How to empathise with angry customers

Stephen was a customer support officer in a large software company. Years of listening to customer complaints had taken their toll. He was losing patience with his customers.

After a heated conversation with a customer led to a complaint, Stephen’s supervisor enrolled him in my course Handling Difficult Customers. In the first half of the course, we discussed the importance of showing empathy when customers experience problems. Stephen asked “Why should I show empathy when the customer is swearing at me?”

I explained that the quickest way to stop a customer swearing was to calm them down. And showing empathy is one of the best ways to do this. Then I explained that empathising doesn’t mean condoning the customer’s behaviour. Nor does it involve agreeing that their complaint is valid. It simply means acknowledging how the customer feels. Empathising with difficult customers allows them to feel understood, respected and validated. These feelings soothe angry people and help you get the conversation back on track.

Next, we discussed three steps Stephen could use to show empathy when his customers became upset. You can use these steps with your customers, too.

Treat it as their first time

Yes, you’ve handled similar complaints thousands of times. But for the customer, it’s probably the first time they’ve experienced the problem. Show interest in their position by giving them your full attention. Don’t butt in to explain the problem before the customer has finished describing it. Instead, hear them out. Then quickly summarise the points they’ve made. This shows you were listening.

Acknowledge their position

A simple way to do this is to listen for the customer’s key message and summarise it, using your own words. For example

I’ve had to take time off work to sort this out This is really inconvenient for you
I don’t have time to sit on the phone waiting for someone to fix this You need to get off the phone quickly
I’ve wasted hours following up these mistakes. And they were all made at your end This has taken a lot of your time and you want it sorted out now

Focus on finding solutions

Upset customers want to know their problems will be dealt with quickly. You can often calm them down by acknowledging this verbally. Here are some phrases you can use to do this:

  • Let’s solve this problem now by…
  • I agree we need to sort this out
  • Let’s work out what to do about this
  • I can help you solve that problem

Want to organise customer service training for your team? Contact us now.

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