VIEWPOINTS : Defusing Irate Consumers : When a Customer’s Anger Boils Over, What’s the Best Thing to Do?


Faced with an unexpectedly big turnout of passengers who wanted nonsmoking seats, the pilot of Trans World Airlines Flight 853 from Boston to LAX on Dec. 30 banned smoking throughout the trip. The airline says it told everyone before take - off, but at least one passenger disputed that claim. In any case, a “smokers rebellion” erupted. Some passengers reportedly sneaked puffs in the restrooms while others scuffled with flight attendants and openly lit up despite the ban. The incident raised questions about how TWA might have handled matters better, as well as about how businesses in general should go about dealing with irate customers. Free-lance writer Michele Lingre asked retailers, customer service experts and others for their opinions. Excerpts of the interviews follow:

John Tschohl, a Minneapolis customer service consultant and president of the Better Than Money Corp.:

“TWA could not have purchased that kind of bad publicity. Typically, airline people become very snotty, sometimes authoritarian.


“If you start off, ‘Sir, I am the flight attendant and you are not allowed to smoke because it is part of the FAA regulations and you better put out your cigarette,’ well, you are going to create a fire right there.

“I would have had a smile on my face, I’d have been kind and said, ‘We have a problem. There is no smoking allowed on the plane, we did not notify people, we really screwed up on it. I apologize. I know going two or three hours without a cigarette is very difficult, but we need your help and consideration for everybody else. Can we ask you to please put your cigarette out?’ I wouldn’t be surprised if I would have been able to turn that situation around, bingo!

“In the service economy, everybody needs to be trained and be a professional. Companies like Federal Express and Kroger are outstanding at it. A whole lot of other companies commit money to advertising instead, saying, ‘We have friendly people.’

“I have five steps to follow with an irate customer. You listen attentively. Ask questions that require some logical thinking by the customer to try and pull the person out of that irate state. Then, listen actively. That means saying, ‘Aha, I understand, I see what you mean,’ so they know you are paying attention to them. Keep asking questions and listen to the response till the customer has cooled down.

“Finally, we recommend using some sincere, positive steps: ‘Mrs. Jones, you have been doing business with our firm for four years, we are going to take care of you.’ You make that person feel important. If you use those five steps, about 80% of the time it will defuse the situation. . . . The goal is to keep the customer doing business with you for several years. It is very important the customer walks away thinking that he came out on the top end of the deal, even if it costs you some money.”

Juliette Lenoir, vice president of the Assn. of Flight Attendants, which represents 23,000 flight attendants worldwide:


“Passengers who are irate--I translate that into being out of control--are dangerous aboard an aircraft.

“I’d try to appeal to their sense of reason and logic first. In these situations, the irate passenger has reduced himself to a childlike mentality, making unreasonable demands, and you should appear as the adult, the parent trying to handle this.

“What you don’t want is to infect other people with that high state of anxiety. And you can’t let it infect you, or you won’t be able to come out on top of the situation. You remain as calm as you would during an emergency situation, assess the situation, keep hearing the passenger out and get a good sense of what is making them irate.

“If you make yourself calmer, speak more slowly, that may automatically bring them down from this high anxiety state. It is difficult to go on and scream when the person you are trying to get feedback from is calm.

“My heart went out to those flight attendants on the TWA flight who had to continue for another hour or so with that kind of rebellion on their hands.

“In such a situation, you try to recite the regulations to the passengers. Say you wish they could smoke, but it is just not possible. Then explain why it is that the seats they purchased changed from smoking to nonsmoking. Explain that, if things continue to escalate, there are penalties for interfering with the duties of a flight crew member, and they include a $1,000 fine or a jail term or both.

“I’d also offer them a meal, milk or juice, nothing that would make them more hyper than they already are. But that wouldn’t necessarily be one of my first steps.”

Jan Charles Gray, senior vice president of Ralphs Grocery Co. in Los Angeles:

“One of the main things that you have to do is try and not take complaints personally; understand that there is a lot going on in that customer’s mind. The time when people get most irate is when they aren’t greeted with a smile or with concern about what their problems are.

“It can reach extremes, for instance, people can bring back a turkey eaten down to the bone after Thanksgiving and say that turkey wasn’t what we had in mind, you spoiled the Thanksgiving dinner.

You smile and thank the customers for bringing the product and give them full refunds.

“I have to deal with some of the more irate customers that call into the office. It is better to listen than to say anything.

“If they were to become verbally abusive, there comes a point where you say, ‘I’m sorry sir or ma’am, I just don’t think I can talk with you anymore, I think we are going to terminate this conversation.’

“If you can deal with the most irate customers, the ones acting in a more normal way will just be a slam dunk for you, it is really good training.”

Mary Mumolo, manager of consumer relations for the Broadway Department Stores:

“The best way to handle an irate customer is to first be very, very patient, and give them your ear. The consumer needs that attention. Let them blow off their steam. Then, if they are extremely unreasonable, the sales associate may say, ‘I want to help you. I cannot do what you are asking me to do, may I get a member of management for you? Would you like to finish your shopping, or go to our restaurant and get a cup of coffee? I’ll have our manager meet you there.’

“The last thing you want in any establishment is a bad scene with one person shouting at the top of his or her lungs. If there is a complaint, fine, let’s resolve it. But in a lot of cases, if a customer is going to be that belligerent, it doesn’t matter what our associate does. The customer will not calm down.

“Also, there are some customers who won’t take it that well, who will use any threat they can. There is an old saying in the retail industry, if anyone who listens to customers’ complaints could get half a cent for every customer who said they were contacting their own attorney, they could have left the business years ago.”

Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America:

“In my experience, almost every consumer who is upset has some justification and is (complaining) rationally. Very few consumers get angry, unless they are ignored or turned away when they try to explain their complaint.

“What a smart business person would do is calmly say, ‘We will try and resolve your complaint,’ and lead the customer into his or her office, sit down and ask the consumer to explain the problem, without arguing with the consumer. The example of the TWA flight is completely out in left field as far as I am concerned. You deny people whatever they are addicted to, smoking or drinking, and of course they are going to get upset. Frankly, the smokers will get used to (the new regulations restricting smoking aboard airlines), and it is important that the airlines fully disclose the conditions of their flights ahead of time.”

Dennis Markowitz, general sales manager at Metro Ford in North Hollywood:

“If someone is threatening physical harm, saying, ‘I’ll blow up your dealership, I’ll kill you, I’ll sue you,’ I say, ‘Look, I am a representative of Metro Ford. My job is to make you happy. I promise to do the very best I can to make you a happy client. Remember that I did not build the car. I also am human, I am married, I have a family. Please don’t hold it against me personally. I appreciate your anger.’ Ninety-nine percent of the time, people calm down.”