Words Matter in De-escalating Customers

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"It's not what you say. It's how you say it."


You've probably heard this before. It's from the Mehrabian study, which says

  • 7% of meaning in the words that are spoken.
  • 38% of the meaning is through the person's vocal tone.
  • 55% of meaning is in facial expression.


Well, I'm contradicting that research. When it comes to getting angry customers to back down and moving interactions to closure faster, it is precisely your words that matter. In this video, we're examining what not to do and what to try instead when you need to lower the temperature in customer interactions with your words.

The primary way we try to calm angry customers is with our words.


"Ma'am, there's no point arguing with me; I don't make the rules." Or "I need you to calm down, or I'll be forced to disconnect this call."


We don't always realize it, but we often use aggressive language to de-escalate situations.


I get it. I understand why you'd have to take on an aggressive tone. You must control the interaction and guide your customer forward; otherwise, you're stuck in a circular conversation or must listen to a lot of venting. And who has time for that? Not you.


But, our attempts to control usually don't give us control. In fact, they drag the conversation out longer, whether in a live chat, on a call, or face-to-face. This dragging out of the conversation happens because of the Escalation Loop.


Here's how the escalation loop works.


You give your customers lousy news or say something they want to avoid hearing. Then, the customer reacts to what you've said, which is often an emotional response. Then, you, in your attempt to lower the temperature and guide things forward, use strong words. "Ma'am, I need you to calm down," for example. Your customer pushes back on your words, and then back and forth you go. 


So, how do we get out of the escalation loop, lower the temperature, and move customers to closure, even when we can't give them what they want? 


We eliminate the escalation loop by intentionally using our words to create calm and prime customers toward closure. 


We must proactively position our words to work for us, not against us. We have to use words that make us sound confident, knowledgeable, and in control, the final answer. You can do this using what I call the 4Ps.


Personal Pronouns

I, Me, You, We, Us. These are personal pronouns. When you use personal pronouns, you sound more personable and natural. You already use many personal pronouns when talking to friends, family, and co-workers; it's how we speak naturally.


You sound genuine and confident when you intentionally use more personal pronouns on the phone, in email, live chat, and face-to-face with customers. 


Instead of:

"ACME company apologizes for this unfortunate incident."



"I am sorry you've had such a frustrating experience."



Customers often see problem situations as you against them. This is not the reality, of course. Yet, we have to work to show customers we're on their side. We do that with partnering language.


Use personal pronouns and focus on the customer's goal. For example:


"We want to get to the bottom of this as much as you do."


Positive Positioning


Reframe the problem by making the options you offer look like a benefit. After a delayed flight made me miss my connection back home to Tulsa, an airline employee positively positioned an option for me. "We could get you to Dallas tonight, about a four-hour drive from Tulsa." While the option didn't get me directly to Tulsa, it got me within four hours, and I could rent a car, make the short drive, and get home that night.


A coffee shop was out of the sandwhich I ordered and positively positioned the option this way. "We're out of that sandwich, but I can give you any other sandwich on the menu at no charge."


Position your options positively so customers feel they're getting a good deal and that you're in their corner.



You can use psychology to prime your customers to be open to your options! 


Priming occurs when one stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus without conscious guidance. Primed stimuli have either a positive or negative effect on processing a second stimulus shortly after they are presented.  

Watch my explanation of priming in this video to see priming in action, including examples!   


Words matter when it comes to bringing down the temperature with angry customers. When you use personal pronouns, talk with partnering language, prime your customers, and use positive position options, you'll communicate confidently and assertively, moving interactions to closure faster than you thought possible.

Continue the Conversation with Me?

For more help de-escalating angry customers, check out my De-escalation Academy.

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