How to Handle Customer Threats
Adam Toporek Keynote Speaker of Customers That Stick®

How to Handle Customer Threats


One of the sad realities of customer service is that a small percentage of customers will resort to threats to attempt to get what they want.

Reasons vary. Perhaps the customer is exasperated and is lashing out. Perhaps the customer hasn’t gotten what they want and is escalating it to see if you will back down. Perhaps the customer is just not a very nice person and likes to threaten people.

Once someone threatens you, it changes the dynamic of the conversation. Depending on the severity of the threat, it might actually end the conversation.

We will cover some typical threats below, in increasing order of severity, and some strategies for responding to each type of threat.

The 3S Service Process

First, a general approach for responding to customer threats.

After years of working with organizations, we have developed a three phase process for working through any customer service challenge.

You can read more about our 3S Service Process here; however, the three main strategies are…

  • Soothe the Psyche (resolve any negative emotions)
  • Solve the Screw Up (fix the situation)
  • Set Up the Success (circle back to make sure the customer is emotionally and operationally resolved)

As you go through the specific situations below, keep the 3S Service Process in mind. It is a powerful overall framework that you can use in conjunction with some of the specific advise below.

Handling Customer Threats

I’m Going to Take My Business Down the Street

This threat is nothing more than stating the obvious, as this is the implied threat in EVERY customer service encounter.

When a customer voices it, it is because the customer is not getting what they want from the conversation and have resorted to actually saying what everyone already knows. Unless stuck due to contractual or switching barriers, unhappy customers tend to go elsewhere.

Two good options here are 1) ignore it, simply don’t respond to the threat and stay focused on problem solving or 2) address the threat in a way that you can turn for the positive.

You know sir, if I felt the way you do, I would take my business down the street too, but here’s the thing, I’m going to do everything I can to make sure not only that you stay with us but that when you walk out this door today you are looking forward to coming back to see us. Now, let me ask you a question…

I’m Going to Bash You Online / Report You to the Better Business Bureau

These two threats are first cousins and are probably the most common threats leveled at businesses nowadays. Consumers are drunk with the power of the Internet and social media, and they vastly overestimate its power in the case of a simple customer service disagreement.

After the crash in 2008, the Better Business Bureau complaints for one of my retail stores spiked. It was still just a handful, but the cases had no merit and were based on people trying to bully us into refunds to which they were not entitled.

I asked the BBB representative if they had seen an increase in complaints since the crash, and she told me that they had more than doubled. “Off the record,” she said, “people are using us to try to get money back.”

You see, making good on BBB threats is relatively easy and costs nothing but time; making good on online threats costs nothing in money or time. But that’s the beauty of online criticism, like anything in life that which is rare is more valued.

Online threats are a dime a dozen. For the most part, one online comment often doesn’t even rate. While online criticism should be monitored and addressed, you should not fear it and not let it be used against you in any significant way.

Ask them the following: What do you hope to accomplish by going online? Or… If you wrote something online, what would you say?

Your answer is then simple: My goal is to help you accomplish that right now, I want to help you fix every one of those challenges so that when you leave here today, the only thing you have left to write is how much you love it here. I would really appreciate one more chance to make that happen for you.

I’m Going to Report You to The Manager

This threat is often used to push around CSR’s and others who have layers above them in the business hierarchy. The customer has decided that threatening the livelihood of the person in front of them by potentially getting them “in trouble” is the way to get what they want.

There are many variations of this theme. For instance, in franchises or chains, customers will often threaten owners or managers with reporting them to the Corporate office.

Two approaches here:

  • Don the Cloak of Failure. Ma’am, I am really sorry to hear you say that, not because I am worried about getting in trouble, but because I know if you feel that way, then I have failed to make you happy. And that is my goal. I would love it if you could just give me another chance to see what I can do to turn this around for you.
  • Become their Transition Partner. You know ma’am, at this point, I think that is a good idea. It’s obvious that I am unable to resolve your issue, and I am truly sorry for that. If you will let me, I would like to personally make sure you get to my manager so she can help bring this matter to a resolution that will be great for you.
My Brother-In-Law Works for WBS

This is a version of the online threat on steroids. The customer hopes to scare you into thinking that with one phone call the I-Team Investigators will have you and your shady practices plastered all over the evening news.

This threat is usually bluster. Assuming you have not done anything seriously wrong (that changes matters), you generally have little to fear.

The great majority of local investigative journalists are hardworking folks who are not out to destroy businesses or careers just because a customer is unhappy. Most of them only want to expose the shady practices of unethical businesses.

However, the threat can still be real. Not all reporters are ethical in these matters and even the ones who do not have an axe to grind are extremely overworked. Some will simply go for the easy sensationalism and will not take the time to thoroughly fact check a story before making your business look bad.

The approach to this is the same as the online/BBB section above. Find out what they hope to accomplish by reporting you, and try to help them accomplish it in the moment.

I’ll Sue Your Butt

Here’s the deal, people think they can sue for anything. And they are right, but only crazy people sue when they don’t have at least some sort of plausible case. Sometimes, the threat is just made in the heat of the moment; other times, the customer actually goes far enough to get a lawyer to write a threatening letter.

Handling Customer Threats | Angry Guy Yelling

Remember, any jackleg can get a lawyer to write a threatening letter. When they do, they are trying to see what they can get without suing you. That’s why you’re getting a letter and not a notice of suit.

Generally, once a legal threat is made, the conversation is over. Sometimes, the person just got hot and spoke in the moment. If they walk back from the threat and you want to give them another shot, that is a judgement call that you have to make in real time.

In general, once they bring up the lawyers, then any future communication goes through yours.

I’ll Kick Your Butt

I’ve dealt with a man who demanded a cash refund on the spot and refused to leave the lobby, a grown man who threw a tantrum at a young female CSR and stormed out saying “this is NOT over,” and a CSR who had a stalker. While overreaction should be guarded against, physical threats should not be taken lightly.

I will not speak in depth about this topic, because it is too serious an issue for a non-professional. I highly recommend Gavin DeBecker’s The Gift of Fear to understand threats in the workplace.

From the customer service side, the advice is simple: Just like a legal threat, once a physical threat is levied, the conversation is over. I am no longer interested in that customer’s business. I will let them know that they have crossed the line by threatening me and that I am ending the conversation.

Use your judgement how to do this based on the situation, but in the vast majority of circumstances a physical threat should never be tolerated.

There’s plenty of other business in the world. Protect yourself, protect your team, and protect your other customers.


Being threatened is not a pleasant experience. Even lesser threats like the loss of business are inherently tough to receive because there is a part of all humans that respond on a visceral and emotional level to being threatened.

Helping your team members understand the different types of threats and how to handle them can give them the ability to stay calm under pressure and how to hopefully turn the situation to a positive end result.

Have you ever been threatened by a customer? How did you respond?

About the Author Adam Toporek

By Adam Toporek. Adam Toporek is an internationally recognized customer service expert, keynote speaker, and workshop leader. He is the author of Be Your Customer's Hero: Real-World Tips & Techniques for the Service Front Lines (2015), as well as the founder of the popular Customers That Stick® blog and co-host of the Crack the Customer Code podcast.

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