How to Handle an Escalated Customer Confrontation

By Roy Barnes, Bob Kelleher

Sometimes, interactions with unhappy customers go beyond run-of-the-mill exchanges, ratcheting up to something more extreme. Even relatively benign customer conflicts can escalate quickly. When that happens, it’s up to you to take specific and focused action to prevent the situation from escalating even further.

Fortunately, doing so isn’t difficult. It simply requires your total focus. And if it feels overwhelming at first, fear not; it gets easier with practice. Following are the five key steps to managing an escalated conflict.

Step 1: Let go of your ego

Rest assured: No matter how angry a customer may be, it probably isn’t personal. That is, the person isn’t angry with you; more than likely, she’s angry with your organization or one of its policies.

It’s critical, then, that you maintain a certain emotional distance during the interaction. Don’t let your ego enter the equation. Otherwise, the conflict will become personal — and you don’t want that.

One way to keep your ego in check is to avoid spontaneous responses during your conversation with the customer. These types of responses are often driven by anger or fear — two emotions that are toxic to any interaction, especially one that’s already escalated.

Instead, you must make a conscious effort to control your responses. Manage them carefully. Be cautious with your words and tone, as well as with your body language. In this way, you can ensure you behave with the utmost professionalism.

Step 2: Decide to defuse

New parents are advised against ramping up their own emotional states by matching the emotional distress of their upset child. According to some, the secret to dealing with a screaming child is to stop, get down on his level, look him straight in the eye, take a breath, smile, and . . . wait for it . . . whisper. Easier said than done, but changing the emotional environment is a potent way to defuse the situation.

Unless you work the birthday shift at Chuck E. Cheese, this tactic will likely prove unsuccessful. But you should consciously work hard to defuse the situation. After all, you’re the one who’s thinking clearly, right?

That means you have to take 100 percent responsibility for managing things. It’s a little like being a lifeguard. When rescuing someone who is drowning, lifeguards are taught to remain in charge, no matter what the other person does.

Here are a few quick tips that you can use to help defuse:

  • Remember that when dealing with an escalated problem, it’s often more about understanding and managing emotion than dealing with facts.

  • Manage the conversation cadence. If the customer is shouting, speak softly. If he is talking very quickly, speak slowly.

  • Ask for and use the customer’s name.

  • Introduce yourself by name.

  • Ask the customer to explain what happened so you know the real problem. Actively listen.

  • Agree that there is a problem. Don’t defend, deny, or explain why the problem happened — it’ll just sound like you’re making excuses. Besides, those are all offstage issues that the customer doesn’t really care about.

  • Apologize . . . several times, if need be.

  • Tell the customer that you’re going to act immediately to fix the problem.

Step 3: Understand the problem

To make progress with an enraged customer, you must work to understand the problem. What is he really upset about? What is the root cause of his anger?

As you work to understand the customer’s problem, avoid these three common errors:

  • Focusing on the facts: Often, employees attempting to understand a customer’s problem wrongly assume that their goal is to unearth facts. But understanding a problem is as much about understanding and acknowledging the emotions that have resulted from the problem as it is about understanding the cold, hard facts of the situation.

  • Assuming your view of the situation is correct: Often, customer service personnel assume their view of the problem is correct. They may agree with the customer about the facts of the case but differ in their interpretation of those facts and whether they are relevant. This is a mistake! You must at least consider the possibility that the customer’s view is, in fact, the correct one.

  • Playing the blame game: Often, customers — and even customer service personnel — get bogged down in assigning blame for the problem. Avoid this by apologizing, taking ownership of the problem, and then moving to understand the real issues.

Step 4: Allow time for venting

Let the customer speak. Give him a chance to vent — that is, to safely discharge his anger and/or frustration. Don’t rush him, and don’t jump in to defend yourself. Be patient.

Venting serves one important purpose: to blow off steam. Usually, when someone vents, it lasts only a minute or so. Unless the customer’s physical state is chemically altered by drugs (which does sometimes happen), most people simple cannot rant and rave forever. If you provide an open environment to let the customer vent, his anger will decrease simply because he has been given a chance to express it.

Three active listening tips really help here:

  • Let the customer know that you understand that he is upset or distressed.

  • Indicate with verbal or nonverbal cues that you understand what the customer is saying and how he is feeling. Don’t stand there stone-faced or remain silent (especially if you’re on the phone). Nod, smile sympathetically, murmur politely — do something to acknowledge that you are listening.

  • Ask one or two reflective questions about what the customer has told you. (Reflective questions are simply questions that you formulate based on what the customer has expressed.) When you ask these types of relevant follow-up questions, it shows that you are listening and enables you to regain control of the conversation and situation. For example:

    Customer: I’ve tried three different times to call your call center and each and every time I was put on hold for at least half an hour.

    You: I’m so sorry that happened to you. We’ve obviously done something wrong. Can you tell me the times you called so that I can understand exactly when this was happening?

Often, listening and asking reflective questions gives the customer time to slow down and consider the situation more carefully and rationally.

Step 5: Get to common ground

Most major negotiations are merely a series of small sub-agreements and even smaller yeses. When interacting with an incensed customer — or when engaged in any high-stakes conversation — your job is to listen for any small “yes” that can move the conversation forward. The idea is to quickly reach some small agreements.

Why is this important? Because in this way, you can turn a conflict into a productive conversation — one that seeks a mutually beneficial solution. By reaching common ground, you reduce the distance and difference between you and your customer. Establishing this type of rapport signals that you are ready to connect on a human level and that you’re open and ready to work together to resolve the problem.

Be aware, however, that this rapport can’t be faked. If you act as if you have reached common ground but you haven’t, you will quickly receive a negative response, and you’ll have to start the de-escalation process all over again. Take your time.