The Police Interrogation Technique That Calms Angry Customers

You've probably seen the good cop, bad cop technique in the movies.

A suspect is interrogated by two cops. The first one, the bad cop, does their best to intimidate the suspect. They yell, threaten, and generally act like a jerk. Then the good cop intervenes and appears to defend the suspect. The good cop acts like they're on the suspect's side, and suddenly the suspect spills the beans. 

It's a neat trick that can actually work. And there's research that shows us how to use this technique when serving an angry customer.

With a little modification, of course.

Police officer interrogating a suspect.

Startled Into Compliance

Imagine you were approached by a student in a crowded market who asked you to spend five minutes to fill out a questionnaire for a school project. Would you help them?

I did this multiple times myself for projects in college, and it can be tough work. Researchers in Poland conducted an experiment where just 30 percent of people agreed to assist the student. 

But they increased that number to 56 percent with a second group of participants by adding a new element.

Immediately before encountering the student, participants in the second group were grabbed by the shoulder as they walked through the doorway. The startled people would turn around and see someone wearing dark glasses and carrying a white cane, giving the impression the person who grabbed them was blind. The blind person simply said, "Excuse me." Once the subject realized being grabbed was a mistake, they would turn around and keep walking, where the student would then approach them a few steps later.

Why did this nearly double the amount of people who complied with the student's request?

Psychologists have found that a rapid seesawing of emotions from an extreme negative  to sudden relief makes people more compliant. In the crowded market experiment, the fear of being grabbed by an unseen person quickly turns into relief when the subject sees someone they think is a blind person.

In police interrogations, the good cop, bad cop technique relies on the same mechanism. The bad cop incites extreme negative emotions and then the good cop brings sudden relief by intervening and seemingly getting the bad cop to back off.


Using the Technique in Customer Service

There's an obvious modification here. I'm in no way suggesting that you partner with a colleague and one of you berates the angry customer before the other steps in to smooth things over.

The modification is using this technique when a customer is already riled up at you. Whether or not you like it, you're the "bad cop" in the eyes of a customer who is really angry and perceives that you're part of the problem.

So all you need to do now is introduce someone else to take over and bring relief.

It could be a supervisor, but you could also turn to a colleague. What matters is the new person should appear empathetic to the customer and try to make the customer feel they're on their side. 

In my experience, this often brings a sense of relief that immediately helps the customer calm down.

Make no mistake, this is an advanced technique. For many of us, the natural instinct is to avoid transferring an angry customer to a colleague or supervisor. There are a number of reasons for this:

  • It's a matter of pride, and can feel like failure.

  • A supervisor or colleague may get agitated with us for transferring the customer.

  • A supervisor may not be available and a colleague may not seem sufficient.

The key here is being able to swallow your pride and politely offer to connect the customer with someone who is "better able to assist them." Only you and your coworker will know what you're really doing.

Take Action

I've seen this technique work many times as a frontline employee, as a supervisor, and as a customer waiting in line observing another interaction. More often than not, the customer mysteriously calms down as soon as a new person takes up the interaction.

My advice to you is to try your own experiment. The next time you realize a customer has designated you as the "bad cop," try bringing in a colleague or supervisor to take over the interaction and bring some relief.

This post is a closer look at one of the tips I share in my Customer Service Tip of the Week emails. You can subscribe here to get one tip like this via email, once per week.