You can expect a rise in customer frustration and significant increases in escalations to supervisors right now. Here's help.

My roller bag is stowed away like winter sweaters. But the work continues. This week I’ve been working remotely to help my clients redirect intense interactions, regain control, and restore customer confidence in these uncertain times. Today I’m sharing with you the guidance I’m giving my clients right now, in these intense times with customers.

You can expect a rise in customer frustration and significant increases in escalations to supervisors. Customers, like you and me, are pressed, anxious, and running low on patience. Things will be more difficult for you. You have to gear up with tactics to create positive conversations with challenging customers.

Here are the Four things I’m telling my clients About Giving Bad News right now.

One. Acknowledge How Hard Things Are For Your Customer.

When you acknowledge how hard things are for customers, you can foster rapport and make connections. Acknowledging concern links the communication chain with customers. It makes it easier for you to create calm, reframe conversations, and move interactions forward toward closure. 

Acknowledge concern with statements like

  • “I realize how frustrating this is for you.”
  • I realize it’s upsetting for you to hear that we can’t come back tomorrow to pick up your rubbish. While it may seem that making an unplanned stop on another day is a simple thing, it’s actually quite complicated.
  • “I realize you’re upset. I’d like to take a minute to explain why we’re not able to send a driver out tomorrow, and then answer any questions you might have.”
  • “I know this must be frustrating for you.”
  • “I realize it’s upsetting to hear that you’ll have to retake your exam and apply for a new license, particularly because you need your license right now.”
  • “I can see your point on that.”

Here’s a video on precisely how to acknowledge concern you can use to reinforce this focus.

Two. Reframe Conversations to Preempt Escalations.

You can preempt escalations to managers by proactively reframing conversations. First, you need to acknowledge concern (my first point). Then your focus is moving the customer from a negative problem position to a look at what you can do to address the issue. Adapt phrases like these to reframe your interactions.

  • “We want to get to the bottom of this as much as you do.”
  • “I understand your concern. Let’s take a look and see what’s going on.”
  • “I’ll do my best to take care of this for you.”
  • Use this formula: Here’s what we know, here’s what we’ve done, here’s what’s next.

Three. Use the U S A Method to Respond to Customers Who Want to Talk to your Manager.

I teach a three-step approach to how to respond when a customer comes out of the gate asking for a supervisor, and when customers get frustrated in conversations and opt-out of a conversation with you in favor of talking to someone with higher authority. I call the method U S A. Here’s how the U S A Method works.

Background on how I came up with the U S A Method, Plus U S A explained


Try responding to the customer who asks to speak to your supervisor using the U S A method.

USA stands for …

  • Understanding Statement. Please don’t say anything to the customer who asks for a supervisor without first demonstrating that you fully understand their frustration (or whatever it is they are feeling). It is essential that the customer feels you know the inconvenience or problem they have experienced. If they don’t feel you understand what they are feeling, they may become more complicated, and the call will most likely escalate.
  • Situation. Explain the situation. That is, explain that you can and would very much like to help the customer.
  • Action. Convey to the customer that if you aren’t able to help them, you will let them speak to a supervisor. That is the action you commit to taking.

U S A in action…

So, right out of the gate, your customer asks to speak with a supervisor. Here’s how you could respond using U S A:


“I respect your request to talk to a manager.”


“My manager is counting on me to do my job and resolve the problems our customers encounter. Will you allow me to try to solve the problem before we go any further?”


“Will you give me a chance to try and resolve this for you. That’s why I’m here.”


“If, after speaking with me, you are still unhappy, I’ll immediately connect you with my supervisor. How does that sound?”

This is not a “magic wand” approach. Still, in many cases, when you demonstrate empathy with an understanding statement, explain the situation, and tell the customer what you can do, you will be doing your very best.

When you respond to the request for a supervisor with the USA method, you’ll find fewer calls escalate.

Four. Make Sure Your Language Doesn’t Provoke.

Recently, I listened to a random sample of calls for a client ahead of training. I noticed some of the employees used language that opens the door for escalations. I heard things like:

“That would be something you’d have to speak to your local provider about. I have no way of knowing this information.”
“So, we’re just the lab. We don’t work directly with patients.”
“My supervisor would just tell you the same thing that I’m telling you.”

Now, the negativity in these words is unintentional. I’m sure of that. But when customers hear statements like these, that is precisely the point when I hear things escalate.

The customer escalates because the language created a barrier in their mind. And the only way around this barrier is to push back.

In this short video, I walk you through a demonstration of why it’s natural for customers to push back.

So what can you do? Work to keep interactions positive, even when you’re giving bad news by offering explanations or options.

Let’s look at some potentially provoking statements, and I’ll show you how to say the same thing, only more positively by giving an explanation or an option.

Instead of “There’s nothing we can do,” Say something like, “One thing we can try is…” Even if there’s no guarantee that the option will work, customers tend to calm down when they sense a real effort on your part.

Rather than:That’s something you need to speak to the local provider about.”
How about an explanation:Any specific details on your treatment will come directly from your dentist. We don’t have access to your medical records.”
In line at a store, I heard an employee say, “I was only able to charge $2.19 to your card, but it declined for the remaining $72.88.”

It was uncomfortable for the customer. It would’ve been more positive to discreetly say, “I’m having trouble authorizing your card. Is there another card you’d like to use?”
When you communicate with more diplomacy and tact, you reduce customer frustration, preempt escalations, and interactions go more smoothly. So, always look for a positive slant when giving bad news.

You can preempt escalations, and it’s not that hard to do. Apply these four tips, and you’ll find you’re de-escalating with more ease and more often.

If you find you need more help with positioning employees to de-escalate intense interactions, I teach de-escalation in my intensive De-escalation Academy.