Upset Customers – How to Laugh Away Their Anger, and Yours Too

A spoonful of humour can help the anger go away, says Scott Friedman
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Whether you're trying to create a memorable customer experience or even calm an upset customer, humour can help.

Humour works best when your customer knows that you’re truly there to serve.

Before using humour, assess your customer. Customers come from one of three places: “NP”, “PP” or “P”.

“NP”- Not playful, “PP”- Potentially Playful or “P” - Playful. Here’s how you tell…

NP” - Not Playful: Most likely, your customer is angry or irritated. You can tell, surely.

PP” - Potentially playful: The customer appears indifferent.

P” – Playful: Customers initiate play. They smile, laugh, make funny comments or engage you in playful banter. They wear a shirt with a saying on it like: “The road to wisdom is long and hard… wear comfortable shoes.”

When your customer is “NP”, be very careful. Your best strategy is to be polite and follow the AUR* method of calming upset customers – *“Acknowledge, Understand, Resolve”. However, if you were to attempt humour, self-effacing humour would be your safest bet.

If they ask a question where you have the opportunity to poke fun at yourself, it can potentially ease immediate tension. “Who is the idiot in charge here?” “I’m head idiot, what can I do for you?” “Do you suffer from insanity?” “No, I’m starting to enjoy it much more now… We didn’t do it, and we will never do it again.” Admitting your flaws immediately makes you more vulnerable and likable. And you won’t lose face. You’ll actually gain face.

To help you control your anger when dealing with an irate customer, it’s best to establish a benchmark ahead of time. Ask yourself: “What’s the worst customer situation you’ve ever had? That will be your 10 on a scale of 1-10. Instead of getting upset, you rate their anger on a scale of 1-10. If the situation is not the worst you’ve ever seen, it would be assigned a number less than the benchmarked 10. If it’s the worst, it becomes the new 10. In your mind, you say: “Woo hoo, we have a winner!”… or “No one has ever yelled at me like that.” And then do what you can to resolve the situation.

Other ways to use humour to control your anger:

  1. Picture your customer in diapers or trapped in a jar.
  2. Write the words of how you feel on the roof of your mouth with your tongue.
  3. After the encounter, write down the name of the person who angered you on a sheet of toilet paper and flush it away.
  4. When a mistake is made, send a note with a fork saying: “We’re hungry to make this right!” or send a message on top of a cake: “We apologise. Next time, working with us will be a piece of cake.”
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Will humour work with everyone? Every situation is unique.

Each interaction requires you to assess the situation from a fresh perspective. You must recognise individual nuances, make adjustments, and use good judgment. If you do, a spoonful of humour might just melt the anger away.


To Play or Not to Play

Could your environment use a little more humour or play? Humour can be risky business, but remember… life is a mirror. If we model playfulness we give our customers permission to be playful. However, it is safest to use humour when customers are coming from a place of playfulness or, potentially, a place of playfulness.

Potentially Playful – It's not always easy to tell, but, in general, playful people have a more relaxed way about them. Not your typical Singaporean… lah. They smile when they talk to you, clothing is a little more stylish, you feel more relaxed around them, it’s a like a good feng shui moment. You can take a little bit more risk with how you talk to them. If they are wearing a t-shirt with the word “Guess” on it, you may look at the t-shirt and say, "Guess – Hmmm - Your name is Kui Peng and you’re on your way to Marina Bay Sands to look for Lady Luck?”

When people are playful they initiate the conversation. They kid about your smile or what you’re wearing, that you look like a friend of theirs. They smile, they sing, they hum, and they have an approachable way about them.

Playing off your name or someone else’s is a good way to engage others in play. The largest lingerie store in America is Victoria’s Secret. I have a friend named Victoria, and every time someone says to her, Victoria, what’s your secret?" she has a playful comeback ready to go. My favourite are: “I could tell you but then I’d have to… thrill you,“ and “Can you keep a secret??” “Yes.” “So can I!

You can make the office more playful by creating new rituals that encourage people to be more playful. Here are a few ideas:

Celebrate anything at all. Finish a project, celebrate! Meet a deadline, celebrate! Your department just got a brand new stapler, celebrate! Blow a whistle; give away snacks or candy, sing a favourite song!

Sing your complaints to your favourite Christmas Carol or Beatles’ Song.

Sung to 'Santa Claus is Coming to Town:'

“Overworked and Underpaid, I’m tired of the lies, I eat, breathe and sleep, those dreaded 'KPIs'. It’s a crazy, hazy stressed out kind of world.”

Playfulness doesn’t have to take away from your job. In fact, your job is benefited by the use humour and playfulness. After all, if you’re too busy to play, you’re just too busy!


Scott Friedman is a motivational humorist whose areas of focus include employee and customer engagement, branded customer service, and using humour to engage an audience or a customer. www.funnyscott.com

Scott Friedman elaborates on humour and customer service in Insider’s Take at Challenge Online. Selected free episodes of his podcast series Hooked on Humour will be available online from March 2011.

  • POSTED ON
    Mar 16, 2011
  • TEXT BY
    Scott Friedman
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