Five Situations In Which You Will Need to Handle an Irate Customer

By Sean Haggard | September 7

You’ve likely been yelled at for a reason. (Admit it.) But have you ever been yelled at for no reason?  If not, this will be your introduction to five situations when you will need to handle an irate customer.

Whether you are answering a hypothetical interview question or dealing with the situation in real life, the following scenarios will help you to get through the ordeal unscathed.

Here are some of the common issues that can cause a customer to become irate:

  • You don’t know the answer
  • You don’t answer fast enough
  • You should have warned them
  • You made a mistake

How to handle an irate customer when you don’t know the answer

You aren’t stupid; you’re just new. When you start a new job, you won’t always know the correct answer. You may be working in a different industry than you are used to, or this company may have different policies and procedures than the last one.

The customer, however, doesn’t care. She just wants answers to her questions so that she can make informed decisions about her life. To handle an irate customer this way, you must locate a solution.

When you don’t know the answer, offer to find the answer.

  • If you are on the phone, ask for permission to place the caller on hold while you do some research. Then you can look through some manuals, talk to a coworker or supervisor, or even Google the answer.
  • If the customer is standing in front of you, offer her a comfortable place to sit or stand while you check on her issue.
  • If your research will take longer than 30 seconds on the phone or 3 minutes in-person, offer an alternative. Would the customer prefer that you call her back or send her an email, or would she like to continue to hold on the line? Would the customer like to continue watching tv in the waiting area, or would she prefer to run some errands and return in an hour? Give the customer periodic updates so she does not think you have forgotten about her.

When someone else has the answer, perform a “warm transfer”.

  • On the phone: “Mrs. Smith, thank you for holding. I have my manager, Patrick O’Connell on the line, and he will be able to provide you with more information from here.”
  • In-person: “Mrs. Smith, I appreciate your patience. I explained your situation to my manager, Patrick O’Connell, [gesture to manager] and he’s going to help you from here.”

When no one has the answer, apologize and supply options if you have some. For example, “No one has asked for a trial period before. I’ve checked with our managers, and we’re not currently set up to handle that. What you can do, however, is purchase the product and then we’ll provide you an authorization number to return it within 30 days if you are not satisfied.”

How to handle an irate customer when you don’t answer fast enough

Some customers will always have unrealistic expectations about how quickly you should be able to answer their questions. They don’t care if you are new or if you are learning how to use new software or if your computer is running slow. They want what they want now.

To handle this irate customer now, offer alternatives. You can call the customer back or discuss another question while you are waiting for the answer to this current question. Apologize (even if it’s not your fault), empathize with the customer (“I understand that you’re very busy, and I’m trying to help you out as quickly as possible”), and don’t take the situation personally.

To handle this type of irate customer in the future, find quicker ways to give out answers. Create cheat sheets, open all the systems you will need at the beginning of the day, take notes, make a FAQ document, or change processes.

How to handle irate customers when you should have warned them

Some customers would like to imagine that you are dedicated to serving just them. They do not understand that you have other callers waiting in your queue, that you have clients waiting in the lobby, or that you need to serve the next customer in line and the one after that and the one after that.

The good news is that these customers tend to be loyal to your company because they truly feel they are receiving one-on-one attention. The bad news is that these customers can be easily hurt, offended, or angered if something bad happens on your watch. How you handle an irate customer in this situation depends on the facts of the matter. Three cases come to mind: you should have warned them and you did, you should have warned them but you did not, or you did not need to warn them and you did not.

How to handle an irate customer when you should have warned them . . . and you did.

  • This is a common situation for credit card companies. “Why didn’t you tell me that I would be charged a late fee?” (We did. We mailed you a letter and provided you with a pamphlet explaining the fees when you signed up for the credit card.)
  • It can also happen with newspaper or magazine subscriptions. “Why didn’t you warn me that my subscription would be ending?” (We did. We mailed you three letters in the last six months, plus your last magazine had a giant yellow renewal sticker on it. We can’t do anything about the issues you’ve missed, but I can process your renewal now and add your email address so you won’t miss additional notices.)
  • I’m sure you can think of additional situations. We’re all so busy, we all receive so much junk mail and spam, that we miss things. Often customers are angry with themselves for missing or disregarding your warning, but they take that frustration out on you instead.

How to handle an irate customer when you should have warned them, but you didn’t. . . .

  • Accept responsibility for the mistake and apologize. If you can provide a legitimate reason for the error, provide it. Otherwise, assure the customer that you will investigate the situation so it does not occur again.
  • Make the customer feel special. Thank her for taking the time to call, email, or stop in. Offer some kind of remedy, whether it is personalized or the same for all customers (extend a subscription by one month, send a coupon, mail an official apology from the vice president, etc.). As always make sure whatever you offer complies with company policies!

How to handle an irate customer when you shouldn’t have warned them, so you didn’t.

  • This scenario was common when I worked in a retirement plans call center. Customers would notice that they had lost money in their accounts and would respond irately. They would want to know why we didn’t manage their funds properly or why we didn’t move their money or why we didn’t call them to warn them. We would re-explain the characteristics of their contract (what we could and could not do), make sure they understood the risk level of their investments, and step through how they could track their account balances online. We also provided basic rules-of-thumb about when to transfer funds as the stock markets changed.
  • Empathize with the customer. Something bad happened, she’s not sure why it happened, and she’s frightened or confused about what needs to happen next.
  • Offer information to help in the future. You often cannot change the past, but you can transform this situation into a learning example for the future. Make the customer feel better off now that she has spoken with you.

How to handle an irate customer when you made a mistake

You screwed up. You made a mistake. Admit it, apologize, and move on to how you can resolve the situation. Do not focus on excuses (valid or not), as you are just taking up the frustrated customer’s time and the customer does not care. You handle an irate customer in this case by making the situation right or by finding someone who can make it right for you. You are obligated to provide the service that the customer has been promised.

Irate customers often need to vent for a bit, feel that someone is “hearing” their complaints, and then they will listen to rational solutions. Keep calm and focus on doing the best job that you can. For more tips and ways to answer interview questions related to irate customers, click to read another article on how to handle an irate customer.