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?

How to Get the Most Out of Training Videos

Training videos are increasing in popularity.

Platforms like LinkedIn Learning have become vital sources of content for learning job-related skills. There's good reason for this:

That last one is a bit of a surprise to most customer service leaders I talk to. And there's a giant caveat—you have to change the way you use video. 

Here are the techniques you can apply to get the most out of training videos.

Employee watching a training video on a computer.

Step One: Set Clear Learning Objectives

Let's say you want your employees to do a better job serving customers who call in to share a complaint. 

I have a LinkedIn Learning course called Working with Upset Customers, but just asking employees to take the course creates a problem. "Take this course," sends a signal that the only clear goal is to complete the training.

That's not your goal. 

You send employees to training because you want them to learn something they can apply on the job that will help them improve performance. So before you assign a video, it's essential to set clear learning objectives.

Back to the upset customers example. You might create an objective for this training by thinking about what specifically you want employees to do differently in situations where they serve an upset customer. 

For instance, you might decide to you want to focus on de-escalation skills to avoid complaints. You could set this as the learning objective: 

Customer service reps will demonstrate the ability to de-escalate an angry caller so the customer is feeling neutral or happy at the end of the interaction.

You’d be able to determine whether the training was complete by monitoring a phone call for each participant where the customer started out angry and determining whether the rep was able to successfully de-escalate the situation.

You can get more help with learning objectives from this guide.

Step Two: Assign Short Segments

The old way of consuming a training video is to push play, sit back, watch the entire thing from start to finish, and hope for the best.

Customer service leaders cite this as the number one challenge with training videos. Employees push back because spending an hour watching an instructional video is no kind of fun. And it doesn't produce results.

The better way to do it is to watch a short segment at a time. My courses on LinkedIn Learning are split into short modules that are each three to five minutes long. Here's how it works:

  1. Watch one 3-5 minute video.

  2. Ask participants to complete the application exercise from the video.

  3. Give feedback and discuss progress.

We can apply this right now to de-escalation training. The first skill is recognizing our own natural instinct to argue with an upset customer or try to get away from them. 

Start by watching this short video.

Next, spend a day serving customers and recognize when you experience the same fight or flight instinct the barista in the training video experienced. Here are some common symptoms:

  • Flushed face

  • Increased heart rate

  • Shortness of breath

  • Muscle tension

  • Sweating

  • Tunnel vision

Finally, reflect on what you learned from recognizing the fight or flight instinct. Were you able to accept the challenge of helping an angry customer feel better?

This technique of watching just one short segment at a time is called microlearning. You can learn more from this guide.

Step Three: Blend Video with Other Mediums

Most training, including video and face-to-face, works best when you blend it with other training mediums. These include team meetings, one-on-one coaching conversations, self-paced activities, and on-the-job application.

We can use the de-escalation training as an example. Here's one way you might approach it that combines multiple training mediums:

  1. Team Meeting: Discuss specific situations where customers get angry.

  2. Video: Assign this video on recognizing the fight or flight instinct.

  3. On-the-Job: Ask employees to note when they experience the instinct.

  4. One-on-One: Give each employee individual feedback.

  5. Team Meeting: Discuss successes and challenges at the next team meeting.

There's a good chance you're already holding team and one-on-one meetings with your employees, so this approach involves very little additional work. And it also happens to be a highly effective way to build new skills.


To get the most out of training, we need to shift from a content consumption mindset to a performance improvement mindset.

You can do that right now. This post contains a practical example where you can improve your ability to recognize the flight or fight instinct and make a better decision when you're confronted by an angry customer.

Three Easy Ways to Prevent Angry Customers

The customer service rep sounded tired.

I had called the company to ask about a recent bill. A past due notice had been mailed to me, even though I was sure I had made the payment and even had a receipt.

The customer service rep explained there was an issue with the new billing system and she would have to do some research to verify my payment was correctly applied. She asked if I could call back the next day.

Now her tiredness made sense—she had been getting a lot of calls like this.

It's easy to imagine this employee had been getting beat up by angry callers. It happens to customer service reps every day. That's probably why "working with upset customers" is one of the most commonly requested training topics.

Training employees is fine, it's just not the right place to start. If you want to help your beleaguered employees, the best place to begin is preventing angry customers in the first place.

Here are three ways you can do that.

Angry customer with steam blowing out of his ears.

Fix Systemic Problems

The most important thing your company can do is fix the issues that cause customers to get angry in the first place. In this case, it was a new billing system that wasn't working properly at the time it was implemented.

Customer service leaders often talk themselves into believe this isn't possible:

  • "We don't have the budget!"
  • "We can't hire the staff we need!"
  • "It's not our fault the system doesn't work!"

The truth is you often have a lot more power than you think!

One software company initially blamed buggy software and a lack of staffing on a flood of phone calls that kept customers waiting for up to an hour. Then the team did the Circle of Influence exercise and found three solutions within their grasp:

  • Fully solve issues on the first call to prevent callbacks.
  • Empower the tier one team to handle more issues without escalating to tier two.
  • Track and summarize issues to share with the development team.

The team was surprised when the first two solutions immediately cut the peak hold time by 50 percent. The third solution was more long-term.

Sharing clear, objective feedback got other departments to finally listen. The conversation went from "We're getting a lot of calls!" to "Here's how many calls we're getting on issue x, and here's how much those calls are costing the company."

Executives were ready to listen once the problems were defined in concrete financial terms.

Four Seasons Hotels are regularly among the upper echelon of all hotels in terms of service. The company is famous for having a "glitch report" that hotel leaders review each day with their associates. It helps them identify, fix, and make amends for any service issues that occur.


Be Proactive

Customers are far less likely to get angry when they are notified of an issue proactively.

The company with the billing issue should have mailed follow-up notices to every affected customer. The notices could have acknowledged the billing issue, apologized, and provided a clear action plan for resolving it without the customer having to call.

There would still be some customers who called, but this proactive approach surely would have prevented a lot of calls, too!

Companies often have several tools at their disposal to proactively notify customers of issues:

  • Email notices
  • Social media updates
  • Status pages (like this example)

We've all experienced an example of proactive service from our doctor or dentist. Many offices will proactively call, email, or text an appointment reminder the day before. That simple step prevents a lot of missed appointments, which keeps customers happy and saves the office money!



We often think of empowerment as giving employees some level of authority. But that's only part of the definition. Empowerment means enabling your employees to deliver outstanding service. This is generally comprised of three elements:

  • Resources: the right tools, equipment, supplies, etc.
  • Procedures: identifying the best-known way to solve each issue.
  • Authority: the ability to exercise a degree of autonomy to serve customers.

The rep who handled my billing question wasn't empowered to solve the issue on the spot because she either didn't have the right resource (a billing system that worked) or the best-known procedure for finding the answer.

The problem became worse because she wasn't empowered to proactively follow-up with me once she found the answer to my question. This meant I would have to call back again to get my answer.

When fires devastated communities in Sonoma and Napa counties last Fall, my wife and I wanted to donate pet food and other supplies to an animal shelter that was housing pets for displaced families. 

We weren't sure what shelters were collecting donations or what they needed, so I contacted the customer service team at Chewy.

I received a response in just two minutes that said, "We're on it!" Just 1.5 hours later, a Chewy customer service rep sent me the name and address of a shelter plus a shopping list of items they needed. I was easily able to order supplies (via Chewy, of course!) and make a donation.

None of this would have happened if Chewy's customer service team was not empowered to go out of their way to find a solution.


Take Action!

Preventing customer anger can solve a lot of issues before they begin. Once you do that, customer service training can still be helpful. 

I've put together a simple training plan you can use to teach your customer service reps to better handle upset customers. 

Here are some additional training resources:

The Surprising Consequence of Consumer Anger

Losing customers isn't the only thing to worry about when there's a service failure.

You've probably seen the typical angry customer studies. The numbers change, but the gist is X percent of customers will stop doing business with a company after a service failure. While not exactly an earth shattering discovery, these studies prove that good service is good for business.

But what happens to the angry customers who continue doing business with your company? There doesn't seem to be a lot of discussion or concern about this group.

That could be a mistake.

I recently discovered this study from Dr. Venessa Funches that reveals angry customers may continue doing business with your company, but they can still find other ways to hurt you.

Here's what you need to watch out for.

Angry customer fuming.

How Angry Customers Punish Companies

Funches gathered data from 732 people who were asked to recall a specific customer service situation that made them angry. The respondents were then asked what they did next.

As expected, a large portion stopped doing business with the company. In this study, it was 42 percent. The remaining 58 percent still did business with the company, but many changed their buying behavior (respondents could choose multiple options):

  • 35 percent reduced the amount of business they did
  • 25 percent stopped buying certain products or services
  • 17 percent stopped doing business with a particular location

Then there's the 25 percent of customers who said they continued doing business with a company in the same way because they felt they had to. You will see no change in buying behavior from these customers, though they may still find other ways to hurt you:

Here's what else angry customers do:

  • 70 percent spread negative word-of-mouth about the company
  • 60 percent complain to the company

Negative word of mouth includes a lot of things business leaders don't like to see:

  • Negative online reviews (Yelp, Google My Business, Trip Advisor, etc.)
  • Negative social media posts (hello viral tweet!)
  • Negative stories shared with friends

Notice that not all customers complain to the business. There are many reasons that angry customers don't complain, so it's never safe to assume that no complaints means all is well.


What You Can Do About It

Funches's study discovered that broken promises were the number one source of customer anger. If I'm a customer service leader, I start there and look for trends in service failures.

Many customer service departments react to one complaint at a time. For example, I recently bought a handleset for my front door. There was a part missing and, even worse, there was no instructional manual in the box to help identify exactly which part I needed. The company's website did not have an instruction manual for this particular door handle, either.

It took a lot of back-and-forth to finally identify the missing part.

The major failure is it's been two months and those support documents still aren't on the company's website. That means countless other customers have likely struggled through the installation process.

These types of issues are preventable. Smart customer service leaders do two things on a regular basis:

  • They look for icebergs that are subtle signs of bigger problems, such as the missing handleset instructions. 
  • They collect aggregate data on the top causes of service failures so those issues can be quickly addressed.

Another action step is to re-engage customers after a critical incident.

Years ago, I worked as a national account manager for a company that sold business uniforms. A customer called who was pretty upset about a mistake in an order she received. I apologized for the mistake and agreed to send out the corrected uniforms at no charge.

Many customer service professionals stop there. An even better move is to follow up again once the customer has had a chance to cool off. In my case, I called the customer right after her replacement order was scheduled to arrive. My last conversation was during a moment of misery, but this time I was talking to my customer during a moment of delight.

The replacement order had arrived safely and the customer was very happy with the outcome.


Take Action!

Customer-focused companies are constantly learning from angry customers. Try to find the source of what's causing their anger and fix it.

Another tactic is to try to prevent customer anger in the first place. This short video shares a technique called the Pre-Emptive Acknowledgement to help you do that.

A Hidden Reason to Be Polite to Rude Customers

I distinctly remember the first time I apologized on behalf of America.

It was 1995 and I was living in Dublin, Ireland. I wandered into a gift shop near Grafton street to purchase some Waterford crystal to send home to my mom.

As I walked around the shop, I observed another customer berating an associate. This lady was RUDE. She obnoxiously demeaned the employee while constantly stating that she was an American.

As if being American entitled her to treat people with utter disrespect.

The associate politely tried her best to help the woman. She was calm, patient, and kind, though I could tell she was unnerved by the customer's outrageous behavior. Amazingly, she kept her cool until the customer eventually stormed off.

The customer was an embarrassment. What if word got out that all Americans are this boorish? As an American, I felt compelled to apologize to the associate for the rude customer and assure her that we aren't all this way.

A study published in the May 2017 Journal of Service Research suggests the retail associate's reaction to the rude customer prompted me to be supportive.

Here's why that's a thing.


Our Instinctive Reaction to Rude Customers

Let's get one thing out of the way: being polite to a rude customer is not easy. It's not even natural.

Most of us instinctively experience the fight or flight reaction. Our normal response to a rude person is to fight back (with words, presumably) or flee the situation. The norms of customer service don't allow us to do that.

We're supposed to smile and take it, just like the retail associate did when confronted by that rude customer.

It can get even worse when other customers are watching. A demeaning customer might trigger feelings of embarrassment that cause us to lash out in defense of our pride. It's a completely normal reaction, yet completely unacceptable in customer service.

The amount of emotional intelligence required to be good at customer service seems severely underestimated when you consider situations like this!

It takes a lot of effort to be polite to a rude customer, though my experience in Ireland shows there's an added benefit to making the effort to be polite in the face of rudeness.

The next customer will like you even more.


The Best Way to Handle Rude Customers

Researchers have discovered an unexpected benefit to being polite, yet assertive while serving a rude customer.

The study was authored by Alex Henkel, Johannes Boegerhausen, Rafaeli Anat, and Jos Lemmink. They conducted a series of experiments to see how an observer reacted to a customer being rude to an employee.

In one experiment, participants watched a video of a customer service interaction where the customer was rude. The video showed the employee reacting one of four ways:

  • The employee was rude to the customer

  • The employee was polite to the customer

  • The employee politely, yet assertively admonished the customer

  • The employee asked the customer to leave

Participants were then asked to evaluate the employee's customer service. Compared to the rude employee, researchers found observers rated the polite employee 65 percent higher. The polite and assertive employee was rated 69 percent higher than the rude employee.

This shows that politeness in the face of incivility prompts observing customers to feel compassion for the employee. So treating a rude customer with respect isn't just about serving that customer, it's about serving every other customer who happens to be watching!

 Here are a few steps you can take:

  1. Recognize your own, instinctive reaction to a rude person.

  2. Resist the temptation to act rudely back to the customer.

  3. Calmly and politely assist the customer.

  4. If the customer crosses the line and becomes abusive, assertively ask the customer to stop.

  5. Remain professional at all times.

While this seems like simple advice, I’ll be the first to admit it’s easier said than done. When I did research for my book, Getting Service Right, I learned that negative emotions from rude customers can be highly contagious!

Take Action

You can learn to react positively when you encounter a rude, angry, or upset customer. Start by learning to recognize the Fight or Flight Instinct. This short video will show you how.

Serving rude customers isn't easy, but you'll find most other customers will be on your side if you handle the situation correctly.

Simple Training Plan: Preventing Customer Anger

Over the past two months, I posted a couple of training plans that customer service leaders can use to train their teams.

The idea was to provide a low-cost alternative to hiring an expensive customer service trainer. These plans are designed to be cost-effective and easy to use.

The first was called Serving Upset Customers 101, which focused on helping customer service reps learn the basics of defusing an angry or upset customer.

The second was called Serving Upset Customers: Eliminating Repeat Service Failures. This training plan showed customer service teams how to learn from angry customers to avoid repeated issues.

This training plan is the third in the three-part series. 

It's called Serving Upset Customers: Preventing Customer Anger. The best way to handle an upset customer is to prevent that customer from getting upset in the first place.

Give it a try and send me your feedback to let me know how it goes.

Overview: Preventing Customer Anger

Participants will be able to do the following at the end of this training:

  • Create personal connections to avoid angry customers
  • Alert customers before they encounter unpleasant surprises
  • Avoid specific words that can trigger customer anger
  • Use the pre-emptive acknowledgement technique

This course is the third in a three part series:

  • Part 1: Serving Upset Customers 101
  • Part 2: Serving Upset Customers, Eliminating Repeat Service Failures
  • Part 3: Serving Upset Customers, Preventing Customer Anger

Resources Required:

  • Worksheet: Workshop Planning Tool, cost: $0
  • Training Video: Working with Upset Customers. You'll need a Lynda.com or LinkedIn Premium subscription for each participant. Subscriptions start at $19.99 per person, per month and discounts are available for teams of 5 or more. A 30-day Lynda.com trial is available here.
  • Exercise Files: The Working with Upset Customers training video comes with a set of downloadable exercise files to help implement concepts from the course.

Time Required: <1 hour per week for 3 weeks.


Pre-Work: Do This Before You Begin

You can boost the impact of any training program by properly preparing. Here are two simple assignments you should do before starting the training.

Assignment #1: Create a training plan. Use the Workshop Planning Tool to create a training plan:

  • Identify your goal for the training.
  • Determine what needs to be done to prepare for success.
  • Decide how the training will be run.
  • Create a plan to sustain your progress.


Assignment #2: Announce the Training. Tell your team what to expect by announcing the training via a team meeting, one-on-one conversation, email, or some other form of communication. Make sure you address three things:

  • Tell participants what the training is about.
  • Explain why the training is important.
  • Share how you expect participants to use the training in their daily work.


Training Plan: Eliminating Repeat Service Failures

This plan is divided into three lessons that each take place one week apart.


Ask participants to watch the short training video, Creating Personal Relationships (2m 29s), before attending the first meeting. This video is part of the Working with Upset Customers course.


Week 1: Kick-off. 

Call a 30 minute team meeting to kick off the training program. Hold it in-person if possible, or via Skype or web-conference if your team is remote. 

  1. Review the purpose and goals for this course.
  2. Re-cap results from previous training programs (if applicable)
  3. Discuss ways that personal relationships can prevent customer anger.
  4. Assign training videos and activities for the next meeting.


Assignments for next week:

  • Exercise: Experiment with rapport-building techniques to create personal connections with customers.
  • Watch video: Avoiding Unpleasant Surprises (2m 51s).
  • Exercise: Download the Expectation Management Worksheet exercise file. Use it to identify situations where you can help customers avoid unpleasant surprises.


Week 2: Avoiding Unpleasant Surprises

Call a 30 minute team meeting to check-in on the training program. Hold it in-person if possible, or via Skype or web-conference if your team is remote.

  1. Discuss the results of the using rapport-building techniques exercise.
  2. Discuss the results of the avoiding unpleasant surprises exercise.
  3. Assign training videos and activities for the next meeting.


Assignments for next week:


Week 3: Preventing Customer Anger

Call a 30 minute team meeting to check-in on the training program. Hold it in-person if possible, or via Skype or web-conference if your team is remote.

  1. Discuss the results of the Pre-Emptive Acknowledgement Technique exercise.
  2. Brainstorm common trigger words and more effective replacements.
  3. Discuss ways to sustain the learning and solutions from this course.