How to Handle an Enraged Customer

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We all try to do our best, but every once in awhile, things go wrong. Sometimes very wrong.

If you’re a small business owner, you may not know something has gone wrong until you or your staff pick up the phone or look up over the cash register and encounter a VERY ANGRY PERSON.

Unfortunately, this is almost certainly going to happen, even if you run a nearly perfect business. Small businesses want happy customers, and according to the 2015 State of Small Business Report, 56% of business owners were focusing on improving the existing customer experience as a way of attaining growth. Nonetheless, somewhere, somehow, you are going to make a customer angry. Of course, if you’ve been in business for awhile, you already know that some people are quicker to anger than others. Some people just seem to be looking for opportunities to get angry.

How you manage an irate customer can have long-term consequences for your business. Remember, we live in the age of online reviews. One scathing review can cripple the prospects for a new business.


Related Article: Improving Customer Service

While it’s just good sense to protect your business from negative reviews, most small business owners have higher goals. Almost every small business owner wants to do good work for good people and make a good living at it. Nobody goes into business with the intent of ticking people off.

Knowing how to handle angry customers can smooth things over very quickly. Even better, communicating with an angry customer so they get what they need, might even allow them to go home happy.

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Here are some tips for how to handle an enraged customer.

1) Don’t interrupt them

The No. 1 mistake that small business owners make when they’ve got an enraged customer is that they try to jump in and fix the problem immediately. Sure, logically, that’s the right thing to do, but if you’ve got somebody who’s shaking mad, their top priority is actually to vent.

Unfortunately, when they first walk in the store, they don’t really even want to solve the problem. They want to be heard. Your job as the owner (or the manager) is to let them do that until they’ve vented enough to take a breath.

This doesn’t mean they have license to verbally, much less physically, abuse or threaten staff, but do give them enough space to say what happened and why they’re angry.

If you jump in and try to cut off their initial blast of anger, your communication will go nowhere. This is especially true if you are dealing with them over the phone. Despite their white-hot rage, your job is to try to help them, and you’re not going to get very far with helping them until they’ve vented. Sit back and listen.

Don’t ask them to calm down, either. The odds are high they’ll only be insulted by that. This clip from Generic Theater shows a great listener.

Great Listener with an Angry Customer

2) Empathize

This will do more to salvage any goodwill that could be possible with this person than anything else. Although, it had better be genuine sympathy. People are smart, and they will sense fake empathy in a heartbeat.

It’s hard to care and be empathetic when someone is throwing a tantrum. If you’ve ever had a moment when you all but wanted to burn a business down, try to remember that. Above all, remember to not take their tantrum personally. Even if they are directly blaming you, much of their response is about them.

When you can get a word in, tell the person you’re sorry about whatever happened to them. This does not necessarily mean you take responsibility for what happened. Depending on your business or whatever happened, there could be legal reasons for not taking responsibility immediately. For now, just get this person calmed down enough so that you can talk to them.

3) Start figuring out what happened and repeat almost everything they tell you

As their venting cools down, you’ll start getting more information about what happened. Repeat back to them what you think they’ve said. This ensures you understand them, but it actually serves a far more important purpose: It builds enormous trust.

The bulk of people’s anger is often from not being understood and from thinking they’re dealing with a business that doesn’t care what’s happened. As you repeat back parts of their complaint, they’ll see you get it. They may still dislike your company, but they’ll start to have trust in you.

So get their story, detail by detail. Ask to repeat what they told you so you’re 100% sure you’ve got it. The effect of this can be almost magical. Your irate customer will calm down rapidly, and you’ll begin to be able to finally start fixing their problem.

You’re on your way to fixing this mess. Just don’t botch that confidence. Keep their expectations low, but make sure they understand that you understand what’s happened, and that it was a really rotten experience for them.

4) Do a quick fix and then begin figuring out what else you can do for them

A quick fix provides an immediate gift to the customer. It could be cutting their bill in half or giving them the entire service for free. How far you want to go with a quick fix is up to you.

There should always be someone at your company that can do an on-the-spot quick fix, even a small one. It could be a manager or a trusted employee. The  fix works best when you do it right up front, immediately. You give the customer more than they expected. This goes even further to immediately reduce their anger and diffuse the situation. Done correctly, angry customers often actually apologize for being rude or angry.


There should always be someone at your company that can do an on-the-spot quick fix, even a small one.


Here’s an example of a quick fix: In New Orleans a few years ago, at an extremely well-known restaurant, a member of a dinner party found a bug in her meal. Fortunately, she was calm and very quiet about it. It wasn’t until the waitress leaned over her plate and made moon eyes that anyone even knew there was a problem. The plate was instantly whisked away with profuse apologies. Within three minutes the owner was there, apologizing even more. Graciously, and without hesitation, before anyone had even asked if she would get a free dinner, he comped the entire table. There were 15 people in the party. The dinner guest received a new, pristine order very quickly, and everyone was offered dessert for free along with any additional appetizers.

That was a quick fix.  However if a staff knows that they can immediately and without hesitation just quickly fix an entire order for when that one-in-a-thousand enraged customer walks in, that is already a better business.

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5) Do more permanent fixes

Hopefully by now your irate customer has calmed down and is even reasonably satisfied. They may want to just take their discount and go home, and that’s fine.

Now your real work starts. It’s time for a system check to make sure that whatever happened can never happen again. I hope that doesn’t mean firing an employee, but occasionally that is required. It may just mean one of your systems needs an additional check or that one of your business processes needs to be reworked. Whatever it is, fix it. Neither you, or your staff or your other customers want to deal with unhappy customers.

Professional complainers

It’s possible you may have one or two customers who get irate a lot, over very little. These individuals are not just average customers who had a bad experience. These people are professional chronic complainers. These are the ones that play “gotcha” and will basically blackmail you into doing what they want or they’ll leave a nasty review. As the saying goes, “the customer is always right”, but these people might be right for someone else. Some customers you just don’t want. Do yourself and your staff a favor: Send the professional complainers over to your competitors.

Do you have any stories about how you turned a bad situation around, or about when you “fired” a customer or clients? Tell us about them in the comments.

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Brian Sutter

Brian Sutter

Director of Marketing at Wasp Barcode
Brian Sutter is the Director of Marketing at Wasp, responsible for the development and execution of the company’s marketing strategy. His role encompasses brand management, direct and channel marketing, public relations, advertising, and social media. He also writes and speaks on topics related to helping small business owners grow their business and improve operational efficiency.
Brian Sutter
Brian Sutter