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How to Manage Angry Customers using the HEAT model
When you work in a call centre or a customer service role, it’s inevitable that you will end up having to manage angry customers at some point.
If you work in a contact centre, depending on the type of contact centre role you work in that could mean handling very few or a lot!
For example, if you work on a dedicated faults or complaints line there’s a fair chance you will have to manage angry customers on a more frequent basis than someone working on a sales queue.
For anyone that’s worked in a centre already, you’d know that by remaining physically invisible, customers tend to be more ‘comfortable’ in expressing their feelings than in a face-to-face setting so managing angry and frustrated customers is something all call centre agents need to master.
Of course, learning how to deal with difficult customers in a retail setting is also just as important and thankfully the HEAT model contained in this article is great to use in either environment.
While nothing will replace some professional training on how to manage angry customers and resilience training (that should be a part of ALL induction training programs), I’d like to share the HEAT model along with some other great tips from our community on how they manage angry customers.
What is the HEAT Model?
Put simply; the HEAT model, H.E.A.T customer service technique etc. is an acronym that explains the key steps, in order, of how to manage angry customers in a customer service role to help diffuse the situation.
It stands for Hear them Out, Empathise, Apologise and Take Ownership.
But before I dive a bit deeper into helping you learn the HEAT model below to manage angry customers, please ensure this one piece of advice sinks in:
The reality is the customer has called or showed up at your company because they are angry at a particular situation – and you just happen to be the one working in the call centre or customer service who was available.
It doesn’t mean some customers won’t try and make it personal, but remind yourself that if it wasn’t you they’d be upset at, it would be the next person who handled the call or served them.
The H.E.A.T Acronym for Customer Service
How to deal with difficult customers on the phone? Or manage an angry customer standing in front of you?
The HEAT model is not an irate customer script (as most scripts are bad for any form of customer service); rather, it’s a technique that can be used in either situation to diffuse an angry customer to get the conversation back on track so you are able to help them.
Hear them out
We’ve all been there; sometimes a person just needs to vent.
So let them talk, and simply listen.
This isn’t always easy to do especially if the customer is quite agitated, but in end, the customer is going to feel better.
Letting them get it off their chest will make them much more open to listening to your solutions.
That doesn’t mean you have to just sit there and take abuse – all businesses should have a clear Complaints Handling Guideline that provides some clarity on when a call can be terminated or a customer asked to leave.
Some key points to note:
- Use Active Listening Skills to demonstrate you are listening and paying attention.
- Try not to interrupt.
- Take notes of key information including the core issue, dates, times, locations etc.
- Try and focus on the underlying issue, not the behaviour of the customer.
As you’ll learn with Active Listening, it’s important to demonstrate that you were listening to the customer so make sure you summarise the issue and confirm your understanding before you move to the next stage.
By showing your customer you understand, you can begin to defuse the situation.
Using phrases like “That experience sounds incredibly frustrating, I would be really upset too” or “No wonder you called, this is a problem!” or “you have every right to be upset” show that you genuinely understand their frustration and will go a long way to putting the customer at ease.
Knowing some Empathy Statements is like having a secret super-weapon so make sure you read our article that provides lots of examples of empathy statements you can use immediately.
Just using two words – “I’m sorry” is a great start to turn things around.
Or, try expanding on it further like, “I’m really sorry for the inconvenience this has caused you” or “I am sorry this has happened to you”.
This isn’t an acknowledgement that you personally did anything wrong, but you are representing the company as a whole and they really don’t care which department made the error!
Some other tips to note:
- Avoid the royal “we”. Make it personal and use the word “I” when apologising.
- While it can be tempting to throw your company or another department under the bus, don’t publicly criticise other areas of your business.
Now that you’ve diffused the situation and apologised, the customer will be ready and waiting to hear what the solution is so make sure you have an action plan ready to follow your apology.
Be specific and direct like “Here’s what I can do for you now….”.
Be sure to cover how you are going to fix the problem, what the customer can expect next etc.
For me, the one thing lacking in the HEAT Model is a timeline – if a resolution can’t be found immediately make sure you are clear when the customer can expect an update or a resolution and make sure you follow through!
How to take ownership of a complaint
As you’ve just learned, taking ownership is the final step in applying the H.E.A.T model to handle angry customers.
Below are some tips on how you can take ownership of the complaint for the customer.
Source a Solution
There is a number of ways you may find a solution to help the customer including:
- Searching internal information (i.e. Knowledge Management tools, intranet etc).
- Asking others for assistance (your colleagues or manager may have come across this situation before).
- Search the internet. Let’s face it, there is now an endless amount of information on the internet and you can normally find an answer, and videos etc to most issues).
- Be creative – sometimes there are some alternatives that may enable you to keep the customer happy even if their original issue is not able to be resolved.
- Use your judgement in doing the right thing for the customer (Just make sure you won’t get in trouble with your employer first).
Present a Solution
- If you have a solution, ask if that will be suitable for them.
- Outline your recommendations/next steps
If you’ve managed to get to this point, well done. The key now is not to stuff it up!
- Keep the customer informed at all times.
- Always meet your commitment. If you said you will provide an update at the end of the day, make sure you do it.
- Even if the issue has been resolved, contact the customer to make sure they are happy with the outcome.
How to go the extra mile when handling angry customers
Following the HEAT model is a great way to manage angry customers but if you want to take it to the next level here are 4 extra tips when managing angry customers that add a bit of polish:
1. Use the customers’ name
Don’t go overboard, but dropping in the customers’ name on the odd occasion can be a powerful weapon.
Addressing your client with the generic “I’m sorry sir,” sounds a lot more formal—and much less sincere—than “I’m so sorry Lucas.”
“Lucas you have every right to be upset”
“OK Lucas here is what I’m going to do now for you”
And it’s not just about how the customer feels.
Once you use a customer’s name, you’re reminded that you are dealing with a real person; a customer who has a job and a life and a legitimate reason behind his or her frustration, rather than just another customer.
Even science backs this up.
There is lots of research that demonstrates that certain parts of our brain light up when we hear our own name.
Not when we hear others’ names.
Only our own.
Dale Carnegie said it best, “A person’s name is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language.”
As I alluded to earlier though, just don’t overdo it or it will sound insincere.
Yes, I know what you are probably thinking and I must admit, as a consultant I’ve heard my fair share of corporate buzzwords and concepts and the “smile when you talk to your customers” conversation is one that normally sends me off to sleepy town.
Intuitively though it does make sense. When you are happy people can “pick up” that friendliness and warmth in your voice.
I’m not sure about you but when I ring my partner I can instantly tell by the way she says hello whether I am in trouble or not!
Again science backs this up. A study way back in 2008 discovered that “human beings can differentiate vocal intonation not only between a smile and a non-smile but among different types of smile”.
An older study by Professor Mehrabian found that when communicating over the phone 84% is vocal (how you sound) and 16% is verbal (what you are saying).
Some call centres take steps to constantly remind you to smile.
Nestle in the USA, for example, placed branded mirrors at each phone reps’ workstation so reps can see if they are smiling when they are talking on the phone.
Others just had a reminder on screen savers or stuck on the monitors like “don’t forget to smile”.
I’m not really a fan of either option but regardless of what works for you, experience and science prove that smiling really does make a difference.
3. Know the customer you’re dealing with
In life, you already know there are different personality types and you no doubt approach each person differently.
You’ll have friends and colleagues that are very direct, some love a chit-chat, some get emotional easily, some are fact-based – you get the drift.
The skill in managing angry customers is identifying what personality type you are dealing with and adjusting your style accordingly.
You may have already been taught the value in mirroring the customer – if they speak quickly and directly you match the style, if they use a lot of slang and sound pretty laid back don’t use formal words and generic terms like ‘sir’.
Knowing your customer is a similar concept that goes beyond your voice, to identifying their personality type and adjusting your style to accommodate.
Some customers will want some TLC and reassurance that things will be OK; some will just want the facts on what you will do to fix the issue etc.
4. Penalty Hold and the mute button
I already mentioned in step 1 of the HEAT model that it’s important to let the customer vent.
But that doesn’t mean you need to just sit there and cop a complete earful for a few minutes.
If you find yourself in this situation, just hit the mute button, sit back and let the customer let rip.
For me, I’ve always found it a way of mentally disconnecting from the venting allowing me to either mutter a few words to myself or perhaps to a sympathetic colleague nearby “Wow this customer is really going for it”.
Sometimes even with all the best intentions in the world, there are still customers who tend to “push all your buttons”.
I like to think of it as “Penalty Hold” but sometimes you just need to take a quick mental time out to recompose yourself, check some information etc.
I’m not suggesting you do this to punish the customer by placing them on hold for long periods, or using it to not listen to the customer, but if you do find yourself getting upset/angry that hold button can be a godsend.
Just don’t place the customer on hold without telling them!
Be courteous, and just ask them (or advise them) that you just need to place them on hold for a minute to <insert reason>.
Once the customer is on hold, close your eyes, take a few deep breaths and think of your happy place.
Of course, there is a range of other techniques you can use to calm yourself down and investing in a resilience course (taught by trained professionals) like the Workplace Resilience Essentials Course can be a game changer for your mental health at work and at home.
Tips directly from the frontline on how to manage angry customers
If there is one awesome thing about the contact centre community, it’s our willingness to help each other.
I put the call out to our audience on our Call Centre Legends page to share some of the tips that have worked for them on how they manage angry customers and I’ve included a selection of them below:
Susan Jones: Take notes while they vent. It gives you a buffer from feeling personally ‘attacked’ and you can then use them to recap back to the caller. It assures them that you have listened – often all they want – and puts you on the road to resolving the issue. They will be more happy to respond if they feel you are taking them seriously.
Sezzy Trevs: Listen, empathise, try to understand how they’re feeling. Say what you can do. Reassure. Get TL help if needed
Kerry Petersen: Don’t raise your voice in return..it only infuriates them more. Talk with a smile on your face..it is hard to sound rude with a smile on your face
Rachel Christian: If they continuously talk over you stop talking, wait for them to acknowledge you or ask if you’re still there & continue.
If they still talk over you repeat the above & say, “To help you I need you to let me speak. Is it ok for me to do this?”
Kris Loxley: Just breathe. You don’t know what else has happened to them recently – 99.9% of people are kind and respectful. Acknowledge that you hear what they are saying, apologise and tell them you are here to help them with their problem and take ownership of it.
Kerrie Meyer: Difficult customers are the biggest challenge but also the most rewarding when you are able to turn them around. My first bit of advice would be, don’t take their comments personally; people are frustrated with the situation and just don’t know how to direct that frustration appropriately. Let them talk, be sure to note exactly what their frustration is, repeat it back to them and set clear expectations and follow through on your promise. Don’t break their trust again!!
Roz Donaldson: They want you to listen to them as their story is very frustrating and they are highly emotional, then ask them questions to understand the key issues and their concerns so that you can deliver on their expectations. When they are highly emotional, it usually relates to their values where we have crossed the line not the initial concern raised. Ask them questions and they will tell you.
Heather Potts: Instead of phrases like ‘no I didn’t say that’ try ‘sorry I mustn’t have explained that well, that’s not what I meant let me try again – re-explain the point’ – people take “no that’s not what I said/I didn’t say that” as you accusing them of lying, the last thing an angry person wants is to be accused of lying.
Mick Kane: To address the customer’s concerns I would always talk about what options we do have and not use stop words like “I can’t do that”.
Sandra Bailey: Best thing I do is push away from my desk, step away from the computer, let them vent it out, and still acknowledge your listening without trying to jump to the answer straight away. Once they’ve let it out, then take action. Sometimes trying to help in the middle of their dispute to you is just fuel to the fire and can make it worse and prolong the problem.
Ryan Pelēks: Give the customer a moment to vent (they’re not angry at you personally). Acknowledge their frustration, apologise for what’s happened, offer them a resolution (even if it’s an escalation to the right area) and try to reassure them that the issue will be resolved.
Chris Ferreira: An alternative to the HEAT mode is ACT. Acknowledge the concern, Confirm the concern, Take action.
David Mitchell: Acknowledgement, Empathy, and Action. It really doesn’t matter if the Customer is right or not. What matters is that there is a problem (the issue itself as well as their perception of the cause of the issue) and that by addressing that problem head-on, as quickly as we can, then the problem will be solved.
Failing to acknowledge their frustration, anger, and perception in an authentic, human-to-human manner, failing to empathise and make them feel like their frustration (based on their perception) is understandable, and a strong focus on ‘So what do we need to do’ to solve the problem will only result in another problem, the perception that you don’t care and can’t be bothered.
Geoff Crane: In my experience, angry callers are mainly frustrated with a lack of progress on their issue. So empathy truly from their perspective, and outlining some tangible steps for a solution that shows you’re not seeking to sidestep the issue can turn them into extremely grateful repeat customers.
Joanie Badenhorst-Awasthi: Stay calm and don’t take it personally. It is not your fault, but it is your problem. Live for the compliments and ignore the d$cks!
Keszia Tyler: Let them talk, then ask “what would you like me to do to help?” Usually catches them and they realise they’ve been going for a bit.
How to fast-track managing difficult customers skills
Learning how to manage an angry customer, like many other skills in customer service, is a skill that can be taught, yet sadly, most businesses are not including it as part of their training, or at best, it’s very basic.
If you work in a business where you can expect the odd complaint, complaints handling must form part of your induction program.
But even with the best complaint training in the world, if you handle complaints on a regular basis, it can certainly start to wear you down.
That’s where resilience training comes in – so if this is your workplace, make sure you check out some of the upcoming resilience courses.
We’ve also got plenty of other articles that can provide additional tips for managing difficult customers including:
- 16 Phrases to use when managing angry customers
- 20 Tips to improve your complaints management process
- 6 Tips for Handling Customer Complaints
- Empathy Statements to use in Customer Service
I’ve also included a free download below, the H.E.A.T acronym customer service model that you can print off and keep near your desk, counter etc in case you ever need to refer to it and quickly need to remember the steps along with a few pointers.
Finally, if you’ve got some great tips on how to manage angry customers you’d like to share to help others in the industry, make sure you leave a comment below and if this article has helped you in any way, hit the heart button or share with your network using the buttons below.
H.E.A.T Acronym Cheat Sheet (Free download!)
The H.E.A.T Cheat sheet is a free download that you can keep close to your desk, retail counter etc.
It provides you with the key steps, along with a few tips on each step so you can quickly follow the model if you find yourself having to deal with a difficult customer over the phone.
The download prints as an A4 PDF document.
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- About the Author
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After spending over 30 years working in contact centres and CX, one thing I’ve learnt is there is always something more to learn!
I’m thrilled to be the inaugural CEO of ACXPA, and together with the rest of the team, we’re focused on helping Australian businesses deliver efficient and effective customer experiences via phone, digital and in-person by empowering their employees with the skills, industry insights and professional support networks they need to succeed.