A Consumer Psychologist’s Tips for Handling an Angry Customer

When a customer is having a meltdown, keep your cool and you might keep the customer.
Allow an angry customer about 30 seconds to convey their dissatisfaction before stepping in with a response. (Photo: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock)

It’s a retailer’s worst nightmare: A customer storms into your store, yelling about a problem with a product or service. She’s stomping around and pointing fingers, drawing stares from other shoppers. What do you do?

“Retailers who are most successful in dealing with angry customers grab hold of the situation quickly and come up with a satisfying solution,” said Bruce Sanders, a consumer psychologist and author of “Sell Well: What Really Moves Your Shoppers.”


“Keep it brief. Too much talking will lock into the shopper’s mind the bad feelings they’re experiencing, and those negative memories make it less likely they’ll buy from you in the future.” -Bruce Sanders (Photo: Bruce Sanders)

Sanders has developed a toolbox of techniques he shares with retail clients to help them calm enraged customers and increase the likelihood of keeping their business. Next time you encounter an angry customer, try the following approach.

Related: How to Bake a Superior Customer Experience into Your Business

Get some space

When there’s an audience present, an enraged person is much less likely to consider reasonable solutions to the problem at hand. Relocating the discussion to a more private space is one of the best ways to get on the path to peace.

“When an angry person is around others, the tension will grow because they begin performing,” he said. “If you can get that person to step aside from family, associates and other customers so you’re dealing with them one-on-one, that will help the process.”

It’s not easy to suggest moving to a new spot in the heat of the heat of the moment, but it can be done, said Sanders. “You don’t want to touch them, but subtly guide them somewhere else. Let them know you want to take them to a place with less cross-traffic so you can better focus on helping them.”

Avoid complaint desks, check-out counters and entryways, said Sanders. Opt for a quiet area, such as a merchandise aisle with low traffic.

Keep it brief

Angry customers have a tendency to ramble on. But letting the situation drag on can have negative consequences.

“Keep it brief. Too much talking will lock into the shopper’s mind the bad feelings they’re experiencing, and those negative memories make it less likely they’ll buy from you in the future,” said Sanders.

What’s the magic amount of time to allow a customer to express his anger before stepping in with a response? About 30 seconds, said Sanders.

“This gives you sufficient time to understand their point well enough to ask further questions of clarification. Beyond 30 seconds, though, there’s the risk of the person getting more and more wound up, rather than easing off on their anger.”

It can be tough to jump into a customer’s monologue without seeming like you’re interrupting. Seize the opportunity when the person takes a breath or pauses between sentences. “Keep your voice decisive, but calm,” said Sanders.

Listen closely


Noticeably listen closely to customers’ complaints in order to make them feel understood. (Photo: Pressmaster/Shutterstock)

During the rant, listen carefully. The customer needs to feel understood before he will accept a resolution. Sanders said your facial expression will show an angry customer you’re genuinely hearing his frustrations.

“Don’t glare at them, but look at them in a receptive way without tension in your face,” he said. “Focus exclusively on them. They shouldn’t see your lips moving or feel like you’re preparing a response.

“After 30 seconds, reflect back to that individual with a comment that shows you were listening to them. You can say, ‘I can see you’re very concerned about this.’ Then ask a question to gather more information, such as the details of what happened when they tried to use a product they were dissatisfied with,” said Sanders.

Continue this pattern in brief spurts until you have enough information to offer a genuine apology.

Related: How to Win Over a Customer in 10 Seconds or Less

Say you’re sorry

Even if you’re not to blame, offering an apology can go a long way to soothing anger and retaining a person’s business. Sanders said an effective apology entails three things: respect, concern and empathy.

“You might think that what they’re griping about is trivial, but to them, it’s something that makes a difference. People who are angry are feeling bad; we want to show empathy toward that.” -Bruce Sanders

It comes down to caring if the customer has a winning experience, regardless of who’s at fault.

“There are many instances where it has little to do with the retail transactions. The customer may have just had a bad day, or may even go through life feeling dissatisfied. We want the shoppers to feel like winners, so to the degree we can help them, we’ll earn their appreciation,” said Sanders.

Related: 5 Effective Ways to Thank Your Customers

Make amends

The next step is to make amends. Ask them directly, “How may I make things right?” Don’t just jump to making an offer.

“Have them come at it first. In many cases after asking that question, you’ll see a look of shock on a shopper’s face. It’s a sign that you’ve already made it right, just by showing them respect, concern and empathy,” said Sanders.

An apology will satisfy some angry customers, but others will be looking for more. Asking “How may I make things right?” gives them a chance to explain what they want. Treating the customer as a partner rather than an adversary will help you come to a mutually agreeable resolution, said Sanders.

“Work together as a team to help make the outrage fade away. It’s not an arm wrestling contest. By and large, the customer will request something reasonable. Even if you’re not able to provide exactly what they’re looking for, you’ll understand what’s important to them,” he said.

Many angry customers will request a discount on their purchase. “They’ll come up with a number, it might be outrageous, to which you can reply with a more reasonable solution that fits the theme of what they want. Use it as a starting point. The fact that there’s a discount at all is more important than the size of the discount,” said Sanders.

Not everyone will be looking for a discount, of course. Sanders recalled a time when a busy woman was upset with a company she frequently ordered from because they refused to leave packages at her door without a signature. “The retailer offered her discount coupons. She became more outraged by that because cost wasn’t the issue,” said Sanders.

Remember: Throwing money at the problem may not make it go away. Instead, work with your customer to figure out a creative solution that satisfies their needs.

“We want this to be a collaborative experience where all the parties come out feeling like winners,” said Sanders.

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