How to Handle Customer Threats

March 18, 2013

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?

39 thoughts on “How to Handle Customer Threats”

  1. I don’t get a lot of threats mostly because I can help 99.9% of the customers I talk with. But there’s always a few, right?

    The one I get the most is the “I’ll go to another competitor.” At that point, we’ve probably reached a point in the conversation where our app isn’t the best fit for the customer. And finding the best fit is key to a happy customer. So I’ll flip it and say something like, “Actually, I think they would be a better fit because they have X,Y,Z. Would you like me to export get everything ready to you can transfer it over?”

    Most customers are shocked that I’ve got their best interests in mind. At the end of the day, the best fit is what I’m after. If that comes through another company, I’m fine with that.

    1. You know Chase, we do not get a lot of threats either, but what I’ve found is that while few and far between, threats really affect CSR’s emotionally. They are rare events, but powerful ones.

      It’s great when you can help guide an upset customer to the solution they are looking for — even if it is outside your doors. I think when most people resort to threats, it is because they feel they are not being listened to or respected. These are the ones that we can turn around.

  2. Worked in service-oriented businesses a lot of years Adam, seen almost every one of these examples first hand. Along the lines of your scripts, one thing that kinda builds on these: “We can’t fix it if we don’t know it’s broken, so Thank You for saying that. Here’s the [complaint form, manager, email] please, please let them know so we can get this resolved, make sure it doesn’t happen again. For now, let’s do….” I’ve even been known to empathize ala ‘been saying that for years, no one listens to me.’

    Biggest weapon against this of course, do it right the first time. Second biggest and just as important: train your team! As you have here you have to prepare staff for these kinds of issues, put a plan in place, empower them to help, what steps to take next so no one is ‘blindsided’ when someone makes good on their threat. Most importantly you train them to recognize warning signs, to know when to immediately get help, get a manager – or simply walk away. FWIW.

    1. That’s a good technique Davina — taking the customer’s side against the procedure or policy — but it is very risky in the wrong CSR’s hands. I’m sure you knew how to pull it off, and I’ve used that on a rare occasion. But it requires a deft hand to not make the situation worse or effect the customer’s view of the company.

      You’re right — training is the real key. There will always be customers who take their displeasure to the next level by threatening; the best thing we can do is make sure our teams are prepared and know how to handle the different kinds of threats.

  3. What a great post Adam — and much needed. There’s a term for this sort of behavior called cyberdisinhibition. Love your answers on how to handle these too!

    1. Appreciate it Frank! It is amazing how powerful the drug of “online power” can be to some people. Thanks for the new term, I had not run across that before.

  4. Sometimes all it takes to help the person to see the other side of the problem. It’s hard to convince a furious customer, but helping to understand the real problem is something that requires a lot of patience.

    1. Anthony Russo

      Oh no when you get ripped off by a garage and while they have your car they damage you car and when you confront them about it your told to go f your self now is that how you treat you customers total B’s

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  7. I have heard it all and than some, but its the nature of the business. I worked in Customer Service for years on the front line for Call Centers (hated it) or service jobs. It was no “bowl of cheerios”, if you get my drift, but your reaction to complaints is everything. People will judge in minutes by your tone how the conversation is going to go or if their problem will be solved.

    Three months ago, I had a problem with giant cable company and after repeated calls and emails, I had to take it to Twitter get someone to call me back. I didn’t want to, but when my hand is forced after repeated attempts, I had about had “enough”. Presto! A response and my problem was fixed in a matter of days. Of course they asked for me to “play nice” on Twitter to save face I guess. I happily did for the sake of my resolution, but I understood why.

    People can get unruly over anything when it pertains to money. There was an incident were a customer refused to pay their bill after the job was done, claiming that the technician broke their coffee table. Funny, because the technician never went into the living room. After repeated attempts to get payment, the owner put a lien on their property and PRESTO, payment was made in person.

    Why do people take it so far until people get pissed? Customer reps have to have on “dumbo” ears and really listen. Customers are telling you there is a real problem, but you have to be smart to know when its a constant “complainer” or a real problem. Or when you have a customer that is more of a pain in the a%# and not worth having anymore. Those customers you fire because they will never be happy no matter what you do and they know they can push you around and squeeze you for freebies as long as you allow it.

    At the end of the day, you have to pick your battles wisely, be a good listener and fix the problem. Great post Adam!

    1. You make some great points Sonia! It’s really one of the worst aspects of social media and customer service — the haste at which some people will take to a public attack without trying to rectify the situation privately first.

      I certainly understand when, after numerous attempts, people lash out on social media, but some customers use it as a way to gain an upper hand, instead of a way to get a situation rectified.

      For the record, I’m in retail, so I’m with you… the bowl is definitely not always filled with Cheerios! 🙂 But there are many, many more good customers out there than bad, and that is why I love customer service.

      Thanks for the great comment!

  8. Steve Simitzis

    As a customer, I always escalate when the CSR can’t/won’t help. Not as a threat but because CSRs are frequently not empowered to make adjustments, or they don’t have complete information. I find that I solve half of all my customer service problems by escalating. I would rather it were not so!

    1. Hey Steve, It sounds like you escalate as most people should, when you can not get your problem solved at the level you are working with. And I agree, it would be nice if front lines were more empowered to solve problems than they are at a lot of companies. The less escalation needed, the better for everyone!

      Thanks for sharing!

  9. Just came across this, Adam, and I just wanted to thank you for mentioning me and one of my books. I’m flattered and it’s helpful to spread the word about the book and it’s rather unique content on the topic.

  10. Hope you don\’t mind me mentioning that I\’m doing a free video series on dealing with angry customers, and the latest session is on the CARP system. The first ten lessons are at: (oops, not allowed to do the link thing, so let’s try it this way:

  11. Thanks for the notes on this; I had a customer call in and yell at me for an hour with personal litigation threats, insults to me personally and the entire time while I was just trying to help her with installing a backup software. What’s worse; the whole issue was due to her buying a new computer and never installing the software on the new computer (like it’s magically going to download itself and install itself on random computers).

  12. I’m usually well-liked by customers so this is a strange one. I’m not sure if this guy is a customer as he never buys anything. He saw me as … an easy target for his hate and threats. Every week, he waits for me to come to work … I asked him how I could possibly have offended him and he said … I deserved to be “beaten down”. This guy lives 40 minutes away but chooses to drive to where I work to threaten me. What can I do? Should I call police as soon as I see him – their response time is slow.

    EDITOR’S NOTE: Portions of this comment have been redacted for being sensitive in nature. We have left a portion of the comment, to reply to the original poster and to potentially help others that may see this thread.

    1. Dear Essie,

      I empathize with your situation. It is a very difficult situation you find yourself in. We are not security experts, and this situation has moved into physical threats, so we are not the best people to advise you on how to handle this person. You should consult police or other local experts to know what you can and should do — and what they can do for you. That said, you should absolutely report this to management, so they can be aware of the threat and also because, in many jurisdictions, there are methods that the company can use to prevent harassing customers from coming to the property.

      Please do talk to someone locally as soon as you can, and please be careful. I hope that you can resolve this situation and go back to serving your customers without worry soon.

      1. Thanks for your support. Management just laughed it off saying he is probably harmless and the police said there is nothing they can unless he comes back and physically harms me. My parents suggested I speak with an employment law attorney and at best find other job.

  13. i run a pest control business and i just had a customer call me and complain 10 minutes after the treatment was done saying after the treatment, she called another company and they told her that our treatment would not work and that she should get a refund…so the lady called me threatening to sue if we don’t refund the money because another company told her so. First i have over 2,000 customers with 100% success rate. and how crazy does this sound for someone to think there is legality behind a competitors opinion. it wasnt even an hour after we treated her home.

  14. I worked in the insurance industry, and received most of these threats often enough that I found ways to calm the customer down.

    However, over my ten years as an agent, I’ve had 4 different people level physical threats against me. As well as one of these customers stalking another agent. I have minor PTSD and anxiety issues from being assaulted at work by a customer (this was back before the insurance job), and these 4 people near ruined this job for me. My boss, the lead agent, did nothing to interfere, before or after, except to say “Once their policy cancels, they aren’t allowed with us anymore.”

    I have a chance to go back to the same office. And there are a lot of benefits to this at this point in my life. But my anxiety is skyrocketing just thinking about those 4 threatening people and the possibly having to deal with another.

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  16. Okay, I’m going to be straight with you all. I am a cashier. While there are VERY few polite customers (I’m glad they exist at least) I have grown to despise 99% of the people that come in to the store.

    The cussing, threats, rudeness, lack of manners, insane homeless, drug-addicts, and yes… idiocy, have made me all but give up hope for my fellow man. I am not exaggerating, they really are that bad. I feel like I’m a legitimately easygoing person, but I need a MUCH better job, with MUCH better people as customers NOW.

    Forget customer service, these scumbags are not fit to be among decent folk.

  17. What do you do about A crazy person wandering in and breaking down the door to get at You? Never been so scared in my life

    1. Sorry to hear that happened to you Mark. Those really bad moments happen so rarely, that it is easy to forget that they DO happen and things can get very scary out there. Hope everyone was okay.

  18. I own a highly reputable roofing company with over 600 glowing reviews online. I’ve never had a bad one until now and this lady has threatened to go everywhere she can find me and bash me online. She had a leak in her dinning room and we replaced the copper flashing over a bay window which was clearly in disrepair. It was right in the area where the leak was. We completed the repair and I believe we did a great job on it. We have pictures of the repair. During the repair, we noted that the 2nd story wood window above had separation. We were not contracted to do any work on the window however we sealed it best we could as a courtesy and notified the customer that she should have a window company look at it. It leaked again now 10 months later and she called us back out. She was highly confrontational with my tech and then me after I got involved. Ive has tough customers before and I’ve always been able to resolve their issues whether they were right or wrong to satisfy the situation. In this case we never specified that we would “stop the leak” specifically in our contract and we property performed the work we did quote. We found evidence that the window leak is coming from the upper window. To give her the benefit of the doubt and because she was so mad and unreasonable, I offered to credit her the money back for the flashing which did need to be replaced and when she implied that would go online and trash us I even offered to help with the interior repairs. She has been extremely nasty and took to online to bash my company. She has now sent me messages saying that our flashing work is also faulty and that 3 other contractors have confirmed that. She will not however send me pictures or more information. We have been 100% professional thus far. She has now threatened me legally so as the article says, I’m terminating conversation with her. My question is, can I sue this lady for damaging my reputation If she slanders me on multiple platforms? We performed the work per our contract 100%. If she tries to sue me, can I sure her for my legal fees? This customer has me really frustrated.

    1. Hi James,

      Thank you for sharing your story here. I understand how frustrating your situation must be. It sounds like you’ve been trying to make the situation right. I would love to advise you on what to do next, but that part of the article stops where it does because that’s where our expertise also ends. Once the legal threats start (assuming they’re legitimate and the customer doesn’t walk back from them), then I recommend you consult an attorney. Of course, it is always preferable to resolve situations without “going there,” however, if the customer is leaving you no option, then please do seek the advice of counsel.

      Best of luck with your situation James! I do hope you can resolve it quickly.

  19. I owned a small construction company that mainly did metal roofing and siding remodel jobs for homeowners. I did a job for a lady that consisted of 2 months in removing her shingles and installed a metal roof and also installed new board & batten vinyl siding. Payment was set up in three draws as different steps of the work was accomplished. The customer even tipped the sub contractors a $100 each the day we finished and said she was happy. A short time later she called and said didn’t like the gutters. I fixed the gutter drip and she called a week later and said she hated the entire job and demanded $50,000 or said she would file suite . I never got sued but for the last 1 1/2 years I’ve been threatened that she would put me in prison some how. She also filed a criminal report to our states attorney generals office. Then she wrote a nasty letter to my wife’s place of employment. Now she’s filed a report with my counties prosecutor for home improvement fraud. Then she had my state income tax refund froze because she works for dept of revenue. She’s ruined me on Facebook and social media. My buisness went under very fast. She also contacted numerous past customers of mine asking if they would join her in humiliating me. It’s truly ruined my life. I can’t take no more

  20. A customer has come to speak to a member of staff to make a complaint. They are threatening to get you to shut down. Your objective is to resolve the issue with minimum reputation and financial damage to the company. What do you do?

    1. Hi Neyoh, All customer service is context sensitive, so the answer would completely depend on the details of the situation. You can use the tips in this post and our 3S Service Process as a great starting point. Best of luck!

  21. Hi Adam

    I work in the media, home delivery of newspapers. Lately we have had issues with these deliveries and we have had subscribers threaten to slit our throats if the matter is not resolved. How would you handle this? as I am somewhat perplexed my some of my colleagues indifference to this threat

    1. Hi Carolyn, I hope that this situation has been resolved. Other than the basic principles above, I couldn’t possibly advise on specifically how to handle the customer side of this in a blog comment. As mentioned, once a customer threat is leveled, the conversation is over. But I realize you may still have to deliver to that house, so I would speak to whomever you need to in a supervisory role at your company so that you can do your job in a way that feels safe. Wishing you the best with this situation.

  22. Gabriella Jacobs

    My husband and I are right now dealing with a customer who will owe us $10.5k when job is completed since our workers Are there this owner told our employee to do more than what was in the contract he didn’t know so he did it without telling us when my husband told he’ll have to pay for it the customer laughed in my husband’s face got in his car and left my husband emailed 3x he went there this morning and the customers wife said you have to paint this huge long intricate wine wrack and if we don’t they’re not paying us help

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