4 Steps to De-Escalate and Resolve any Customer Conflict

Our brains are hardwired to over-react. Conditioned to survive above all else, our brains can’t help but interpret day-to-day stresses as potential threats to our well-being. It doesn’t matter what’s causing us stress or how insignificant it might be. The mere thought of someone yelling at us raises the hair on the backs of our necks.

That’s why de-escalating calls is so important. The stresses you experience on the phone produce equally instinctive defense mechanisms. Learning how to handle angry prospects and win over difficult customers is a key technique for call center agents. When a frustrated customer confronts you during a call, your “fight or flight” response kicks in, urging you to either confront the customer head-on or escape the situation as quickly as possible.

Think back to the last time you had a frustrated customer on the line: did you find yourself wanting to defend your actions, tell the customer she’s wrong, or get off the phone as quickly as possible? All of these responses are perfect examples of “fight or flight,” and they’re also perfectly natural. But resolving customer conflict requires honing an unnatural set of behaviors – behaviors that defy your instincts – because while fight or flight may have helped your hunter-gatherer ancestors take down woolly mammoths, it won’t help you win happy customers on the phone.

Fortunately, with practice, effective conflict-resolving behaviors are easy to execute. The next time you come across a frustrated customer, commit to using the AURA method to resolve your conflict: Agree, Understand, Recommend Alternative, Affirm Plan of Action.

#1: Agree

“Agree with thine adversary quickly.” -Matthew, 5:25

The first step to de-escalating calls is conflict resolution. Before a word else leaves your lips, agree with your customer. Have you noticed how difficult it is to argue with someone who agrees with you? Must you agree that your customer is right and your organization is wrong? Of course not. You should, however, immediately establish some area of overlap between your customer’s perspective and your own.

Your customer will notice that you are working toward the same aim – earning the customer’s business through excellent service – and work equally hard to understand your perspective.

Dale Carnegie, author of the timeless 1937 best-seller How to Win Friends and Influence People, suggests the following phrase.

“I don’t blame you one iota for feeling as you do. If I were you I would undoubtedly feel just as you do.” A modern re-wording might sound like this: “Ms. Customer, you’re right. That must be frustrating. If I were you, I’d feel the exact same way.”

Offering your customer this token of empathy and validation is a powerful first step toward defusing tension.

By acknowledging upfront that your customer’s concerns are valid, you quickly move from foe to friend. Before you implement this technique, take careful note of a common mistake that causes this technique to backfire: never follow your agreement with “but.” Remember that the conversation is not about you, your thoughts, or your organization. The only sound that should follow “I’d feel the exact same way,” is silence. Let your customer do the talking. Your job is to listen.

#2: Understand

“Seek to understand, then to be understood.” – Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

A frustrated customer is an emotional one. It follows, then, that when you encounter an emotional customer, you should first satisfy the customer’s emotional needs. Only then can you propose logical solutions.

At the outset, strive to understand your customer sincerely and without judgment. In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey explains, “When you listen with empathy to another person, you give that person psychological air.” When you give your customer psychological air, you enable the customer to calm herself down and transition toward a logical, solution-oriented mindset. This transition must come organically. It must come from your customer. And it will only come after your customer feels understood.

Help your customer feel understood with a conversational technique called active listening. Active listening is simple: paraphrase your customer’s concerns, then confirm your understanding of them. Try these active listening phrases to create empathetic understanding with your customer.

 “Help me understand what you mean by ______?”

“If I’m hearing you correctly, you are saying that ______. Is that right?” or “Would you please clarify what you mean by ______?”

“Could you give me an example?”

“It sounds like your biggest frustration is ______. Is that right?”

Only after you understand your customer’s concerns, empathize with their perspective, and prove that you “get it” can you begin proposing alternatives.

#3: Recommend Alternatives

“The fact that some choice is good doesn’t necessarily mean that more choice is better.” -Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice

There is a phenomenon in consumer psychology called the paradox of choice. In short, the paradox of choice first acknowledges that people appreciate having choices. Choices give us a sense of autonomy and control. With choices, we feel free. At the same time, we hate making choices. Picture a dinner menu where every dish looks as enticing as the next. Too many choices can be paralyzing.

When it comes to your customer conversations, the paradox of choice poses a critical challenge: you are responsible for effectively balancing choice and simplicity for your customer. Fortunately, the most effective way to balance choice and simplicity for your customer is also the simplest: briefly restate your customer’s concerns, then propose only 2 solutions.

Recommending 2 alternatives to your customer using this strategy might sound like this:

“Because you said that your main concerns are __(Restate Concerns)__, let’s see if either of these two solutions could work for you. We could __(Option 1)__, which would __(Explanation)__, or we could __ (Option 2)__, which would __(Explanation)__. Which option sounds better for you?”

Remember that once you propose a solution, you become responsible for following through with it. Avoid proposing solutions that you might not be able to fulfill. Your customer might reply that neither alternative you propose is acceptable. Not to worry.

Try this response to help you and your customer find common ground:

“I understand that neither of these options is perfect. Let’s see what we can do to make these options better. If you could tell me which alternative is closer to the solution you’d like to see, we can use it as a starting point and figure out together how to improve it. Which option would you say is a better starting place for us?”

Of course, your next question will be a variation of, “What changes could we make to this option for you to be fully satisfied?” If you can make the requested changes, then do so. If you can’t, politely explain why the requested changes aren’t possible. Continue to propose alternatives until the customer is satisfied or you decide it’s best to escalate the call.

#4: Affirm Plan of Action

“The experienced soldier only makes a move when he is sure of his direction” -Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Now that your customer has picked an option that will satisfy her concerns, before you hang up to fulfill your promises, you have two more questions to ask.

1. “To confirm, once we get off the phone, I’m going to _____. Given what we discussed today, does this plan sounds right to you?”

2. “Do you have any other questions or concerns I can help you with today?”

Forgetting to ask these 2 questions is a classic case of cocking your head back and pumping your fist before you’ve broken the tape at the finish line. Take a second to confirm that you have fully addressed your customer’s concerns, then affirm your commitment to resolving them.

The Affirm step ensures that you don’t waste time working on a solution that your customer doesn’t actually want. It ensures that your 5-star service doesn’t result in a 1-star review.

Getting Started with AURA

To integrate AURA into your customer conversations, you will need to ingrain each step as habit. This will require some practice. Practice AURA on your live calls by first listening for signals that conflict resolution is necessary. Knowing when to use AURA is 90% of the challenge.

Listen carefully for these signals, and when you notice tension in your call climbing, calmly walk through the AURA process. You’ll find that once you’ve learned when to use AURA, actually using it is the easy part.

If you find that you’re struggling to identify the right situations to use AURA, try this activity: take 5 minutes and write out a list of 30 ways your customer might voice frustration on the phone. Read the list aloud, slowly. These are the phrases you need to listen for. As soon as you hear the customer voice any of these frustrations, perk your ears up, and start the A step of AURA: “Ms. Customer, you’re right. That must be frustrating. If I were you, I’d feel the exact same way. ”

Lastly, you’ll need to get comfortable using specific AURA phrases. Phrases like, “Ms. Customer, you’re right,” may not come naturally to you without practice. The best way to get comfortable with AURA phrases will be to recruit a partner to role play with you. Ask your partner to read your list of customer frustrations aloud (the list you built in the activity above) one item at a time, and for each item, role play using your perfect AURA response.

Customer Frustration: “I really can’t have this conversation right now.”  



“Ms. Customer, you’re right. We need to wrap this conversation up pronto. If I were you, I’d feel the exact same way.”


“Help me understand: is your specific concern the amount of time this process is taking, or is right now just not a good time for you?

Recommend Alternatives

“Because your main concern is the amount of time this process is taking, let’s see if either of these 2 solutions could work for you. We could continue to work through this process now, which would wrap all of this up in the next 10 minutes, or we could submit a support ticket, which would take a full day and some back and forth over email but would allow you to get off the phone now. Which option works better for you?”

Affirm Plan of Action

“To confirm, I’m going to finish up this process with you now and we’ll have this taken care of within the next 10 minutes. Does this sound right? Do you have any other questions or concerns I can help you with before we co

Master De-Escalating Calls

Agree. Understand. Recommend alternatives. Affirm your plan of action. These 4 steps will empower you to resolve any customer conflict and convert frustrated customers satisfied ones. Use AURA to deliver excellent service, and your organization will notice. You now possess a process for deescalating calls and consistently winning happy customers. Dedicate thought and energy to it, and use it consistently. Your customers are counting on you. 

If you would like to learn more about how Balto can help you improve customer satisfaction rate and help your contact center run more efficiently, schedule a demo and see Balto in action.

Suggested Readings:

You might find these books particularly helpful when it comes to handling your calls.

  • How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
  • The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
  • The Nordstrom Way to Customer Service Excellence by Patrick D. McCarthy and Robert Spector

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