Any angry conversation has three aspects we need to be aware of in order to contain and resolve the conflict – the subject, the feelings, and the intensity of the feelings. A customer will usually convey the content of the issue (“my boiler is not working”), his feelings about it (“this is ridiculous”), and then often display the intensity of his feelings (shouting, swearing).
In a well-intentioned bid to solve the issue as quickly as possible and put an end to the awkwardness of the situation, staff can tend to concentrate on the subject by offering a solution. The problem is that at this stage a quick fix misses the mark, even if that’s what the customer seems to be demanding. It’s a bit like installing a smoke detector while the house is on fire. It’s too late and it’s not addressing the most immediate problem! Once the rollercoaster of negative emotions has taken over the rational thinking capability of your customer, no amount of brilliant problem solving is going to get through to them. On the contrary, by trying to politely ignore their feelings, you are fanning the flames because your customer does not feel heard and understood. So he might feel he has to up the ante and climb another rung on the ladder of intensity. This is not about the original issue anymore – there’ll be plenty of opportunity to address that once tempers have come down. Right now, it’s about meeting the customer on a gut level, letting them know you GET the emotional state they are in.
Let me reassure you – you don’t need to have a PhD in psychology to do that. Have you ever felt angry about something? Have you ever felt cheated, mistreated or disappointed? Then you are qualified to recognise these human emotions in others and empathise with them. I recommend you think of yourself as a detective looking for emotional clues, trying to solve the mystery of “what exactly is this person trying to tell me?”. With your Sherlock Holmes hat on, you are less likely to be fooled by the obvious (“the boiler isn’t working”) and more likely to spot and address what is the real issue now (maybe feelings of frustration and powerlessness at having to ask for help again). As an additional bonus, when you mentally position yourself as a simple observer of the situation, you don’t get triggered so easily into reacting in kind. Because the last thing you want it getting angry yourself…!
Finally, you need to find an authentic way for you to communicate your “findings” to the customer: “Wow, I can see you are really upset about this.” “This must be so frustrating for you.” “I hear you [pause – let it land].”
Acknowledging what emotions a customer seems to be going through is in fact giving them permission to let go of it and move on. They’ve reached their aim, they’ve been heard and understood. Now they are in a much better place to listen in turn.