You open your inbox some perfectly pleasant Monday morning to the rudest message you’ve ever read from an angry customer. They call you names and unleash a tirade of profanities.
What do you do next?
For over 30 years, Palo Alto Software’s Customer Advocacy Team (CAT) has worked tirelessly to resolve difficult situations and help customers. They’re experts at how to deal with angry customers—and they have the customer satisfaction ratings to prove it.
So I asked them to share their insights on how to respond (or not respond) to those rude emails, and how to keep them from ruining your day.
Why empathy matters in customer service
Many times when people are angry or frustrated, they are just looking to vent—and many are the people who send an email that should’ve never been sent. Since email also takes away our ability to observe the customer’s facial expression or body language, empathizing in your emails is key to figuring out what you need to know so you can resolve the issue and, hopefully, help the customer move away from frustration and anger to a better emotional state.
“Empathy makes people feel heard and gives them the sense that you care,” says Stormy. “A simple statement like this will take them down a notch: “I’m so sorry that happened. I totally understand why you feel frustrated, I would feel like that too.”
15 tips for responding to a rude email with empathy
Even in difficult, frustrating situations, a constructive customer experience is a balancing act of empathizing with an angry customer, while staying in charge of the situation.
“I de-escalate problems with empathy, an ‘I can help’ attitude, and without taking the blame for their problems,” explains Stormy. “My approach can surprise people who come out of the gates swinging, expecting to have to fight for what they want because they’ve had so many bad customer service experiences in the past.”
Here’s the process the Palo Alto CAT team goes through when responding to emails.
1. Assess the situation
When a customer is angry, first there is an emotional need that must be identified and resolved before you can tend to the technical or actual customer service situation.
This doesn’t mean it’s your job to be the customer’s therapist—it means that if they can tell you are listening and you are going to help, they are more likely to step back from their anger.
“I try to empathize with them by acknowledging their complaints and their frustration,” says Stormy. “Then I try to gather more information about the problem if I need to and offer a direct solution or a workaround.”
2. Listen and show you identify with where they’re coming from
Validate the customer’s feelings, so they can tell that you are trying your best to understand not only the problem but how they feel about the situation.
“Assuring them that you can and will help, or even that you want to help, goes a long way in building trust and diffusing a bad attitude,” says Stormy.
3. Know when to push pause or pass it on
We’ve all been in situations where we emailed customer service and heard nothing back. We’ve all had times where we feel like no one at a company cares or will do anything to help us. Knowing how that feels is an essential part of coming to a customer assistance role where you want the frustrated person to be able to say that you handled the situation well.
“I don’t like to be ignored, especially when I am upset. I’ll respond to anyone who expresses frustration with me, even if it is in a rude manner if we are continuing to address an underlying issue,” says Stormy.”
There are limits to that outreach and response, though. Under some circumstances, it may be time to step away and let the situation simmer down—or just let the exchange stop.
“If the purpose of the communication is solely to hurl insults, then I will stop responding,” says Stormy. “Sometimes people are upset over things I don’t have control over, like accounting issues outside of our refund guidelines. In that case, the delay period that comes with deferring the problem to another department is beneficial. I’m not talking about passing the buck, but a deferred response gives the customer time to cool off before they get a final answer. It is usually no different than the one I gave them initially—but hearing it from another source seems to help.”
4. Keep calm—or step away until you can find your calm
“I try not to let a rude email get to me, but when it does, it usually happens after I’ve had several exchanges with the same person,” says Stormy Wiseman, customer advocate with Palo Alto Software. Stormy holds the company’s record for the longest-running span of 100 percent customer satisfaction ratings. “As the conflict escalates, I become more emotionally invested in the conversation and thus, easier to upset.”
But just because your customer is upset doesn’t mean you need to mirror their mood, and you probably have the sense that responding to that rude message in kind would just pour gasoline on their fire.
Close that angry message, flag it for follow up, and focus on something else for a moment. When you return to the angry message, you will have gained some emotional distance that can help you recognize the sender’s intent, isolate the important issues, and, hopefully, craft an emotionally intelligent reply that will help de-escalate the situation.
“When a conversation takes an angry turn, it can be tempting to fire off a quick reply. However, that is often the worst thing that you can do,” says Sean Serrels, director of Customer Advocacy at Palo Alto Software.
“Instead, put it on hold. I like to take some time to consider my reply and then write it out and save it as a draft then walk away. After I’ve had some time to distance myself, I go back and edit the draft to make any changes I might think are appropriate, then I’ll have someone else check my response.”
Fortunately, angry emails aren’t “heat of the moment” situations like angry phone calls. Take a step back, a few deep breaths, and collect yourself before you hit send. It’s pretty difficult to take un-send an unprofessional email, so give yourself plenty of space to respond appropriately.
“I try to recognize when I’m being affected by rude comments and I will ask one of my peers to look over my response before I press the send button,” says Stormy. “Often my co-workers can point out areas where my phrasing can be improved in ways that make my response seem less defensive or reactionary. This practice helps me to step out of the conflict, look at the big picture and choose words that can help steer the conversation in a more productive direction.”
A small delay in your response also “gives that customer some time to consider what they just said before they get your reply,” adds Sean. “If they’ve had time to calm down and start to have second thoughts about the conversation, they may be more open to a constructive reply.”
5. Don’t assume
All you have to go on is what the customer has told you, and an angry customer isn’t likely to be giving the best or most accurate information about what’s going on. Instead of making assumptions, focus early replies on trying to get the details you need to have a clear understanding of the problem.
“When people treat me rudely, I like to remember their behavior reflects how they are feeling about their own circumstances,” says Stormy. “There is a lot I don’t know about this person and their life. Their attitude toward me isn’t necessarily something I did to them or something that is wrong with me. I don’t need to react defensively.”
6. Summarize your understanding of their situation
This shows that you are hearing them out and actively trying to understand as best you can so you can make things better.
7. Use the customer’s own words
When appropriate and in context, copy and paste some of what the customer says in your reply. Using some of their own language is a subtle but effective way to show that you are on their side and seeing things from their perspective.
8. Apologize for the situation—at the right time
You don’t have to admit blame, though. Focus your apology on the situation, such as “I’m sorry you’re dissatisfied with your subscription.”
However, it’s not as simple as coming right out of the gate with apologies. “In my experience, I’ve found that taking responsibility for a problem too early in the conversation makes customers unhappy,” explains Stormy. “Yes, unhappy. They shut down, they get angrier and they refuse to follow instruction. It becomes very difficult to solve a technical problem when a customer demands you to ‘fix it now,’ rather than follow troubleshooting steps. By all means, when you mess up, own up, but before you do it, build some trust and get all the information you can from your customer.”
9. Steer the situation toward progress and resolution
Even if it may take time, make it clear that you are taking the lead and working on the problem. Ask questions as needed to get other details you need to help you figure out solutions.
Even over email. Seriously. Just as smiling during a phone call or a face-to-face meeting can defuse a fraught situation, smiling while you draft your reply can help you stay focused, professional, and constructive.
11. Re-read your draft (and ask your team members to look it over too)
Are you showing you understand? Are you keeping your reply focused on resolution or progress? Are there areas that could be misinterpreted as snarky or insulting?
12. Present the solution
Email the customer with the steps you’re taking or have taken to make things right.
13. Get them on board
“The last step is getting them to agree to engage with you to work toward a solution,” says Stormy.
14. Call in team members and management
Sometimes, it’s time to ask for help from your fellow team members or your manager. For Palo Alto Software, says Sean, teams understand that they can always ask for help when they need backup.
“We will discuss problem messages with our peers before submitting a response,” says Sean. “A fresh set of eyes on a problem is often the quickest path to a solution. We have the ability to hold side conversations with the notes feature in our email sharing application. This allows us to maintain a trail of documentation about an email, within the email itself, without the customer being made aware. This is one way multiple people can engage to address a single problem and come to a solution together.”
Policy and overall guidelines matter too, adds Sean. In order to help frustrated customers feel their problem is resolved and restore a positive feeling about your organization, customer advocates need to know they have the latitude to make choices and the support of their team and management. If a customer advocate has done all they can, then managers can be ready to step in.
“When it comes to handling issues individually, we have autonomy,” says Stormy. “We can make decisions and we can give concessions to our customers without having to bring in management. When a problem occasionally reaches a level where a manager needs to be engaged, they will typically stand behind us and support whatever claims we made to the customer.”
15. Resolve and satisfy, or block and be done?
Sometimes, though, nothing you, your team, or your boss does will satisfy a furious customer. Sometimes, too, customers get so overwhelmed with anger that they become hostile and abusive. Does that mean that sometimes you have to ignore them, or even block them from contacting the organization?
When you’ve done what you can but someone remains angry—or is becoming abusive and threatening—it’s time to close the thread and mark it as taking no more replies.
“Those situations are typically very stressful where we’ve determined that the angry person is not our customer,” says Sean. “We’ve refunded, canceled, and tried to part ways amicably, and they’re continuing to vent at us. Normally, at some point in the conversation, we can come to terms that we’re just not a good fit for them and part ways kindly, but every once in a while that doesn’t work out. Thankfully, that’s a rare scenario.”
The right thing to do is the best you can
Not every angry customer can be helped—but many can, and that is key not only to maintaining your company’s reputation but to retaining customers.
When rude or angry customer emails come your way—and they will—the key is to bring your professional, calm A-game to each interaction. When you have a solid team, supportive management, and clear understandings of how you can help—and what you don’t have to put up with—you can handle any difficult email or customer situation.
“We have a basic understanding on our team that it is O.K. to ask for help if necessary,” says Stormy. “We don’t have to take abuse. We don’t have a ‘customer is always right’ policy. Our unofficial policy is probably more along the lines of, ‘We want to help our customers solve their problems.’”
Editors Note: This article was originally published in 2018 and was updated in 2020.