How to De-Escalate a Difficult Customer

a drawing of a smiley face with an arrow pointing at it
a large square sign with an angry face drawn on

The Value of Knowing How to De-Escalate

If you’ve ever worked in customer service, you’ve probably had to deal with an angry customer before. Indeed, people angry about their service, a product, or experience will take their issues out on unsuspecting employees. Obviously, it’s never okay to scream at or abuse representatives, but it does happen. Knowing how to de-escalate can make your life easier and improve your business.

In the case that you run into a difficult customer, there are a few tips you should follow to de-escalate the situation. A peaceful and quick resolution is necessary for your business’s reputation, your employment, and your peace of mind.

Some customers simply can’t be satisfied. Additionally, you have the right to refuse service to anyone that comes in to abuse your staff. But you also need to ensure you have a good customer service department to handle any real issues that arise. Customers who had a bad experience are more likely to leave reviews. Thus, not knowing how to handle difficult customers can harshly affect your reputation. If you plan on working in customer service long-term, invest in yourself and learn to de-escalate.

What is De-Escalation?

So, what is de-escalation? This process involves calming an individual down, finding the problem, and, ideally, delivering a solution. There will not always be a direct resolution. Rather, de-escalation stops a conflict from growing larger and possibly dangerous.

De-escalation is a form of conflict resolution. Through it, an individual is purposeful with their words and actions. In customer service, the representative is often looking to resolve issues over services rendered, products, or general experience at the business. Most of these interactions are simple. A broken item is replaced, a gift card is provided, or the customer receives a discount or refund. Sometimes, however, the whole scenario is thrown out of proportion.

This situation can turn ugly fast. Indeed, some customers have been filmed being downright cruel or even violent. Social media has forced many to take accountability for their actions. However, many employees handle difficult customers daily.

happy customer checking out

Top 8 Tips to De-Escalate Difficult Customers

Notably, every scenario and person is different. You may find certain methods work better for you or that particular customers respond better to specific things. Indeed, knowing how to read people will help you with the de-escalation process. You should also familiarize yourself with the standards and procedures of your company.

Our tips are best for familiarizing yourself with de-escalation and preparing yourself for difficult customers. Truly, going into customer service blind can lead to stressful and overwhelming situations.

Keep reading to learn our top eight tips to de-escalate and handle those difficult customers.

1. Try to Stay Calm

One of the most difficult but most important aspects of de-escalation is staying calm. When you match someone’s energy, the situation generally gets worse. Thus, you need to find a way to remain cool under pressure.

Staying calm when someone is screaming at you may take effort and time. It’s a matter of distancing yourself from the situation. Most of the time, difficult customers don’t have a problem with you. Figuring out how not to take it personally isn’t easy. Additionally, some individuals excel and find this tip easier than others. You can’t always stop natural physical reactions like crying, turning red, etc. But you can still maintain a calm tone and use specific language to help de-escalate.

Notably, try to use neutral words and phrases. Stick to the facts and explain the situation and possible solutions as politely as possible. Similarly, saying “please calm down” may have the opposite effect.

If you do find yourself getting worked up, find a calming technique that you can use. For example, try taking deep, calming breaths. You may also need to find an escape from the situation. If your job allows it, set up a code with your coworkers to let them know you need assistance. Additionally, don’t be afraid to hand something off to your manager – that is why they’re there. Some managers are formally trained in de-escalation and can be a great asset.

2. Figure Out What’s Wrong & Address Their Concerns

Communication is key to getting through to a difficult customer. Make sure you’re listening to what they’re saying. Notably, they should be doing most of the talking. Good de-escalation means letting them get it all on the table so you can reply appropriately. Furthermore, many individuals just want to know they’re being heard. They probably won’t respond well if you cut them short. Similarly, you may lose valuable information if you decide you know the answer before they’re done.

However, you must listen when the conversation goes from explanatory to ranting. Know when to answer and offer solutions. Mirror the language that they used back to them. Don’t correct them on technical terms and meet them where they are. Careful listening ensures the customer feels heard and allows you to find the best solution.

Finally, make sure you’re directly acknowledging their concerns. You may offer an apology on behalf of the company, express that you see what’s wrong, etc. However, try to avoid placing blame. You’re going to have a harder time de-escalating an angry customer if you imply the whole is their fault. Indeed, sometimes you may have to bite your tongue to end the conflict.

3. Know Your Company

This tip falls under preparation rather than reaction. To successfully de-escalate a situation, you must be knowledgeable about your workplace. Indeed, you don’t need to know every product backward and forwards if you work in a store. But knowing where products are located, what services you offer the public, and similar information is vital.

If you’re just as lost as your customers, you won’t be able to help them. Pay attention to what your company offers and the general issues customers bring up.

As you work, you may notice repeat trends or problems. Is there anything that would stop the issue from coming up again? Or can you prepare a script or resources to help you talk to customers in the future? A knowledgeable employee is more effective in de-escalation.

call center employee using de-escalation tips

4. Try to Fix the Problem

Fixing the problem may look different from customer to customer. In some cases, you’ll be able to resolve it directly. Your solution will be obvious. Other times, however, you may look to appease rather than correct.

For example, if your customer had a negative experience with an employee or even another guest, there’s nothing you can do to change that. If someone has truly been wronged, you may choose to compensate them. Some companies offer gift cards or coupons to help keep patrons onboard and encourage them to return. The faster you de-escalate, the happier your customer will be. Thus, they’ll be more likely to return.

Finally, you may need to offer multiple options. A refund may be great for one person but not for another. Some customers don’t care about the money. You may offer to escalate a complaint to upper management. Whether or not anything changes does not always matter – again, customers just want to know they’re being heard. If you’re confused about what they need to resolve the problem, you may consider asking them directly. Try something like, “What can I do to improve your experience today?”

5. Create a Script

A script will make your life in customer service easier. Some call centers fully utilize scripts for all of their employees. Basically, it helps you prepare responses to usual complaints and issues. Your script can help you distance yourself from a situation. Instead of fighting your way through the conversation, you can rely on the responses you already came up with.

When speaking over the phone, you benefit from having these options in front of you. You’ll have to rely on what you can recall for in-person scenarios. De-escalation can be difficult in the heat of the moment. However, it’ll become easier with time.

6. Explain How You’ll Resolve the Issue

When customers can’t see the resolution to a problem, they won’t always believe it’s happening. Saying “the issue will be handled” doesn’t provide a lot of confidence. Instead, be specific.

First, inform them of who will take care of the problem. Part of good customer service is ensuring that you’re working to improve the experience. Knowing that a real person is involved lets the customer know that you’re not just making it up to appease them. Then, walk them through as much of the process as they need. Customers don’t need all the details. Simply provide them with the basic steps and timeline.

Similarly, don’t leave dead air if you’re fixing the problem in real-time when talking over the phone. Explain how you’re fixing it. This information ensures customers that their complaint is being respected and resolved. As we’ve said, high-quality communication skills help you de-escalate a situation faster.

a customer that needs de-escalation; man screaming through phone

7. Try Not to Transfer Them or Put Them on Hold

Try to handle the problem yourself unless you need to send the caller to another department (or the manager). Putting them on hold or involving another coworker can further escalate the problem. And transferring an agitated customer to someone unexpectedly is disrespectful towards your coworkers. However, don’t hesitate to message or ask someone for advice or assistance.

Customers who are transferred feel that they restart the process when they’re speaking to someone new. They often don’t want to repeat themselves, especially if you’ve been on the phone with them for a while. To effectively de-escalate, make sure you’re doing everything you can. Indeed, only transfer if you have nothing left to offer.

If you’re going through a lengthy process to fix the problem, go back to our sixth tip. Walk the customer through what you’re doing. This communication will ensure them that you’re actively fixing the issue.

8. Know When to Disconnect Abusive Calls

Good customer service does not mean accepting any and all abuse thrown at you. Your employer may have their own standards on when it’s okay to end a call. Find this information out ahead of time. If you wait until you receive the call, you may be lost on what to do next. Generally, you can figure out if a call is going nowhere by watching for a few key signs.

  1. They’re not having a conversation with you – they’re just yelling. Sometimes people just want to be angry. If you’re being ignored and talked over, it’s time to end the call. A solution won’t be found once it reaches this point.
  2. Nothing is a viable solution. So, you’ve offered various options to help resolve their problem, but nothing is good enough. The one thing they want isn’t possible, and they’re not budging. A stalemate will leave you with tied phone lines and wasted time. When this happens, it’s time to transfer to your manager or politely end the call. 
  3. You truly cannot help. Sometimes a problem is above your paygrade, or you just cannot do anything on your end. At this point, offer to transfer the customer to the right number and provide them with the direct contact information.
  4. They’re getting more aggressive. Like the first point, it’s time to go when the customer is increasingly abusive. You are not a punching bag. Let the caller go if you receive threats, escalating insults, and abuse.
What You Can Do

Obviously, you don’t want just to end a call if these situations occur. You should devise a script for this scenario ahead of time. When you can’t help find a solution, apologize and state clearly that you cannot help. Then, provide the contact information for your manager or the correct department and offer to transfer them.

If your caller is ignoring you or becoming more abusive, never transfer them to someone else without context. Sometimes, your manager will want or be able to handle them. But let them know you have a difficult customer ahead of time – you can message or flag them down while your caller is on the line. If you have no one to transfer them to, still don’t hang up without saying anything.

Let them know you’re unable to resolve their problem at this time. Then, apologize and politely end the call. Inform your supervisor and all other coworkers. Remain firm if they call back. Ultimately, you’re not staying on the line to be abused without an end in sight. There will not be a positive outcome to these sorts of calls.

When You’re In-Person

There are similar considerations when removing yourself from an in-person scenario. Your options here range from getting management involved, physically removing yourself from the situation, or even calling for emergency services. Managers should handle the worst cases – it’s part of their job. Indeed, if the in-store staff isn’t enough, tell the customer how to contact corporate and find a way to disengage.

Sometimes, situations get out of hand. As we mentioned, there are videos of angry customers getting physical and violent. Some may get in employees’ faces and scream and yell. Others even refuse to leave the premises. These scenarios go well beyond traditional de-escalation and conflict resolution. Notably, you should never touch a customer in any way. Do not try to force them from the store. Ensure your other customers, coworkers, and yourself are out of harm’s way. Then, get security or the police to handle the situation.

Final Thoughts

Difficult customers are a common occurrence across all customer service positions. Issues happen, and sometimes people overreact. Learning to de-escalate is difficult when you’re on your own. However, there are steps and tips you can follow to react accordingly.

To excel in your job, utilize online resources and see what your company offers. Indeed, some businesses may have training, scripts, or pre-set plans for difficult customers.

Customer-facing careers have their difficult moments, but they can be rewarding.

De-escalation takes time to master. You’ll quickly learn what works through experience. However, if you’re working in an especially volatile field or want a career in de-escalation, you can find professional training online. Certifications and courses may make you eligible for raises, promotions, and additional responsibilities. Additionally, fields like mediation rely on experts in conflict resolution.

If de-escalation and dispute resolution sounds like a career for you, check out our Mediation certificate course today!