When Customers Attack: The Psychology Behind the Upset Customer


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“Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry….”

What turns an otherwise mild-mannered customer into an ireful individual pushed past the limits of their patience? Says Guy Winch, a licensed psychologist and author of The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships and Enhance Self-Esteem, it all comes down to respect, or the feeling of a lack thereof – for the customer’s time, dignity or intelligence. This mirrors ClickFox’s latest Customer Tipping Points Benchmarking survey, which lists the issues customers find most frustrating.

Top 5 Customer Service Tipping Points

1. Having to speak with multiple agents and starting over every time; 42% of all respondents say this is their most frustrating tipping point.

2. Being kept on hold for long periods of time.

3. Rude or inexperienced representatives or service technicians.

4. Not getting a resolution on the first try.

5. Not being understood by IVR/speech recognition applications.

How Customers React to Bad Experiences
The impact of a poor customer experience to both customer retention and new customer acquisition is substantial. Eighty-two percent (82%) of consumers surveyed who had reached a tipping point after a bad customer service experience were established customers. Sixty-eight percent (68%) said they would react by telling family and friends about the experience or posting it on social media. Thirty-five percent (35%) said they would stop doing business with the company altogether.

According to a related survey, more than 60% of all consumers are influenced or very influenced by other consumers’ comments about companies. So not only does the company upset or lose a current customer; it most likely loses a potential one, as well.

When Customers Attack…
Notes Winch in a Psychology Today blog, a customer’s frustration is often directed at the service representative, whether or not he or she directly contributed to the frustrating experience.

Many customer service representatives take it on the chin when a customer experience goes bad, sometimes even if all they’ve done is picked up the phone and asked, “How can I help you today?” Winch notes that consumers who are incredibly upset with a service experience tend to dehumanize the service agent they’re interacting with and become someone they’re usually not. When customers verbally attack a customer service representative, the psychology of it says:

  1. Angry customers view CSRs as the literal representatives of the company, and therefore hold the CSR they’re interacting with personally responsible for their problems and frustrations.
  2. Because the customers do not see the CSR’s face or reactions, psychological filters such as civility and empathy are switched off.
  3. Drawing from previous experiences associated with complaining, customers are convinced the CSR will make it as difficult as possible to resolve the problem, and so consumers are already in “battle mode” before they dial the support number or begin their email.

How Can We Keep Customers from Reaching Their Tipping Points?
Looking back at the list of top five tipping points, first contact resolution and a respect for an individual’s time are two keys to avoiding customer frustration. If the customer is already frustrated? Some tried and true tips come from internationally-known author, public speaker and communications skills expert, Rich Gallagher. Click here to read: What to Say to a Porcupine – Defusing Angry Customers.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Tricia Morris
Tricia Morris is a product marketing director at 8x8 with more than 20 years of experience at technology companies including Microsoft and MicroStrategy. Her focus is on customer experience, customer service, employee experience and digital transformation. Tricia has been recognized as an ICMI Top 50 Thought Leader, among the 20 Best Customer Experience Blogs You Must Follow, and among the 20 Customer Service Influencers You Must Follow.


  1. …than just listen and react, they need to proactively ‘own’ the customer’s issue, and serve as committed ambassdors for the company and its value proposition. This mindset should be built into the company culture and DNA. Otherwise, as noted, the customer can become alienated through benign or negative experience, even resorting to online and offline sabotage. I’ve addressed the contributors of experience positivism and negativism, and their business consequences, in multiple CustomerThink articles, including:




  2. Great insights, Tricia. Thanks so much.

    I have been studying human behavior for more than a few years now and the way that people react to situations is fascinating to me. I am convinced that anger comes from a person’s sense of loss and the fear that no one around them either can or will do anything to help them overcome that loss. This is particularly true in the world of the Customer Experience, where the customer experiences what they believe to be “loss” (loss of value, loss of time, loss of money) and they don’t expect that the person on the other end of the call, e-mail or chat can or will do anything about it. That’s why Mr. Gallagher’s insights are so true and so important. That initial assurance that “I care…I understand…I’m sorry that this has happened” is so critical because it acts to defuse the ticking bomb of anger. Of course, then the customer service agent must follow up the right verbals with the right solution that not only meets the customer’s practical need, but the emotional issue that has surfaced as well. But it is that initial response that indicates “I understand and I WILL help” that really helps diffuse the anger. Thanks again for a great blog!

    Dr. John R. Miller

  3. Thanks so much for your additions, John. These are great points about the emotions involved in the customer experience. I find this to be a fascinating topic.


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