Customer Service Conflict Resolution: A Step-by-Step Guide

Published: December 5, 2018 | Last Updated: September 27, 2023by Vanessa Rose

Customer conflict arises frequently, especially in dynamic, fast-paced environments. Working with an angry customer comes with the territory of doing business, but it can lead to increased stress for workers and diminished brand loyalty for customers. There is good news – you can turn conflict around. In fact, sometimes a corrective experience for an upset customer can lead to them becoming one of your more loyal patrons. This is a fragile endeavor, though, so taking the right steps in customer service conflict resolution is of the utmost importance. Below is a brief step-by-step guide to understanding and implementing conflict resolution for customer service agents.

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Customer Service Conflict Resolution Guide

Whether you’re the manager tasked with keeping the peace or one of the many customer service agents who face conflict on a regular basis, following these steps can lead to quicker and longer-lasting customer service conflict resolution.

1. Stay Calm

The most professional way to handle an upset customer is to refrain from getting upset yourself. This can be a challenging task, especially if the customer is highly dysregulated and insults start to become personal.

Remaining calm is the best way to meet your frustrated customer where they are without escalating the situation, but staying calm isn’t always easy to do. Here are some tips for remaining calm in these moments:

  • Breathe: It may sound silly but slowing yourself down to take a few deep breaths can make all the difference in how you respond.
  • Take some physical space: If the angry customer is in-person and enters your personal space, take a few steps back. You won’t be successful in remaining calm if you feel physically threatened, so give yourself some room.
  • Notice your own emotions: Recognize what you’re feeling in the moment. You don’t necessarily need to act on it but naming fear, anxiety, or frustration can help quell the overwhelm of these emotions so they don’t start speaking on your behalf.
  • Call in an alternative: If you’re the manager, it’s probably your job to de-escalate customers. But if you’re able to get a colleague to sub for you temporarily while you collect yourself, it could help in the long run. This should be someone who hasn’t been trying to manage this conflict since it began; that way, s/he might be just far enough away from the matter that they don’t get overwhelmed by it. So take a few minutes and come back with some fresh ideas.

2. Validate Your Customer

Whether or not you agree with an agitated customer isn’t really important. To de-escalate someone who’s ineffectively expressing anger, you’ll need to be kind and respectful to them. Tell them you hear what they’re saying, even if it doesn’t really make sense to you. Remember, if they are emotional they are probably not being totally logical at that moment.

It’s easy to sound condescending, especially if you’re trying to rush through this part to get to your side of the story. That could reverse any potential positive outcomes. Instead, take the time to hear your customer’s concerns and let them know you’re listening. Showing them that what they say matters can not only de-escalate someone in a heightened emotional state, it can also be the foundation from which you build a long-lasting customer once the problem is resolved.

3. Don’t Take it Personally

One of the quickest ways to reach customer service conflict resolution is to ensure you’re not taking anything personally. It might be hard not to take things personally whether or not the angry customer is overtly trying to make it personal. Your task — and it’s a tall one — is to stay above it.

One of the reasons it’s important to separate yourself from the customer’s comments is because if you feel you have to defend yourself, any calming, validating cool-headedness that could resolve the conflict goes right out the window. You might start lashing out in return, and that doesn’t lead to an effective ending.

4. Avoid Arguing

One of the most important conflict resolution tips for customer service reps is to avoid opposition. Despite all of your urges to prove a wrong customer wrong, resist. Fact-checking emotions is a surefire way to turn a small rupture into an all-out war. Wait until tensions have loosened and emotions become regulated before you start using evidence against them if you need to at all.

When you take their attacks personally and become defensive, you react impulsively. Likewise, if the customer feels invalidated by your trying to prove them wrong. Be flexible, let go of being right, and work toward a collaborative solution rather than opposing them in order to make a point.

5. Be Gentle

Dialectical Behavior Therapy has a skill called GIVE. It stands for Gentle, Interested, Validate, Easy manner. A skill used to improve interpersonal effectiveness, GIVE is meant to serve as a reminder that it’s not just our words that can make or break an argument. How we deliver those words can greatly change the interaction. Customer service agents have to implement this skill on a much more frequent basis and might use it to mitigate conflict before it even begins. It’s a simple concept made simpler if you consider how you preferred to be spoken to, especially when you’re upset.

By being gentle and using an easy manner, you’re being mindful of your tone of voice, body language, and vocabulary. Instead of hurling curse words at a frustrated customer, posturing toward them to assert your authority, or using a short tone, try being more open, friendly, and kind. Smile, even if you’re not feeling particularly inspired. Using these skills just might lead the customer to put some faith in you.

6. Be Assertive

Validating emotions is important and should be one of the first steps in de-escalating someone who’s upset. However, setting containment is also important. This means not letting the customer walk all over you in their rage and upset. Assert your boundaries as a company representative and as a human being.

Note the difference between assertive and aggressive. Avoid being forceful in your boundary-setting, but be sure you’re maintaining your self-respect. Be kind but firm and use compassion as a means to set an expectation.

7. Take Responsibility

Whether or not an apology is in order, it’s a worthwhile approach to take responsibility for the disruption when you can. Chances are that the company was responsible for some part of the ordeal, even if it was poor communication, false advertisement, or unsatisfactory customer service. Apologize where an apology is due and don’t let your pride stand in the way of making amends. Put yourself in the customer’s shoes and think about what you’d like to hear if you were them. After all, we are all customers of some sort to various brands.

Taking responsibility isn’t only about owning up to where you may have contributed to the problem but also how you’re going to manage the solution. Let your customer put faith in the fact that you will handle it so they don’t feel so alone.

8. Focus on a Solution

Once emotions have been validated and addressed, it’s time to move past it. Working collaboratively with a customer to determine the right solution can be just the positive piece of productivity everyone’s been waiting for. Build upon what you just learned from hearing your customer’s grievances. Offer what you can to bridge the gap between them and the company and to limit future frustrations.

Pollack Peacebuilding works with individuals, groups, and partners to collaborate on solutions to common customer service conflict resolution needs. Let Pollack Peacebuilding support your brand-customer journey toward a place of mutual understanding and longevity.

Customer Service Conflict Resolution

Vanessa Rose

Vanessa is a licensed psychotherapist and writer living in Los Angeles. When not on a mission for inner peace and conflict resolution, she enjoys making art, visiting the beach, and taking dog portraits. Always curious about self-improvement and emotional expansion, Vanessa also manages her own website which explores the unconscious and archetypal influences on how we eat, express, and relate.