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.

How to work with unreasonable customers

I was recently waiting for a flight when I overheard a woman loudly complaining to her friend. She was upset about having to pay a fee for checking a suitcase that was two pounds over the 50 pound weight limit.

To me, this person seemed very unreasonable. First, she explained to her friend that she knew in advance that her bag was over the weight limit. This meant she was knowingly violating the policy and was expecting an exception to be made. Second, the myriad of additional complaints she dumped on her friend led me to believe she was probably quite rude to the ticket agent.

Since I couldn't help hearing what this loud woman sitting next to me had to say, I began to wonder. How could someone work with a customer like this?

I thought of three great options.

#1 Make an exception
One option would be to make an exception and waive the fee. I'd make a big show of telling the customer I was waiving the fee for them since the weight was so close. This customer would probably have felt a little special instead of being so irritated.

#2 Give options
Waiving the fee might not be possible due to strict policy guidelines, safety concerns, or the assumption that once 52 pounds is okay customers will start trying to get away with 55. If I couldn't waive the fee I would give her options. Providing a customer with choices, even if the choices aren't terrific, is always a better approach than simply saying no. Telling a customer "No" makes them feel powerless and defensive. Giving a customer options makes them a participant in the outcome.

For example, I might have suggested the customer either remove a couple of items from her suitcase and carry them on the plane or pay the fee and avoid the extra hassle. 

#3 Provide a good explanation
Some customers will be more accepting of a policy if they understand there is a good reason behind it. I've heard many an airline employee tell me that heavier bags pose a potential safety hazard to baggage handlers.

I might have explained this to the passenger and told her that we really care about employee safety and the fee was meant to discourage customers from checking heavy bags. I might have further explained that checking a heavier bag was unavoidable for some passengers, which is why the airline still allows bags between 51 and 100 pounds to be checked for a fee.

For all I know, the airline's ticketing agent did all of these things and then some, but the passenger was just an angry jerk. What else could the ticketing agent do in that situation?