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Analysis: What to do if your customer gets angry, according to Dr. Ryan Martin, PhD Anger Researcher

I just finished reading an amazing book that unexpectedly changed my perspective on the negative interactions that we have with our customers.

Why We Get Mad: How to Use Your Anger for Positive Change,” by Dr. Ryan Martin is an engaging book that deals with anger, a taboo emotion that doesn’t get enough attention.

Anger has been felt by everyone throughout human history, but it’s only during the last 100 years that academic researchers started to research it scientifically. Sigmund Freud considered anger to be a carnal impulse that could only be reined in through our obligations. Before him, philosopher John Locke alluded to it in his works when he theorized that society and civil institutions exist to create order from the chaos that anger and violence can create.

In his book, Dr. Martin addresses anger from a much more practical perspective. He touches on road rage, parental displeasure, and relationships with our partners. I found myself taking notes throughout the book, highlighting many common themes that caught my attention.Excited fitness man shouting at camera over gray background

Towards the end of the book, I had a lightbulb moment. Dr. Martin began to discuss cognitive dissonance. According to Saul McLeod, “Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. This produces a feeling of mental discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance.

In other words, we don’t like to be wrong or have our beliefs questioned. Any time that somebody does this, it makes us feel uncomfortable, and in turn, we can experience cognitive dissonance. If this happens, we will push back against this new information to justify our beliefs. This can especially happen during an argument when somebody tries to "prove us wrong".

You might have heard of cognitive dissonance before, but what does it have to do with your customers?

This is where Dr. Martin’s research comes into play and has an immense bearing on our customer interactions. Martin discusses how anger can cloud our judgment and heighten the effects of cognitive dissonance.


How Cognitive Dissonance Can Heighten our Customers' Anger

Martin began thinking about the influence that cognitive dissonance has on anger when he became curious about the question, “What makes people, say and think irrational things when they are angry?”

To answer this question, Martin asked himself, why do we think irrational things that we wouldn’t think otherwise? Or, why do we appraise a situation in ways that we typically wouldn’t when we are angry?

To understand this, you have to consider the role that the prefrontal cortex plays in our brain. The prefrontal cortex is a complex part of our brains that developed later in human history and helps us respond appropriately to external situations. Our prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain that is also responsible for impulse control.

In contrast, anger, which we feel first in our amygdala activates a “flight-or-fight" response, which if left unchecked can cause us to react impulsively.

This response can be heightened by cognitive dissonance, writes Dr. Martin.

“We also see [this] play out interpersonally with the conversations people have… The solution to that dissonance is often to justify the behavior by tweaking the thoughts and behaviors,” Martin notes.

“It makes people uncomfortable to feel like they are in the wrong or have made a mistake, especially if they hold a core value or belief that it is important to always be right. When they overreact or are in the wrong, cognitive dissonance theory suggests they need to adjust their thinking in order to feel more comfortable,” Martin explains. “[They] modify their thoughts so that they feel like they believe reasonably or that their angry response was justified.”

To put it simply, when a customer feels angry and they have certain expectations about how they are supposed to be treated, they might project their anger outward or act in an irrationally way that is atypical for them in order to feel justified about their angry response.

 Closeup portrait young annoyed angry woman with bad attitude giving talk to hand gesture with palm outward isolated grey wall background. Negative human emotion face expression feeling body language

Application: How to Treat Angry Customers

Based on the information above, we can infer that customers who are angry aren’t necessarily in the cognitive headspace to respond reasonably when they are provoked by a mistake that we make. People get mad for all kinds of reasons: they might have had a bad day, maybe your technician said something they didn’t like, or you parked in their driveway wrong.

In situations like this that make your customer angry, it is pointless to try to argue with them or to try and justify your actions. Doing this is likely to make them angrier, according to Dr. Martin.

Here’s what you should do instead:


1. It is much better to acknowledge how they are feeling and validate their frustrations.

2. When your customer is calmer, ask them how you can make the situation right.

3. In more extreme circumstances, you should talk to them the next day after they have had more time to process their emotions. Because the prefrontal cortex isn’t as active when we feel anger, they might not have the same cognitive resources to deal with a provocation (to put it bluntly, they might not be playing with a full deck). If you try and do anything in these circumstances, you might make the situation worse, especially if your customer is falling victim to the sway of cognitive dissonance to justify their response (we are all susceptible to this when we feel angry).

4. The next day, your customer will be much more equipped to respond to the situation more appropriately. They will have the cognitive resources necessary to solve the problem with you, and it is likely that they will be more suggestible when it comes to fixing the situation.

5. When a customer is angry, don’t poke the hornet’s nest; don’t further provoke a customer (unless you want to permanently lose them). 


Conclusion: How You Make Your Customers Feel is The Most Important Part of Your Job

Emotions are complex. I’ve written about emotional intelligence in your business interactions because how you make your customers feel is the most important part of your job.

My girlfriend just scheduled an appointment to get her upholstery cleaned with Dave’s Full-Service Carpet Cleaning. When I asked her how she picked the cleaner, she said that she has been using the company for years because they are sweet and pleasant to be around.

When I asked her how they cleaned, she told me that they use hoses attached to their truck to suck away all of the dirty spots.

This is exactly what I’m talking about; like most people, my girlfriend doesn’t know what a truckmount is called, she doesn’t know about spotters or prespray, but SHE KNOWS AND REMEMBERS HOW PEOPLE TREAT HER.

How you treat somebody while you’re working is one of the main reasons why customers hire you.

So, if your customer gets angry, don’t get upset at them, don’t get irritated, and don’t be defensive. It might be tempting to do this, but you’re just shooting yourself in the foot.

Instead, take a step back to give them space. This is a perfect opportunity to implement Dr. Martin’s research. When your customer has had time to process their emotions, reach back out to them and make the situation right.

This can help save the relationship and will show the customer that you respect how they are feeling. It will improve your relationship with your customer.


Enjoyed reading this post? Read the following articles:


I’m 90 percent sure that you’ll never disappoint your customers if you do this

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How to Provide a Perpetually Good Experience for Your Customer Long after your Visit is Over Cover


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