customers can sometimes be unreasonable. This one certainly was. A little bit of empathy, even in the face of unreasonableness, can often de-escalate a situation. But the supervisor's stone-faced approach to his angry outburst only served to trigger more anger. 

Let's be clear, the customer’s client was 100 percent wrong to mail house keys in a plain paper envelope via regular mail. And the customer was a huge jerk to yell at the supervisor about it.

Can you imagine in the movie Pulp Fiction if Captain Koons (played by Christopher Walken) had simply mailed the watch to young Butch (played by Bruce Willis)? And after all Captain Koons and Butch’s father went through to get the watch to Butch, the watch was simply lost in the mail?

You just don't do things like that.

Why I Question if I Would Do Better

Answering the question, "What would you do?" is a theoretical exercise.

You can say you would do one thing, but the true test is when you're really in the situation. I poke holes in this all the time during my presentations. For example, I often do an exercise where I warn people not to be distracted during an activity, and then I proceed to nudge them immediately into distraction.

In this case, the customer was right up against the line. On one side of the line, there's an angry customer. On the other side of the line, there's an angry person whose actions are so disrespectful, threatening, or inappropriate that they stop being a customer.

I could see the supervisor shift between sticking with the interaction or telling him he wouldn’t be served due to his abusive behavior.

In that moment, I imagined myself in the supervisor's place. And I can tell you that exercising enough self-control to handle the situation the right way would have been very, very difficult. Even as a fellow customer, I felt my own fight or flight instinct kick in.

Theoretically, I know how to serve an angry customer like this. I’ve done it many times before. I've even created an entire training video on how to handle a situation like this. But I’d be lying if I told you every encounter I’ve had with an angry, obnoxious customer went well.

In practice? I only hope I would do better than the supervisor. Fortunately, I don't encounter many angry customers in my line of work these days.

Time for Self-Reflection

We’ll be setting ourselves up for failure if we think this situation is easy.

It isn’t. And if you think it’s easy, you might not try hard enough. You might fail to recognize your own fight or flight instinct kick in. You might say or do the wrong thing. And worst of all, you might not give your employees the support they need when they struggle to deal with these types of situations.

Remember the customer was talking to a supervisor. And two of the supervisor’s employees were watching and listening. Plus a room full of customers. We all saw a demonstration of how not to do things. That’s added pressure.

So be honest with yourself. What would you do?