How to De-escalate Angry Encounters at the Reception Desk

How to De-escalate Angry Encounters at the Reception Desk

Tell me about a time when you had to deal with an angry customer.

Have you been hit with one of these awkward prompts during a job interview before? Coming up with an appropriate response at the moment that’s both honest and impressive is actually pretty tough. Why? If we’re being completely honest, most of us don’t handle difficult, negatively-charged situations with grace. So, when you look back on how you may have handled an angry customer or visitor in the past, you’re likely to cringe a little bit. Or a lot.

That’s okay. Dealing with raw and visceral negative emotions can be challenging for all of us. And we’re not always proud of how we handle ourselves in those moments. We’re often taken by surprise when an office visitor or a customer explodes in a fit of rage. It leaves us scrambling to regain control of the situation. And, by instinct, we often make a power move to take control of the angry individual by invalidating their feelings or redirecting their negative energy to someone else.

However, that’s not the best way to de-escalate a situation that’s reached a fever pitch. Sure, you may be able to regain control by brute force, but what have you lost? Perhaps you’ve lost that visitor’s business or their trust. And, if other visitors were around to witness the situation, you may have also lost their respect, as well.

In this post, we share tips on how to handle angry visitors in your front office. These tips are good to know because you and your staff are guaranteed to encounter an angry visitor sooner or later. Let’s get started.

How to Identify Angry Visitors

First things first, let’s discuss how to identify an angry visitor.

In many cases, it’s pretty easy to identify when a visitor is angry. They’re the loudest person in the room. They’re frowning. They’re combative and inconsolable.

But anger doesn’t always present in that way.

Sometimes, angry visitors pace back and forth. Or they keep coming up to the receptionist’s desk to ask how much longer it will be before they’re seen. Or they may be sharing their frustration with other visitors in your reception area.

Most of the time, angry visitors will approach you and your staff to vent their frustration. But, in some cases, it’s up to you to approach the angry visitor. This is especially true if an angry visitor is complaining to others and potentially inciting a mild mutiny in the reception area.

To maintain a sense of calm in your reception area, your front office staff must remain aware of all of your visitors at all times and be willing to approach any visitor who seems agitated. Being responsive early on when a visitor is mildly annoyed can prevent an explosive encounter from occurring later.

How to Identify Angry Visitors

Stay Calm and Be Compassionate

When dealing with an angry individual, don’t lose your cool. Ever. It’s important to meet their negative energy with calmness and compassion. This will balance the visitor’s angry disposition.

Anger is a self-focused emotion. If you confront the angry individual with more anger, it’s like adding fuel to the fire. However, if you bring a sense of compassion to your interaction, it will immediately counteract the anger. Compassion is recognizing how someone else feels and wanting to relieve their discomfort. Compassion is selfless, while anger is self-serving.

You can show your angry visitor that you’re bringing calm and compassionate energy by employing the following body language tactics:

  • Facing the visitor with your entire body, not just your head
  • Maintaining eye contact
  • Listening quietly
  • Nodding occasionally
  • Using a calm tone when you do speak
  • Speaking slowly

Try not to panic. The initial anger will eventually dissolve and cooler heads will prevail. You can’t control your visitor, but you can control how you react to them. The energy you bring to the interaction can quickly de-escalate anger.

Remember That Anger Isn’t Always Anger

Sometimes, a person can appear angry when they’re actually frustrated or anxious. Perhaps, they arrived at your office already angry and a small incident that they wouldn’t normally notice became their final straw. While that won’t change the circumstance of you dealing with an angry individual in your front office, it may help you tackle this incident with compassion.

Remember That Anger Isn't Always Anger

Actively Listen to the Angry Visitor

Listening isn’t simply being quiet and waiting for the other person to stop speaking so that you can say what you want. Listening is seeking to understand what the other person wants you to know.

When someone is angry, they’re more likely to express themselves by accusing others of wrongdoing. Lashing out with accusatory language can be a defense mechanism that the angry visitor uses to gain control of a situation that they don’t like. As long as the language is not abusive, don’t get distracted by it.

Instead of allowing their loudness or defensiveness to make you defensive, listen to what they’re saying. Find the truth behind their words (even if it’s simply the truth of how they’re feeling and not the objective truth of what’s really happening). Not to mention, what if the visitor is actually right?

It’s not your job, at that moment, to prove to your visitor that they’re wrong. But instead, it’s your job to listen to and acknowledge their feelings.

You can show that you’re actively listening by summarizing what the visitor has told you in your own words. If the visitor corrects you, take that correction and re-summarize. Be sure that you’re on the same page.

When listening to an angry visitor, don’t attempt to multitask. In other words, don’t look down at the computer, don’t look to or talk to others, and don’t answer the phone in mid-rant. Those power plays won’t de-escalate the situation, but rather make it worse. Instead, give the visitor your undivided attention.

Remember to focus on the visitor’s thoughts and not feelings. They may feel angry, but why? The why is what needs your attention.

Don’t be afraid to respond to the visitor with reflective comments and questions that help you gain more clarity. If you don’t understand a point that the visitor is making, ask them to explain more fully. But be mindful of your tone. Always speak with calmness and compassion.

Use Their Name

One way to immediately begin de-fusing an angry interaction is by calmly inserting the visitor’s name. Addressing them by name accomplishes several positives:

  • First, it’s a sign of professionalism and shows your visitor that you respect them
  • Second, it personalizes the situation and forces you to see the visitor as a human and not an angry caricature of themselves
  • Third, it calms the visitor because, as Dale Carnegie once famously said, people love the sound of their own name

Using the visitor’s name in a natural way (i.e. not at the start of each response you make) will allow you to establish a much-needed rapport that disarms the visitor and makes them feel like you’re on their side. You may be able to de-escalate an angry encounter a lot faster because you’ve inserted the visitor’s name into your interaction.

Allow the Person to Complete Everything They Want to Say

Resist the urge to interrupt a visitor mid-rant. That’s only going to further enrage them. People want the chance to be heard. If you stop them before they paint the entire picture for you, they’ll feel like you’re only responding to part of what they’ve said. They’re not wrong about that.

Your attempts to shut down an angry visitor while they’re ranting is exactly that—a shutdown attempt. But shutting down an angry visitor isn’t going to resolve their issue and will likely make it worse.

And be careful not to rush the conversation along, either. When a visitor feels rushed, it can exacerbate their already-raw emotions.

Instead, allow the angry visitor to tell you everything that’s wrong and what led up to it. You’ll know that they’ve finished when they return to the beginning of their frustration. This loop-over is your signal to interject with a comment.

Offer Solutions

So what do you say when your visitor has unloaded all of their frustrations at your feet?

As a representative of the business, you are expected to say something. That something isn’t, “Sorry. There’s nothing we can do.”

That’s incredibly frustrating. Your visitor doesn’t want to hear that response because it doesn’t solve their issue. And, to be fair, that type of shoulder-shrug response is also passive-aggressive.

Truthfully, there’s always something you can do, even if it’s to give your visitor the tools they need to resolve their issue elsewhere.

Often, resolution begins with your delivery. Take a cooperative stance with the visitor. Offer solutions that can help them solve their issue. If, for example, they’re upset that they’re still waiting, a solution may be to re-schedule their appointment for a later date.

When responding to an irate visitor, be sure to make it personal. Though you shouldn’t take their anger personally (even if it’s directed at you), you should make your response personal to show that you’re compassionate and care about helping right the wrong. Using the pronoun “I” makes it personal instead of “we”, which would make what you say sound corporate and robotic. You may be representing your company, but you’re also a real person speaking to another real person.

Use Appropriate Body Language

Experts suggest that as much as 93% of communication is nonverbal. In other words, our facial expressions, our posture, the gestures that we make, and the tones of our voices communicate way more than our words alone. Instinctively, we communicate through nonverbal means. What you do is much more powerful than what you say.

When dealing with an irate individual, this is even more apparent. People who are in an angry state are more likely to pick up on and respond to your nonverbal cues. Be sure to do the following:

  • Relax and don’t feel tense (you’ll stay calm by remembering that the visitor is angry at the situation, not you)
  • Maintain appropriate eye contact (don’t stare into the visitor’s eyes too long, and don’t avoid eye contact either)
  • Control your thoughts so that you don’t unintentionally take a defensive posture, such as folding your arms

Remember that the angry visitor is not your enemy. Instead, your common enemy is the problem that your visitor is dealing with. Remember that the angry visitor is not your enemy. Instead, your common enemy is the problem that your visitor is dealing with. Share on X Work together to solve this issue.

Don’t Argue

Whatever you do, don’t argue back with the angry visitor. Arguing is bad news all around. It emits a bad impression of your business. Not only will you potentially lose that visitor as a client but you may also negatively color how others, including those in the reception area, think about your business.

Don’t forget, the irate visitor can also take their anger online and leave a scathing review of your organization on sites like Google, Facebook, or Yelp. Avoid that by always maintaining calm professionalism.

Remember that you always represent your organization. No matter what you do, you and your organization are tied together in the visitor’s mind. Even if they’re annoyed with you as an individual and not with the company as a whole, your response will directly impact how they feel about your company. Behave in a way that’s consistent with your business’ values and overall brand. Otherwise, the angry customer may report your behavior which can, in turn, jeopardize your job.

Take the Irate Visitor to the Side

If it’s possible, always attempt to take your visitor to a different location, even if it’s a quiet corner in your reception area. Moving an irate person to a private space accomplishes a lot of good things:

  • First, it reinstates a calm atmosphere in the main reception area, which is especially important if your other visitors are present
  • Second, it gives you the opportunity to better hear the irate visitor without an audience that may or may not chime in with their observations and further muddy the waters
  • Third, a change of scenery can give your visitor a chance to regain composure and reframe their argument

Express Empathy

You can feel sincerely sorry for what the visitor is experiencing without actually accepting wrongdoing. A big part of compassion is feeling empathy for what the customer is going through.

Eliminate the “me vs. them” dynamic which can cause you to feel defensive. Instead, put yourself in their position. How would you feel?

You can show empathy by saying any of the following:

“I understand how…”
“I would feel the exact same way if…”
“I see how this is incredibly frustrating…”

Avoid Being Negative

When dealing with an irate visitor, maintain positivity. Saying “no” or other negative words can further enrage the visitor. Taking a positive stance can make your visitor feel positive, too. Using affirmative language, such as “yes,” “absolutely,” or “sure” can re-direct the conversation from negative to positive.

Document the Interaction

It’s a best practice to document all interactions, but in particular document negative interactions with visitors and these notes to their file. Having detailed notes about your visitors will help you and others in the future know how to best interact with the visitor.

It’s also a great idea to use a visitor management system. Your visitor management system can be configured to send you a special notification when a visitor whom you’ve previously had issues with arrives. This alert will give your host a heads-up so that they avoid past triggers with the same visitor, such as an extended wait time.

Learn more about The Receptionist for iPad visitor management system here.

Don’t Over-Promise

If you’re confrontation avoidant, it can be easy to make empty promises just to calm down an irate visitor. But resist the urge. Don’t make promises that you’re unable to keep. Doing so will ultimately make it worse for the visitor.

Instead, do what you can to help your visitor, and let them know that’s what you will do. However, don’t make promises on behalf of someone else, especially if it’s out of your hands. Do whatever you promise the visitor, but don’t promise too much to avoid getting into a bind.

Follow Up

Always remember to follow up with your angry visitor, even if you’ve resolved their issue. Following up shows that you sincerely care about their experience with your organization. Now that your visitor has had an opportunity to calm down, they’ll welcome your follow-up as a goodwill gesture.

Final Thoughts

The front office is often the frontline. Your front office staff must be ready to handle all types of unexpected and sometimes unpleasant experiences. Implement the above tips to appropriately respond when an angry visitor strikes.

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