The A.R.T. of Dealing with Angry Customers

angry customers

I know a thing or two about dealing with angry customers.  A big part of my time at college was spent on a phone line dealing with angry customers all day working on a “resolution desk”, which was simply a team where all angry customers went to be dealt with.  What I’ve found through that experience, and many others since, is that dealing with angry customers is just like overcoming sales objections. You may have heard “Acknowledge, Respond, and Transition.”  It’s a tool most often associated with selling and overcoming sales objections. What I’ve found is the same approach works for dealing with angry customers. Hence, the A.R.T. of dealing with angry customers.


Acknowledging a customer’s issue – It sounds like the most basic part of customer service we could undertake.  And yet, so many don’t get it right. Acknowledging the customer’s issue just means the customer feels like we understood their issue and why it’s frustrating them.  All it takes to accomplish this is listening to their issue and asking probing questions.  This signals to the customer that we’re actually interested in their issue and fully understand it.  One of the simplest ways of doing this is restating back to the customer the issue they have in your own words and asking them if you have that right.

What’s also very instructive is what not to do: get defensive and start the blame game.  There’s a growing body of research that shows when things go wrong, apologizing and attempting to make it right goes much further than fighting.   Even if the customer is demonstrably in the wrong, listen and use probing questions to understand the issue and overcome the acknowledgement hurdle first.

Respondangry customers

It’s tempting to pull out the old, “I’m sorry, but our policy doesn’t let us do that.”  While that’s a way of trying to shift blame onto a policy, it won’t get you out of the hot seat – so just deal with it head on.  Try and keep the conversation focused on what you CAN do. “John, I completely understand why you’re upset about the transmission going out after a year.  We sold that vehicle with a 90-day warranty so it’s not currently under warranty, but would you mind if I had my service department look at it and we’ll see what options we have from there?”  Even if later you find out the service department would charge several hundred dollars to fix the transmission, you’re taking ownership of their issue and providing options. This may or may not calm down an upset customer, but when this story gets relayed to other people who aren’t as emotional about the issue, or when the customer eventually calms down, they’ll recognize the efforts of the dealership and the damage will be mitigated.


This can be the most challenging step because we’ve understood their issue and listened, we’ve offered what options we have available to them, but they still want a different resolution or a specific resolution – which may not be an option.    Just like in the sales world, we want to restate the benefits of their options and transition into something else. “John, I fully recognize that what I’m offering is different from what you had in mind, but my service department will replace that tranny at cost, or, I can give you an amazing deal on a newer car and we’ll take your current vehicle in as a trade-in, which would you like to do?”  This technique of selling as a service is a great way to provide options and get another opportunity to show why they made the right decision of shopping with your dealership. If they say that no options work for them, thank them for their business, give them a business card, and tell them you’re sorry that nothing further could be done but to contact you if they have any further questions or needs.  When this is done in the right way it will signal that the options have been exhausted and it’s time to move on. When it’s done the wrong way, it will come across as not having any patience to deal with them and their issue. Be sincere in your concern and communication and it will come across appropriately.

The examples here are of persistent customers who won’t go down without a fight, but many will be satisfied with your handling of their situation if you just follow these three easy steps: Acknowledge their issue, respond with what you CAN do, and transition into the benefits of your resolution.