Fog Creek

Dealing with Angry People – Tech Talk

In this Tech Talk, Rich Armstrong, our COO and former Support Team Lead, discusses techniques to help you deal with angry people. He covers why anger is, in fact, a gift and talks about the LATTE method of dealing with anger in the right way. The aim of which is to not only solve the customer’s problem but to turn them into a fan.

About Fog Creek Tech Talks

At Fog Creek, we have weekly Tech Talks from our own staff and invited guests. These are short, informal presentations on something of interest to those involved in software development. We try to share these with you whenever we can.

Content and Timings

  • Introduction (0:00)
  • Serving Frustrated Customers (0:17)
  • Anger is a gift (1:30)
  • LATTE (2:32)
  • Listen (2:48)
  • Acknowledge (5:12)
  • Tell (6:40)
  • Take Action (7:40)
  • Explain (8:28)



We all have to deal with angry people in our lives. I have come across some resources that make it far, far easier for me and I’m going to tell you why.

Serving Frustrated Customers

So, actual anger is much more rare than just frustration. When you get an angry person on the phone, what it usually is is frustration. They won’t come to you, you aren’t on the phone with them unless they suspect that you can help them in some way. If they go out and start shaking people and start complaining to them, then they get put in jail. If they call you up, then they have some suspicion that you can do something about it.

In that respect then they are kind of like your customer. And so really what we’re talking about here is serving frustrated customers, so surprise, you have entered Customer Service training! But the thing is, you can actually use these techniques no matter whether you are dealing with an external customer or somebody who. You know, I use this on 1x1s if people are angry or frustrated about a given thing at Fog Creek. I will use the same techniques and you can almost 100% use these techniques without anybody knowing, even somebody who knows about them.

Anger is a gift

So, anger is a gift. Rage Against the Machine said it right. It’s a gift that you have to open in the right order. Just like you get a Christmas present, and you tear right into the package you’re going to make some people mad. You need to actually open the card, and when you open the card look at it and say ‘ooh, that’s really nice of you to say’ even though you really want to get into the gift. And then your choice, you can either rip off the wrapping or take it off nicely. But, inside that package is a gift. And the secret here is that the bigger the anger, the bigger the gift. What I’ve found is that the people who contact our company who are really, really, super angry are really, really, super invested in using our products. Otherwise, we couldn’t have gotten them that angry, they would have just gone away. And when people are really, really, super angry, then they’re really, really super-invested and if you can solve their problems and make them happy, then you can really turn them into fans.


So, LATTE. This is a simple mnemonic that you can use in a frustrating situation. It actually comes from customer service training at Starbucks. Listen, acknowledge, tell, take action and explain. I’m going to go through those one at a time.


Listening is not just shutting up, although shutting up works really well. There are some things which you can do called Active Listening. I’m going to talk about prompting last because it can be really fun. Countdowns is one thing, if somebody is really exercised on the phone, basically yelling at me, then will just wait until they have stopped talking and then I’ll count to 4 and then I’ll do something. Just to make sure you give ample space so that they can really start to work out some of the anger and feel heard.

Restating is just a simple Active Listening thing. You want to be a little bit careful of it because it can seem facile.

Prompting is literally just saying the exact thing they’ve been saying. The simplest method of prompting is saying the exact last thing that came out of their mouth. And it is a way of saying to the person, of queuing the person to say ‘I’m listening, I’ve understood what you have just said, please continue.’ And it’s a very subtle way of doing so. It can feel really alien if you are not used to doing it. When I was at Google we had a customer service exercise where we did some prompting exercises. And we actually took this away. So, if John was saying ‘you know, my food arrived late and the server wasn’t very nice to me.’ I would wait a couple of seconds and say ‘the server wasn’t very nice to you?’ Maybe it’s a question, maybe it’s a restatement. Usually, the person will just pick up on that prompt and talk. So it’s a way to get people to continue talking until their anger has really tailed off a little bit.

You can actually play a game with your friends that’s hilarious. If somebody is holding the floor for a long time, please don’t play this game with me. You literally just repeat the last thing they say and figure out how long you can keep them talking for before they realise that you are acting weird. You will be amazed.


So next up is acknowledging. This is making the person feel heard, the first active thing that you do. This can be a little bit touchy, you want to pitch your acknowledgement to the level of the problem. If someone calls in and says I want my password reset, then don’t say ‘oh well, if you need your password reset sir, then we’re going to get right on that!’ that’s an over-acknowledgement which might been seen as mocking. If you don’t acknowledge a big problem enough then that person can feel like they are not getting through to you. So it’s a really big issue. And for instance if you have been trained to say ‘thank you for giving me the opportunity to solve your problem today, we are going to collect some more information from you,’ then they are going to continue to get more and more frustrated. And so what you want to do is called ‘pace and lead.’ You want to match your level of emotion to their level of emotion. So you might say ‘oh jeez, that’s not very good, let’s take a look and see what we can do.’ So in that one sentence I’ve been able to show that they’ve been able to get an emotional rise out of me and then I started to say the problem in terms of collaboration and cooperation. And this is something that you will hear, when you learn to recognise it, on the phone.


So now you’re going to be very tempted once you get to that point, once you know what you’re going to do, to run off and do the thing that’s going to fix the problem. This is a big mistake. I think we’ve all been in a situation where you’re in a restaurant and you say ‘my food hasn’t arrived’ and the server just turns around and runs away from the table, like back towards the kitchen to check on your food or something. And it feels like an odd interaction because you don’t know what’s happening. Did you just run away? One of the best things you can do is give people a course of action and when you’re giving them a course of action say ‘and if that doesn’t work then I’m going to try this.’ People want to see context, people want to see that they are in a process, they want to see evidence of movement.

Take Action

Now you can take action. And often for me in a 1×1, if I’m talking to someone who is frustrated, then the taking of action is just writing it down. In Rands in Repose’ Managing Humans, it says one of the things that you have to do is when you are doing 1x1s with people is, you have to write everything down. ‘So yeah I’m going to do something about that.’ Just the act of writing it down can be all you need to do to take action. Sometimes things can be more complex. This is the moment when you can put them on hold, this is the moment when you can send the email, and this is the moment when the urgency has sort of bled out of the interaction.


And now is when you get to explain. If you jump ahead to explaining, often times when someone says, when someone brings you a problem and they are frustrated, your immediate first response will be to explain to them to give them a reason for that. It is the worse possible thing that you can do. For various reasons that I don’t need to go in to, or I won’t go in to now. It can really, really rankle people if you say like ‘well, you walked right in after a big party’ in a restaurant ‘so that is why your food is late’. And it’s like ‘sorry, excuse me for arriving at your restaurant with money in my hands, right?’

So again, anger is a gift, this is a present that when you unwrap it you will actually find a friend, a fan, and you can use this technique to make actual connections to people who otherwise you wouldn’t make a connection with. And usually, after you’ve gone through this process, if you go through it in the right steps, the deeper the interaction then the more reward you get.