Your customer service reps chose a customer service job because they are able to use their emotional intelligence and charm to bring about customer satisfaction even in the most challenging environments. They can tell customers that appointments on the date they want are unavailable and that your company’s prices are going up, and they will thank you for it. 

However, working in a call center can fray the nerves of even the most unflappable customer service rep. When the phone rings, they never know what you are going to get. The routine customer calls are mixed in randomly with calls from angry customers hurling abuse. By using effective de-escalation techniques, they can help turn a phone conversation with an upset customer into a positive experience for both the customer and the employee.

Being on a Customer Service Team Is One of the World’s Toughest Jobs

Most customer service agents receive little training before their employers throw them into the trenches to field calls in a call center. Common sense enables a customer support agent to stay calm when dealing with one irate customer who is dissatisfied for an apparently illogical reason. 

After dealing with dozens of angry customers per shift, day in and day out, though, it is easy to lose sight of the goal of customer retention and to only think about self-preservation. After dealing with enough customer complaints, customer service representatives understandably go into survival mode.

Recommended Reading: How to Remain Calm When Someone is Yelling at You 

From this perspective, it is easy to understand why call centers tend to have such a high employee turnover rate. It is hard to remain calm and provide excellent customer service when an angry customer is yelling at you about poor customer service.

Call center employees face pressure simultaneously from upset customers and from managers who only look at each employee’s customer feedback ratings and do not see the big picture. It turns out that more empathy and better strategies for making each angry customer feel heard can also improve employee satisfaction and prevent intense conflicts that make the situation worse.

Why Customer Service Representatives Need to Learn De-Escalation Techniques

De-escalation techniques can help call center reps save their own sanity. Too often, call center employees know that there is a simple solution to the problem that has led to the customer’s complaint. Therefore, the employee starts offering solutions when the caller is in no frame of mind to listen to them.

This makes the angry customer even angrier. By the time the call ends, the call center employee is so frazzled that it is hard for him or her to focus on other customers when they call, which often happens almost immediately after the previous caller hangs up.

If they set realistic expectations and are aware of their own emotions, call center employees can break the cycle of dysfunctional communication with employees. It is a challenge to do this when they are stuck in a cubicle, fielding calls from an endless parade of strangers who want them to solve problems that they created for themselves.

De-escalation training focused on customer service can help call center reps use the best techniques to find a solution to the customer’s problem, instead of both the employee and the caller going into fight or flight mode.

Photo of an Executive Talking to a Customer

Four Steps to De-Escalating a Conflict With an Angry Customer

Some of the techniques available in other settings do not apply to situations where they are exclusively dealing with customers over the phone. For example, a customer service rep cannot rely on eye contact to show empathy and put the other person at ease. Only their voice can make the caller feel heard.

This does not mean that they have to be a professional voice actor in order to respond appropriately to calls from irate customers. It does mean, however, that verbal de-escalation training for phone support personnel is one of the best investments a business can make.

The HEARD technique of conflict resolution applies just as well when the conflict takes place on the phone as it does for in-person settings. By applying this method, customer service reps can de-escalate tense situations with dissatisfied customers on the phone.

1. Apply the HEARD Method to Increase Customer Satisfaction

HEARD stands for hear, empathize, apologize, resolve, and diagnose. It is one of the most popular de-escalation techniques in a wide variety of professional settings.

The principles of the HEARD method are the same whether a customer service rep is dealing with a customer they have only met during the present phone call or whether they are trying to resolve a conflict with a coworker who has been part of your immediate work team for years.

Hear the Other Person Out

The first step in the HEARD method is to let the irate customer explain the problem from beginning to end. Listening to a rude customer rant on and on about a problem that you consider trivial is much harder than it sounds, but the de-escalation process will not work unless this is done. This avoids putting customers on the defensive if a rep can actively listen and wait until they are ready to listen to them.

Responses during this stage should be limited to active listening and brief follow-up questions. In a world where everyone talks and no one listens, you might find that customer dissatisfaction begins to evaporate when the caller knows that someone is listening and not just trying to hurry to the part of the conversation where they get to speak.

When the customer begins talking through the problem, he or she might even figure out a solution before one is even offered. If this happens, the customer service rep will get big points for their role in the conflict resolution process.

Empathize and Acknowledge the Caller’s Point of View

The traditional formulation of the HEARD method holds that, after hearing what the other person has to say, a customer service agent should empathize with the person and then apologize for their role in causing the problem or making the situation worse.

Empathy is one of the key elements of any successful interaction with an upset caller. If a customer feels like no one is judging them for having negative emotions, the customer will be more willing to effectively communicate with the rep about solutions later in the process.

It is not always necessary to apologize, since a customer service rep is just answering calls about problems that had already escalated before the phone at their desk rang. Emotional customers are unlikely to receive insincere apologies gladly, especially if it sounds like someone is just trying to rush through the apology phase of handling the customer’s complaint so that they can quickly get to the part where solutions are identified.

Even if an agent does not apologize, they should listen actively and acknowledge the customer’s concern and the customer’s emotions. By this logic, the A in HEARD can just as easily stand for acknowledgment as it can for apology.

Resolve the Problem by Proposing Solutions

Attempting to resolve the problem comes toward the end of a call about a customer complaint. It may seem time-consuming to do all of that active listening and echoing customer requests, but it is your job to de-escalate the situation. De-escalation techniques like the HEARD method require you to remain calm until the other person is in the right frame of mind to listen to your proposed solutions.

You may have had a solution in mind as soon as the customer got one sentence into the description of the problem. De-escalation best practices require you to not blurt it out until the right time, though.

The customer may not always be right, but you owe the customer the courtesy of active listening before you propose a solution to the customer’s issue. If you skip forward too quickly to suggest solutions, you might make the customer feel like you think that he or she is stupid for not figuring out such an obvious solution to the problem.

De Escalation Training For Customer Service

Develop a Recipe for Preventing the Problem From Recurring

The conventional formulation of the HEARD method holds that D is for diagnosis. In other words, once a problem has been solved, a customer service rep should discuss what went wrong in the first place.

This is not always an effective de-escalation technique when an agent is in the business of responding to phone calls from customers about the problems they are experiencing with your company’s products or services.

After you have solved the problem and gotten an upset caller into a good enough mood that he or she is open to the idea of making a future purchase, why would an agent go back to rehashing the problem? At worst, this could make customers leave with the impression that they are being blamed for the problem. This is the opposite of what should be done.

By another interpretation, the D in HEARD stands for the denouement. As a term used in the analysis of literature and theater, denouement simply means the ending of a story. In most stories, the denouement involves resolving the main conflict of the plot. In a tragedy, though, the denouement is the final catastrophe, such as the final scene in Shakespearean tragedies where most of the main characters die.

In the context of de-escalation, not just any old denouement will do. Once the problem is solved, it’s important to not just say goodbye and move on to the next call. Instead, take a victory lap.

In the world of phone support de-escalation techniques, D stands for “develop a recipe for preventing the problem from recurring.” Ideally, the customer support agent will advise the customer to employ the same solution that the agent recommended in the previous step.

If an agent really wants to show off their ability to find a solution to any problem that a customer can bring to them, they can offer to help with future issues by advising the customer to call your support line again. They should not ask the customer to call them directly, because that would be crossing a professional boundary.

Most phone support agents identify themselves by name, and their helpfulness will likely stand out in the customer’s memory. Therefore, the customer may mention them the next time he or she calls. This will do more for your reputation than dozens of those surveys after the support call where customers assign your company a numerical rating.

How Does Active Listening Work?

People who have never formally studied how to de-escalate tense phone calls with upset customers have nonetheless developed their own practical strategies from experience. Almost all of them involve active listening, even those people who use this strategy might not describe it in those exact words.

During a busy day of answering calls and troubleshooting problems big and small, a person might not have the emotional resources to go through all the steps of the HEARD method. Even if they cannot do a full-fledged HEARD method on every single call, a little bit of de-escalation goes a long way.

If an agent can be aware of their own emotions and the other person’s, they can de-escalate the most emotionally charged calls and arrive at a temporary or permanent solution to the problem that the caller is calling about.

Wait for the Other Person to Finish Speaking

It is much easier to interrupt someone while he or she is speaking than it is to let the person finish the entire thought. It is even harder on the phone. When talking to someone in person, someone can read the other person’s facial expressions and body language to find out when the person wants to speak. It is not possible to do this on the phone.

Likewise, when a customer service agent is talking on the phone with someone they know, they can rely on their previous knowledge of the person’s speech patterns to know when it is their turn to speak. Therefore, trying not to interrupt their interlocutor in a phone conversation with someone they do not know is doubly challenging.

The first step to not interrupting is managing expectations and waiting patiently for their turn to speak. 

Simply letting the person finish is a great way to show empathy, though. Likewise, when people are already upset, they get even more upset if someone interrupts them. People are less receptive to the efforts of a customer service rep to de-escalate the situation if they think that they are not really listening. The de-escalation process can get started off right if the actions of the rep show that they are willing to listen.

Repeat What the Other Person Said in Their Own Words

When the caller finally gets to a customer service rep’s turn to talk, they need to make sure they don’t tell them to stay calm and do not quickly offer a solution. Instead, an agent should show that they understood by repeating in their own words what the other person said.

When the goal is to show empathy, less is more. Over-the-top displays of indignation about what the other person has gone through will not help the person feel calmer. A customer service agent can empathize by saying things like, “That sounds very frustrating,” or, “I’m sorry that happened to you,” but getting upset is not going to make the other person less upset. The last thing they want to do is make the customer de-escalate the agent’s emotions.

Give the Other Person a Chance to Calm Down

Some customer service reps find it helpful to ask the customer follow-up questions before suggesting solutions to the problem. This technique serves several purposes.

First, it helps them understand the problem better. Therefore, the solutions eventually offered will be more likely to solve the problem effectively. Secondly, they are giving the customer more of a chance to let off steam. If they can segue into small talk, the customer will feel more at ease, like it is a social conversation instead of a tech support call.

When customers start telling agents about their favorite pizza toppings or the hassles of being a parent who is old enough to play competitive sports but too young to drive, the customers will be in a better mood and will be more likely to listen to recommendations instead of just getting more frustrated.

This strategy may not work if your agents are fielding calls about car insurance claims. It comes across as disingenuous when insurance claims adjusters make small talk with claimants. Customers tend to feel that claims adjusters are trying to catch them in a lie. In almost any other customer support role, though, defusing the situation with humor is effective if the customer is in the mood for it.

De-Escalation Training for Customer Service Representatives

As a manager or owner, you can boost customer retention by providing de-escalation training for the customer service agents employed by your organization. Defuse De-Escalation Training provides training workshops in person and online for employees in a wide variety of industries, including customer service phone support.

Contact Defuse De-Escalation Training to help your customer service team get better at de-escalation and resolving conflicts with customers.