3 De-escalation Strategies for Angry Customers

My daughter and I were driving home from church Sunday afternoon. We were in the left hand turn lane behind another car. We had the green arrow, yet the car in front of me hadn’t started to accelerate. The driver behind me laid on the horn something terrible. I actually turned around to look at her. She let up for a second and then honked again. “Ridiculous,” I said to my daughter. In the rearview mirror I saw the lady was giving me the middle finger, all because she assumed I was the holdup at the light.

About the time I got flipped off, the driver in front of me turned left and I followed. The honking profane driver quickly accelerated and then drove side -by-side me. What? Then she literally drove into my lane, nearly hitting me!

I found myself getting heated and frankly, I wanted to cuss. But my daughter was in the car and I had to ensure her safety, as well as my own. So, I had to de-escalate the situation. In my peripheral I could see the lady gesturing at me still. I avoided eye contact, didn’t return the bird gesture and I didn’t even utter words that the driver wouldn’t hear anyway. I slowed down just a bit so that she had to pass me. And then, it was over.

My mistake in this situation was physically turning around and looking at the driver. That enticed the driver to continue and become more aggressive. Fortunately, I’m skilled in de-escalation because I teach de-escalation in my Verbal Aikido training sessions. The moment I realized my error, I moved into de-escalation. My de-escalation tactic in this situation was to avoid eye contact, so not to appear threatening or aggressive, and to choose silence as opposed to profanity. I let it go and the out of control driver was defused, or at least, the situation for me and my daughter was calm.

De-escalation is a strategic tool that your employees can use when they find themselves in a ridiculous situation with an agitated, angry or out of control customer. Not unlike what I experienced in traffic 2 days ago.

Examples of de-escalation include:

1. Avoiding the appearance of intimidation or threat, which is what I did when I slowed my speed and chose to not make eye contact with the aggressive driver. With an agitated customer, this might be choosing to not respond to the bait the customer throws out. Instead, you might just sit in silence for a couple of seconds as the customer rants.

2. Acknowledging the customer’s emotion, frustration or inconvenience. This might sound like this: “I realize this has been a hassle for you. I would be frustrated too. I want to be a part of the solution now…”

3. Asking 3 closed-ended questions back to back. This is a psychological tactic that I have been teaching in my how to handle difficult customers workshops for years. When customers are angry or out of control, they are likely stuck in the right side of the brain. The right side of the brain is where we are emotional, whereas the left side is our rational/analytical side.

As long as the customer is communicating from the right side of the brain, it will be difficult for your employees to control the call. They need to effectively shift the customer from the right side of the brain to the left side of the brain. An easy and very effective way your employees can help customers make this shift is to ask them 3 closed-ended questions back to back. This technique moves customers to the left side of the brain, quickly de-escalates the situation and puts the employee back in control. You can learn more about this technique and how it works in the video below. (I talk about using the technique to control calls with long-winded customers, but the strategy is exactly the same when your objective is to de-escalate.)

Recently I recorded a new training I am calling How to De-escalate Angry or Agitated Customers. This training is about how to take assertive control, create calm and pre-empt escalations. Learn more about this training. 

How to De-escalate Angry or Agitated Customers

De-escalation Training to Help Your Employees Get Angry Customers to Back Down, Pre-empt Escalations to Supervisors and, In General, Handle Difficult Customers with More Ease.

Online, On-demand video training with Myra Golden – now available for  immediate viewing

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