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Developing Customer Service Skills For 30+ Years

What Angry Customers Want and Need

Chapter II – Part 4

The Nature of Hostile, & Abusive Behavior

In this chapter, from Defusing Hostile Customers Workbook, we explain the key to defusing angry customers – understanding what they want and need in order to calm down. To read all the free material from this book click here.

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What Angry People Need And Want

When you have dealt with an angry customer, you may have asked yourself “What does this person want from me?”, or even perhaps asked the customer this question. It is an important question that has a number of answers. Knowing the answers will help you calm down an angry person, and reduce hostile behavior directed at you. Beware, though, because this isn’t as simple as it seems.

They Want What They Want

The most obvious answer to the question, and the one most commonly mentioned in my seminars, is government customers want their problem solved. That is, if they come in expecting to receive a check, they want that check, or if they are being inspected, they want you to leave them alone. If they call to talk to a particular person, they want to speak to that person now.

In other words, the customer interacts with government with a particular goal in mind. Unfortunately, we cannot always do what the customer wants, since we have to work within the constraints of our jobs. We don’t always have the authority, or even the ability to meet the requests of clients.

Most of the time we can’t give them what they ask for. If clients only “wanted what they wanted” we would have little chance of calming them down, since we can’t always accommodate them. Luckily, there are some psychological needs that you can address. Fulfill these needs and you will reduce hostile behavior.

They Want Help

Angry or hostile people want you to be helpful, even if you can’t solve the entire problem. If they see you as making a genuine effort on their behalf, they are much less likely to be hostile towards you personally. Think about your own experience for a moment. Have you ever had the experience of going into a department store to make a purchase? You walk in and have difficulty finding the item you want? After searching throughout the store, you finally find a staff person. When you ask the employee where you might find the widgets, you get a response like this:

“Don’t know. That’s not my department. “

Infuriating isn’t it? Why do we get angry in this situation? Sure, it’s aggravating that we can’t find the item. But what really sends us through the roof is the lack of helpfulness shown by the staff member. If the employee had said:

“Golly, I don’t know, but if you wait a moment I can find out”.

that would be an entirely different story. We would appreciate the effort being made for us, and be less likely to harass the employee making the effort.

The same goes for your customers. When you make an effort, or appear to be trying to help, your customers are less likely to strike out at you.

They Want Choices

Your clients want to feel they have choices and alternatives. They do not want to feel helpless, or trapped, or at the mercy of the “system”. The analogy I like is that of an animal that is cornered. If its only way of escaping is through you, you can be pretty sure that it is going to attack you. The same is true of your clients. Make them feel they have no options, or they are trapped, and they will tend to strike out at you, even if they are the authors of their own misfortune.

On the other hand, offer choices whenever possible, and you are less likely to be attacked by the upset individual.

Let’s look at a simple example.

You answer the phone and the caller asks to speak to Jessica Jones. Ms. Jones is out of the office at the moment. You say:

I’m sorry but Ms. Jones is away from her desk at the moment. I will take a message and she will call you back.

That’s not a bad response, but note that it offers the caller no choice. Now look at another possibility.

I’m sorry but Ms. Jones is away from her desk. Would you like her to call you back at a particular time, or would you prefer to call again after 3:00, when she will be available?

Much better. The difference is subtle. The first response offers no option, but the second allows the caller to choose, or in fact to suggest some other possibility that might be workable. The second example is much less likely to set off the customer.

There are always choices to offer. And we know that customers respond positively to being offered choices. It reduces their own sense of helplessness. If you can’t think of choices you can offer in your job you aren’t thinking hard enough.

They Want Acknowledgment

Perhaps one of the most important things an angry person wants is to be acknowledged. People want to feel you are making the effort to understand their situation, and their emotional reactions to it. Often, the simple act of acknowledging that a person is upset will help to calm them down, provided the acknowledgment is phrased and “toned” correctly.

The most common error public servants make when dealing with an angry client is to ignore the feelings being expressed, and shift immediately into a problem‑solving mode. Unfortunately, customers perceive this approach as uncaring, unfeeling, and unhelpful. This intensifies anger.

It is critically important that you acknowledge the emotions being expressed. Later, when we talk about specific techniques and phrases, we will explain how to use empathy and active listening to acknowledge feelings.

Section Summary

To summarize, angry customers want you to fix their problem, but often this just isn’t possible. Luckily, they also want:

• helpfulness and effort on your part
• to feel they have choices
• acknowledgment of their situation and their feelings

By recognizing these “wants”, and providing for them, you can have a significant impact on the degree of hostility directed at you.

How Angry Situations Escalate

angry customers workbook training featuresAngry situations don’t always start with very abusive or hostile behavior. Even a calm situation can escalate very quickly as each person “triggers” the other. Of course, when one or both people is angry in the first place, there is a far greater chance of escalation.

The escalation/crisis cycle is a process where an individual becomes hostile or enters in an angry state of mind, and by virtue of less than optimal treatment, becomes more and more frustrated and abusive. In a typical escalation cycle, the employee over‑reacts which in turn, increases the anger of the client. If the cycle is not interrupted, the situation becomes a crisis situation, out of control, where people may be put at risk.

Escalation doesn’t have to happen. It is important that you be aware of your own behavior in contributing to this cycle, particularly because you will suffer any fallout that a crises brings. When the situation moves to crisis, probability of violence increases, as does the probability that the person will cause unpleasantness after they leave.

In many cases, the cycle can be stopped provided the employee steps back from the situation, handles it professionally, and does not get sucked into arguments or other behavior that will contribute to the cycle. What is important is that you are able to stop, or prevent escalation right from the beginning. It is a lot easier to prevent hostile behavior than to deal with it once it has emerged, full blown.

The escalation/crisis cycle is diagrammed below. Many of the tactics we describe are intended to stop this cycle.

Other parts of this chapter and other excerpts
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