We all try to do our best, but every once in a while, things go wrong.

Sometimes very wrong.

Sometimes you don’t know something has gone wrong until you or your staff picks up the phone or looks up over the cash register and encounters a VERY angry person.

Unfortunately, this is almost certainly going to happen, even if you run a nearly perfect business. Somewhere, somehow, you are going to make a customer angry. Of course, if you’ve been in business for a while, you already know some people are quicker to anger than others. Some people, alas, seem to be looking for opportunities to get angry.

But if you are armed with just a few clues for how to handle angry customers, you can usually smooth things over very quickly. Even better, you can communicate and help your angry customer so they get what they need and – gulp – might even go home happy and turn the experience into a PR and marketing win.

So here’s what to do the next time you’ve got a VERY angry person on your hands.

1) Don’t interrupt them.

The #1 mistake that small business owners make when they’ve got an enraged customer is to jump in and fix the problem immediately. Sure, logically, that’s the right thing to do. But if you’ve got somebody who’s shaking mad, their top priority is to vent.

This is the hardest part of handling angry people. If you jump in and try to cut off their initial blast of anger, your communication will go nowhere. This is especially true if you are dealing with someone over the phone. Despite their rage, your job is to try to help them, and you’re not going to get very far with helping them until they’ve vented.

This doesn’t mean they have license to verbally abuse or threaten staff, but do give them enough space to share what happened and why they’re angry.

2) Empathize.

It’s hard to care and be empathetic when someone is throwing a tantrum. If you’ve ever had a moment when you all but wanted to burn a business down, try to remember that.

Above all, do not take their tantrum personally. Even if they are directly blaming you, much of their response is about them.

3) Repeat what they tell you.

As their venting cools down, you’ll start to get more information about what happened. Repeat back to them what you heard. This ensures you understand them, but it actually serves a far more important purpose: It builds trust.

The bulk of the anger often stems from the customer thinking they’re dealing with a business that doesn’t understand or care what’s happened. As you repeat back parts of their tale, they’ll see you get it and this can slowly build trust.

4) Do a quick fix.

A quick fix is an immediate gift to the customer.

It can be cutting their bill in half, or maybe it’s giving them the entire service for free. How far you want to go with a sweep fix is up to you.

There should always be someone at your company that can do an on-the-spot sweep fix, even a small one. Maybe that’s a manager or a trusted employee, but the sweep fix works best when a person is there to do it on the spot.

Here’s an example:

I was at a well-known New Orleans restaurant a few years ago. A member of our party found a bug in her meal. Fortunately, she was calm and very quiet about it. It wasn’t until the waitress leaned over her plate and made moon eyes that I even knew there was a problem.

The plate was instantly whisked away with profuse apologies. Within three minutes the owner was there, apologizing even more. Graciously and without hesitation – before any of us had even asked if she would get a free dinner – he comped our entire table of 15.

5) Do more permanent fixes.

Hopefully by now your irate customer has calmed down and is even reasonably satisfied. They may want to just take their discount and go home. That’s OK.

Now your real work starts. It’s time for a system check to make sure that whatever happened can never happen again. I hope it doesn’t mean firing an employee, but occasionally that is required. It may just mean one of your systems needs an additional check. For example, a faulty inventory management system led to shipping the wrong order to a customer. Whatever it is, fix it.

Professional complainers

It’s possible you may have one or two customers who get irate a lot, over very little. These individuals are not just average customers. They are professional complainers. These are the ones that play “gotcha” and will basically blackmail you into doing what they want or they’ll leave a nasty review.

As the saying goes, “the customer is always right”, but these people might be right for someone else. Some customers you just don’t want.

Do yourself a favor. Send the professional complainers over to your competitors.