The Why’s of Buy: Soothing the Angry Customer

angerAnger is one of the less noble of human emotions. We tend to beat ourselves up when we get angry. After the emotion dies down, we feel a little foolish for losing control. As Ben Franklin said,

Anger is never without a reason, but seldom a good one.

However, Aristotle probably took a more realistic view of human nature when he said:

Anyone can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person at the right time, and for the right purpose and in the right way – that is not within everyone’s power and that is not easy.

Here, Aristotle touches on the fact that anger is part of the basic human emotional repertoire for good reason. If we didn’t get angry, we wouldn’t still be here. But rationalizing anger in a positive way is a very rare ability.

Air Rage

I’ve had lots of opportunities to contemplate the nature of anger this week. In what was supposed to be a quick 24 hour trip down to Las Vegas (which has never been on my list of favorite cities) and back, I had two flights cancelled for mysterious reasons, was bumped from a first class seat back to a jammed couch cabin next to someone who apparently thought no one would ever notice if he passed gas constantly on a 2 hour flight, had to spend an unexpected night in a dumpy hotel in Seattle with a bunch of religiously fervent believers who were up til 1 am every night speaking in tongues (which apparently needs to be done at very high volume) and was away from my family for 14 hours longer than expected. Yes, I got a little hot under the collar.

How We Get Angry

Let’s go back to the basics. Why do we get angry? First, let’s understand that anger, along with fear and physical attraction, are probably our oldest hardwired emotions. They’re an embedded part of our neural circuitry that have been hundreds of millions of years in the making. Anger makes up one half of the fight or flight mechanism.

I say this to reinforce the fact that we cannot chose whether or not we can get angry. All we can do is chose what to do with that anger. At the subconscious level, you will pick up cues and the core of your brain, the brain stem working together with the amygdala in the limbic system, will determine if anger is the right response. Remember, this is not the highly refined neocortical part of your brain. This is the part of your brain that is a legacy from our dark evolutionary past. The decision to become angry is not a delicate, deliberate and rational decision. The decision to get angry is throwing an emergency switch. Its purpose is to get you ready for a fight, literally. It happens in a few milliseconds. The reptilian brain doesn’t believe there’s time for a debate about appropriate response, so there’s no rationalization of the situation at this point. What the amygdala does is an instantaneous shuffling through of past experience to see if we’ve encountered anything similar in the past. It’s like a flash card deck of emotionally charged memories. And if we find a match, even a rudimentary one, it’s good enough for the amygdala. We use that as our plan of action.  And the rule of thumb is, the amygdala overreacts. Survival is the objective, so it calls in the big guns.

The amygdala sends out a signal that starts priming the body for a fight. A potent cocktail of chemicals are released, including adrenalin, to kick the body into gear. Blood pressure climbs, the heart starts beating faster, sending more blood to the large muscle groups to get them ready for action. Another chemical, norepineephrine, is also released. The purpose of this is to set the brain on edge, making it more alert for visual cues of danger. More about this in a bit.

Basically, our bodies operate of the premise of “shoot first, ask questions later”. This priming the body for fight happens literally in the blink of an eye. The alarm has been sounded and anger has been unleashed. For right now, at least, the reptile in us is in full control.

But at this point, the things that make us human start to kick in. Another part of the brain, the hippocampus, is the contextual yin to the amygdala’s yang. It picks up the detail to help us put things in the right context. The amygdala tells us that we see a jaguar and jaguars can kill us. The hippocampus determines whether the jaguar is in a zoo, or leaping at us from a tree. This is the first place where our anger becomes to be contextualized. The hippocampus is the brain’s Sgt. Joe Friday: “The facts ma’am, just the facts”.

The next part of the process is where the rational part of our brains steps in and starts taking control. The signals that set the amygdala into action are then passed to the prefrontal lobes in the neocortex. Here is where the appropriate response is determined. A cascade of neural triggers is set off, determining how we should respond, given a more careful consideration of the facts. Remember, this isn’t to determine if we should get angry. That horse has already left the starting gate. This is to determine how aggressively we should override our initial reaction. The prefrontal lobes are our emotional brakes.

When it comes to the effectiveness of these brakes, all people are not created equal. Some have tremendously effective braking mechanisms. Nothing seems to perturb them. These would be the people who were smiling and joking at 10:30 at night in the Horizon Air customer service line at SeaTac airport, after we had found that none of us were getting home that night.

Some of us have much less effective braking systems. In fact, in some of us, our amygdala’s and our prefrontal lobes seem the unfortunate habit of playing a game of one upmanship, escalating the anger to a point totally inappropriate for the situation. This would be the person who was storming from gate to gate, threatening the gate agents to put him on a flight that would get him somewhere closer to home.

When it comes to our braking systems, there’s a right/left balance mechanism. It’s the left prefrontal lobe that seems to be main governor on how angry we become. The right prefrontal lobe, on the other hand, is where we harbor our negative emotions, like fear and aggression. Daniel Goleman, in his book Emotional Intelligence, tells the story of the husband who lost part of his right prefrontal lobe in a brain surgery procedure, and, to the surprise of his wife, emerged as a totally different person, more considerate, more compassionate and more affectionate. Fellow husbands, let’s hope word of this surgical procedure doesn’t get out. We’ll all sleep more soundly.

Outdated Signals

Now, obviously, in today’s world, being threatened by a hungry jaguar is probably not that common an occurrence. The threats to us are more likely to be to our personal dignity, our sense of fairness or our self esteem. But at the limbic level, our brain doesn’t really make a distinction. Remember, this mechanism has been built by millions of years of evolution. The last few thousand years of civilization hasn’t made a dent in it. It’s at the neocortical level, the highly plastic and adaptable part of our brain, where we make these distinctions and by then, we’re already angry.

This is one reason why we can feel so sheepish after an emotional outburst. Basically, our amygdala got carried away, set us up in full fight mode, and the left prefrontal lobe was napping on the job. We responded at a level that was out of proportion to what was appropriate, and it wasn’t until we cooled down a little that we realized it. This is when our wife looks at us after we lose it with the service agent at the lost baggage counter and say, “why did you get so angry?” (the “idiot” that follows this statement is usually implied, but not always) And somehow, “I was ready to fight to the death to ensure our survival as a species” just doesn’t seem like the right thing to say.

Confrontation is from Mars, Plotting is from Venus

By the way, there are gender differences in how we handle anger. Men basically have one response. We’re ready to fight. Confrontation seems to be our sole card to play. Women, on the other hand, have shown a much more varied repertoire of possible responses. They can be passively aggressive, vindictive or vengeful. They can employ much more sophisticated responses like social ostracism. Or, on the positive side, women are more likely to show compassion. But the key differentiator here is that men tend to respond to anger with a physical response, where as women tend to respond socially, either positively or negatively.

This difference makes sense when you look at our typical roles throughout evolution. Men were the physical providers and protectors. Women were the homemakers and the souls of the community. Through our history, men have been conditioned to respond in one way, and women in another. Women are equipped for their role with more empathy, the ability to better read others emotions, and a slower fuse when it comes to anger. Men are equipped for their role with a faster temper trigger, larger muscles and, it seems, a much more predictable response to threatening situations. Now, in making gender generalizations, I’m being incredibly sweeping here, but in aggregate, studies have shown this to be true. Again, I’ll come back to these differences.

The Speed of Anger

The speed of response of the amygdala is a two way street. It’s quick to be activated, but it’s also quick to shut down. The purpose of it is to get us prepared for a single burst of physical activity. Once it does its job, it moves on to the next thing. The information has been passed to the prefrontal lobe for further processing and the amygdala settles down to wait for the next threat. Total time elapsed? A few seconds.

But it’s what happens once anger is passed to the prefrontal lobe that can dictate whether this is a quickly dosed irritation or a long simmering feud. Remember, we have this chain of neural decisions that represent a balancing act between the left and right lobes. It’s the literal equivalent of the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other. And all this time, we’re scanning our environment, consciously and subconsciously, for further cues about whether we should continue to be angry or to cool down. This is where anger gets much more complex. Every person has a different balance between these governing forces, and every situation is different. How you’re handled during this critical window will determine which emotional imprints you retain. And remember, it’s this emotional memory that will be recalled the next time you’re in a similar situation. This experiential, emotionally charged imprinting is a huge part of how we create attitudes and affinities towards a brand.

Anger in the Marketplace

So, after this long anatomical examination of anger, what’s the point? Well, if you look at how and why we get angry, you start to gain some insight in how to deal with angry customers.

First of all, anger is inevitable in negative customer situations. As much as we’d like to avoid dealing with angry people, let’s accept that as a given. It’s not as if they chose to be angry, they just are. And the degree of anger will be different in each person. What needs to be done is to maximize the chances for the left prefrontal lobe to douse the anger.

By the time you have your first contact with an angry customer, the amygdala has done its job and passed the ball to the prefrontal lobes. The alarm has been raised. Remember, the cause of anger in a customer is almost never going to be physical threat, unless you run the store from hell. Most often, the injury done will be to the customers self esteem, dignity or sense of fairness. And when the customer is in front of you, they’re looking to you to see if you represent a continued threat, or an ally. This will be conveyed through words, but to a much greater extent, through your body language and tone of your voice. The first few seconds of interaction with the customer will determine whether the right or left prefrontal lobe kicks in. If you’re perceived as a continuing threat, you’ll be dealing with the right lobe, and an escalating level of aggression. If you’re perceived as an ally, the left lobe kicks in and you’ll see the anger quickly dissipate. When we’re talking about person to person touch points, the first few seconds with an angry customer have no equal in importance.

Let’s take a closer look at what’s happening here. First of all, let’s remember our brains are being doused with norepineephrine. The purpose of this is to make the brain hypersensitive to possible threats. Again, think about the environment most companies choose to put angry customers in. In my case, after being bumped from my flight I was sent to Horizon Air’s customer service counter (and yes, I’m using the name purposely, and I’ll explain that in a second as well), which is smack in the middle of the busiest part of SeaTac airport. As you line up, waiting for a customer service agent, you’re subjected to the realities of a busy airport: tired, grumpy travelers, beeping carts, annoying gate announcements, reminding you that everyone except you is going somewhere tonight. None of this is going to make you a more pleasant person when you finally get to the head of the line. By now, you’re simmering on a slow boil. In my case, an obviously unhappy toddler decided to start screaming just a few feet from where we were waiting. Now, I’m a Dad and I normally have a lot of patience with unhappy kids, but this time, the screaming was like a jackhammer in my head. The norepineephrine was turning it into a huge warning signal.

Where else do angry customers go? The infamous customer service help line. Again, you’re put on hold, possibly the most irritating situation in the world. Look at this from the customer’s view point. You screwed up and inconvenienced me. You forced me to take valuable time out of my day to rectify the situation. And now you don’t even acknowledge the importance of my time by forcing me to wait on hold? What you’re telling me is your time is much more valuable than mine. Is this showing me that you’re an ally, rather than a threat?

Again, let me give you an example from my personal experience with Alaska and Horizon Airlines. On the trip out (before I got stuck in Seattle), the flight to Las Vegas was cancelled for some mysterious reason. We were never really told why. Now, being a frequent flyer on Alaska (and this is another area I’ll touch on, why we tend to continually anger our most important customers) I had been bumped up to first class. With the cancellation of the flight, I was put on standby for the next flight. The gate agent who checked me in apologized and said that although she couldn’t put me in first class, she’d note down my seat number and they’d try “to make it up to me”. This was the right response. She became my ally.

But on the flight, although I was directly behind the first class cabin (constantly reminding me that I had been bumped out) no flight attendant offered to make it up in any way. After waiting for most of the flight for the offer of a free drink or even an extra bag of peanuts, to no avail, the person behind me wanted to order a drink and caught the attention of the attendant in first class. She asked for the $5 dollars, and he said he was still waiting for the change from the first drink he ordered. She asked him if he was from the bumped flight and when he said he was, she said that they were supposed to offer everyone from that flight a free drink anyway, by way of apology, so not to worry about it. But no one offered anyone else from the flight a drink. There was no apology and no consideration.

Now, let’s examine this from my perspective. First, although angry, I had been appropriately dealt with and my inconvenience had been acknowledged. My sense of self esteem (as one of Alaska’s most valuable customers) had been repaired to some extent. But then this was not followed up on while I was on the plane. Not only was my dignity and self esteem disregarded, my sense of fairness was outraged at the lack of follow through with the inconvenienced passengers.

Where’s the next place Alaska dropped the ball? I considered saying something to the attendant, but that’s not in my nature. What I did was fire off an email to Alaska’s “Customer Care” address. Again, this is a typical channel provided for angry customers. But does it hit any of the required actions to mollify an upset customer? After struggling through a complicated form, I submitted my complaint. I got an automated reply saying that my submission had been received, saying that it was important to Alaska, and that it would typically be as many as 30 days before I received any response. No personal acknowledgement of my anger and the sense that I had been dumped into a big bureaucratic bucket. Again, this is not the way to tell me you’re my ally and you want to make the situation better. This is telling me that your hope is that I’ll forget all about it in 30 days, shut up and go back to being a good, submissive customer. That’s not going to happen. Let me till you why.

The Probability of Angering Your Best Customers

Here’s the ironic thing. Odds are it will be your best customer that you cause to get angry. It’s a simple case of probability. They have more encounters with you, so the odds of something bad happening go up. If I’m going to have a bad experience on an airline, it’s likely going to be the airline I travel most often.

With these customers, it’s more important than ever to acknowledge their anger and inconvenience. First of all, they represent a much higher lifetime value than the average customer, so the loss of business is a bigger deal (I’ve probably spent over a $100,000 with Alaska Airlines in the past 3 years), but secondly, they’ve made a commitment to your business, and you have to acknowledge the importance of that commitment. In return for making that commitment, and spending a large percentage of my yearly travel budget with Alaska, I want to feel that they recognize my importance as a customer. We’re more emotionally invested with the business, so we’re more susceptible to strong feelings, including anger. It’s the difference between having a fight with a stranger and a friend. There are a lot deeper and more complex feelings at play when we fight with a friend. The residue of a fight with a stranger will fade away completely in a few hours. Chances all, we’ll barely remember it. But the consequences of a fight with a friend can last days, weeks or even years. The scars can be deep and permanent.

There’s another critical element to understand here. Because your best customers have an emotional stake in your brand, if you don’t treat them very carefully when they’re upset, they’re also the ones most likely to spread the word either in person or online. By not acknowledging their importance as a customer and the validity of their anger, you’ve kicked the right prefrontal lobe into high gear. Physical confrontation is not an option but the negative feelings need an outlet. The more emotion involved, because of the greater emotional investment, the more we need to express our disappointment and anger. All we want to be is heard. If the offending party won’t listen, I’ll find someone who will. Hence my deliberate use of the brands Alaska Air and Horizon Air in recounting my experience in this post. For what happens with negative word of mouth, see my post earlier this week.

How to Handle an Angry Customer

So, what could Alaska or Horizon Air have done better? What can any of us do better? Let’s first except the fact that bad things are going to happen to customers, that those customers are probably going to be our best customers, and that they’re going to get angry. If we start from there, we can start looking at some practical ways to diffuse anger.

Timing is Critical

Remember, the anger response is very quick. In under a second, the initial response goes from the amygdala to the prefrontal lobes. And the longer it sits there, the more it simmers. Companies need to take a triage approach to angry customers, providing an initial assessment (and acknowledgement, as below) and then routing the person to the appropriate response channel. Anger left without a response will simply lead to more anger. Long waits on a hold line or in a lineup is not what you want to do

Acknowledge the Anger

In this immediate response, it’s important to let the customer know their anger is heard and acknowledged. Make them feel you’re their ally in getting this resolved. This immediately engages the left prefrontal lobe, rather than the right, diffusing the anger rather than adding to it.

Apologize Quickly

If appropriate, apologize, but do it sincerely. Do it face to face, eye to eye. The typical “pilot apology” (this is the pilot coming on the intercom during a flight and offering the blanket, corporate apology for the delay) won’t do it. The flight attendants should be doing it with every single customer, face to face.

Remove Negative Stimuli

This is huge. All too often, the place where angry customers are dealt with represent the worst possible environment for avoiding confrontation. Waiting is the norm and there’s no thought given to how to make the slighted customer feel heard and appreciated. In fact, as we’ve seen, these environments (either physical or virtual) feed the norepineephrine doused brain more and more signals that indicate a hostile environment. Instead, deal with angry customers in a soothing and even distracting environment. If you must make somebody wait, try to do everything possible to introduce positive stimuli to lighten the mood.

Respond Appropriately

Of course, the biggest factor is the nature of the person you’re dealing with when you’re angry. When I say we’re only human, there are two sides to that. Just as we’re prone to all the hair triggers and emotional flooding that comes with anger, so are the people on the other side of the counter. This means that you need to recruit a very special type of person to deal with angry customers, and provide them with an understanding of what causes anger and how to respond appropriately. You’re looking for people who have a hyperactive left prefrontal lobe. They have to be able to convey, through their words, their body language and the tone of their voice, that they’re the customer’s friends, not their enemy and that they’re going to make it right.

By the way, you might think, given my previous observations about the emotional intelligence of men versus women, that women would be a better choice, and in some instances, you’d be right. If you are upset and have the opportunity to talk to a man or a woman at the service counter, most of us would choose the woman. But that can also be a dangerous assumption. Here’s why. Just as women are more adept at reading emotions, they also tend to be more apt to show emotion. This means that a woman who does tend to be prone to becoming upset, irritated or angry will convey this more through her body language and attitude. This is not the place for officiousness or easily rattled people. This is where you need to find the most empathetic people you have and deploy them where they can do the most good.

Unfortunately, for most businesses, dealing with angry customers is the worst of all assignments. It can often be outsourced (talk about not being heard and acknowledged), or grudgingly done by someone who’s not equipped for the task, emotionally or with adequate training. What is the most important encounter you can ever have with a customer, and one that requires a masterful level of interpersonal skills, is done with a negative mental framework already in place (an angry person going to deal with other angry people) or, even worse, ignored, hoping the problem will go away.

Little Things Mean a Lot

The good news is, we all have very low expectations as customers when we’ve been slighted by a company. We’re used to being ignored, marginalized and put through the meat grinder. So it doesn’t take a lot for a company to really provide a positive and remarkable experience. If you can deal with the anger quickly, acknowledge it and make them feel they’ve been heard, become their ally and work towards a resolution that feels fair, then it doesn’t take much more to turn a fair response into a remarkable response.

Let’s go back to my experience with Alaska Airlines. I understand that things happen with airline schedules, and I wasn’t even that upset that I was bumped back to coach. What really irritated me was the lack of follow through on the gate agent’s promise to “make it right”. I wanted Alaska to show that my business was important to them. What would it have cost them to give me a free drink, along with a personal apology from the flight attendant? Or a small coupon for a fare reduction on a future flight. If you want to make it remarkable, get the pilot to take 5 to 10 minutes to walk through the cabin and personally apologize to every one of the 18 or 20 people who were bumped from the previous flight.

Remember, emotions permanently imprint brand attitudes. And emotions come with experiences. Good experiences create good emotions. Bad experiences create bad emotions. But you have the opportunity to determine which emotions you leave your customers with when things go wrong.


I have to let you know that Alaska/Horizon has responded admirably to my complaint. I did receive a discount voucher as well as a very frankly written and apologetic email. They’re doing most things right, but unfortunately, timing is everything. Again, this is common in today’s world. Once you’ve discovered that you’ve upset a valuable customer, damage control is set in motion. But what I tried to outline is that the damage can be minimized dramatically if you respond promptly to become the customer’s ally and diffuse the anger before it has a chance to mount.

This has to do with more front line training and some standard procedures built on a greater awareness of the nature of anger itself.

But, the response shows that Alaska’s heart is in the right place and their intentions are good. They just have to brush up on execution at the initial point of contact.

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