Community Classroom

Dealing with upset customers

A customer explains an issue to a customer service representative
Author: Dr. Evan Hoffman, VIU Faculty of Management Professor

De-escalating challenging situations

Each semester, many eager Vancouver Island University students do internships with local businesses. During these invaluable learning experiences, various challenging situations may arise. Some situations you may encounter include: 

  • How should I approach an individual upset about a service they’ve received?
  • What steps can be taken when someone has a specific complaint about a purchased product?
  • How do I handle a frustrated client who misunderstands the return policy?

You could encounter these and similar scenarios when working in community. It’s important to have the necessary skills and tools to de-escalate these situations safely and effectively.

Step one: Pause and listen

The first step is to pause, listen attentively and provide undivided attention. When someone is visibly upset or frustrated, it’s a strong indicator that they have a pressing concern that they need to express and seek help with.

By pausing and demonstrating an earnest interest in understanding their perspective, you are showing respect for their feelings. You are demonstrating that you are there to help. This brief pause allows both you and the upset individual to gather your thoughts and approach the situation with a calmer mindset.

By providing your undivided attention, you signal that their concerns matter. That you’re invested in finding a resolution. It’s the foundation upon which constructive communication and problem-solving can occur. It sets the stage for productive dialogue, fostering trust. The increases the chances of a satisfactory resolution for both parties involved.

In this moment of pause and attentive listening, you’re creating a safe space for the individual to communicate their issues. This can be empowering for them, as it validates their experience and allows them to feel heard and acknowledged.

Using active listening skills to understand their issues and concerns without judgment is crucial for building empathy. Listening is more than just hearing words. It involves a genuine attempt to grasp the emotions, concerns and underlying reasons behind their distress.

Step two: Involve the person in the problem-solving process

Involving the upset individual in the problem-solving process can be beneficial. Asking open-ended questions like “How can we address this for you?” or “What outcome are you seeking?” invites them to share their perspective and preferences. Although you might not always meet their expectations, managing expectations and striving to find a satisfactory solution is essential.

Step three: Stay calm

Approaching these situations constructively can turn discomfort into an opportunity for growth and relationship building. It also allows for creative problem-solving. Despite the discomfort of dealing with upset or frustrated individuals, it’s crucial to stay calm yourself. Demonstrating calmness and professionalism is vital to model the desired behaviour.


While there’s no foolproof method to diffuse every situation with complete confidence, sticking to simple yet effective strategies can enhance the satisfaction of both the upset person and ourselves in managing such circumstances.

Evan Hoffman portrait

Dr. Evan Hoffman is an instructor in the Faculty of Management at Vancouver Island University. With more than two decades of global experience in various educational and professional roles, Evan is a skillful trainer, consultant, negotiator and educator who has conducted workshops and training sessions for a wide range of individuals, from community leaders to government officials.


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