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How to handle bad customer service ... without holding a grudge

A neuroscientist says the trick is finding resolution, not vengeance.
by Dana McMahan /
Image: 1960s Balding Man Looking...
Nasty encounters with customer service can poison your whole day. H. Armstrong Roberts / ClassicStock via Getty Images
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Can you remember the last customer service experience that left you fuming? Not too hard, right? We all want to be treated with a level of respect, and with so many people veering on the edge of a boiling rage these days sometimes all it takes is one nasty exchange with a company's representative to send you teetering over the edge.

It happened to me recently when I made a call about an item I'd returned to a company for an exchange that had seemed to vanish. The agent on the phone interrupted me repeatedly and was actively unhelpful. Even though I knew better than to let it get to me, it did and I simmered all day — until I fired off an email to the company's founder. He actually replied, and the next day someone called to apologize, make things right and even tell me how they'd be coaching the employee to improve her customer service. I ended up being a bigger fan of the company than ever.

We have this perception, especially in U.S., that the customer is always right, and that by giving them your business they have this responsibility to you.

But it doesn't always end so well. I'm now embroiled in a months-long situation with the manufacturer of a big-ticket home item that I just can't seem to get resolved and it's ruining my day far too often. Friends and family echo these sentiments with their own customer service gone wrong stories and their anger is palpable as they recount their experiences.

Why We Can't Shake a Bad Experience

The last thing any of us needs is a reason to tilt into a vortex of fury. But what do we do to stop it?

Well, it helps to understand why we feel that way. I talked with Uma Karmarkar, an assistant professor at UC San Diego who holds doctorates in both consumer behavior and neuroscience.

It only makes sense, she tells NBC News BETTER. In particular if “you've already engaged with that firm, we have this perception, especially in U.S., that the customer is always right, and that by giving them your business they have this responsibility to you.” Assuming you're talking with someone from that company because something has gone wrong, “to be insulted on top of that by not being listened to … is going to create this frustrated response, but also loss of agency,” she says. And that's what really critical.

In these instances, say when you get into an endless loop with a service rep clearly just reading from a script and not offering any real help as you rehash the problem, “you don't have a path forward, you don't have any way to respond or fix the problem,” she says. “[And] we don't like cliffhangers … there's a reason we move to edge of our chairs when music reaches a crescendo.”

While this can be seen even in a much more entertaining situation — Karmarkar cites a scene in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” where it's impossible to resist ending the “shave and a haircut ...” jingle — it's infuriating when we're left hanging with no power to change things.

Bad Customer Service Can Feel Like an Unresolved Loop

The nasty encounters generate all these negative emotions, Karmarkar says, and emotions have a duration. “If you can't handle them, process them or switch them,” of course they're going to hang on. Since we can't just set them aside, “I would imagine that is what can poison the rest of the day.”

Any justification that allows us to close that narrative leads to [fewer] rage-inducing interactions.

Things can take an even more drastic turn when we move through the various channels of communication. Interacting with a real live person — face to face — is much easier to navigate, Karmarkar says, thanks to nonverbal cues like facial expression and body language. Much is lost on the phone, not to mention in online chat support — where now we have to wonder if we're even talking to a human or a robot.

The awful feeling that we're not being acknowledged is so bad, in fact, that even a negative resolution may be better than feeling you were cut off, she says. We can even make do with some kind of justification. “People feel better with a concrete reason,” she says. “Any justification that allows us to close that narrative leads to [fewer] rage-inducing interactions. For example in the airline industry, providing some information about a delay is better than giving none.”

Reach for Resolution, Even if the Problem Remains

But where does that leave us if the company truly just doesn't seem to care? Unfortunately there's no easy answer. Look, it's just hard. We're no longer talking just about 'can you fix my product?' "It's shifted into a personal relationship now,” says Karmarkar.

Ask yourself: Do you want restitution or do you want to punish them?

But “there are certainly ways of trying to retain your agency,” Karmarkar says. You can “look for other ways to communicate your frustration and take actions you feel bring you closer to restitution” — otherwise known as the 'ask for the manager' approach. There's an interesting balance happening here though, she notes. “Do you want restitution or do you want to punish them”? (Can't it be both? I sometimes wonder!)

That's also hard to recommend, she says, because “what if they don't respond? You're stuck and now you have two points of frustration.”

Then a “lovely suggestion but a difficult one,” she says is to “humanize the interaction from the other person's point of view … create reasons for why they're treating you this way. Maybe they're having a bad day, maybe they have a bad boss.” But is that likely for most of us? “It requires a lot a lot of empathy and compassion after you've been harmed,” Karmarkar acknowledges. “It's so hard because you've placed your trust in them [and then you were] punished.”

Image: Retro Grunge Complaints Dept Door
Twitter can be a great place to vent your frustration if you aren't being heard, but know your goal before you post. mrdoomits / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Find Another Outlet for Your Frustration

Because a key factor here is the feeling of being wronged, another way of finding your way out of the rabbit hole is to seek validation elsewhere, according to Karmarkar. Enter Twitter. But tread carefully, she cautions. While this can serve two purposes — trying to get a response from the company, and getting validation from others that you were treated poorly — and may provide relief, “the ugly shadow to that is holding that resentment over time — a grudge,” she says. “Where every time I think of it I'm angry again.”

It's worth finding a way past the seething stage, because it's not just about you, Karmarkar reminds us. Say “you had a bad day at work so you're rude to someone online … you get these spreading ripples because people are trying to find outlets to express that frustration.

It's not just hurtful to you ... it may spill over.” And before you know it we're all being horrible to everybody.

The “ultimate goal,” Karmarkar says, “is finding a way to have the harm done to you be validated.” While many of us rush to vent to anyone who will listen — for as long as they'll listen — that's “not the same as finding someone whose opinion is meaningful to you who can agree that there was harm done to you and make you feel as if your voice was heard.”

So if you've got a trusty friend who will hear you out that may just be the best solace.

Beyond that, Karmarkar says, “I suspect it's not qualitatively different from how to handle frustrating interactions in interpersonal relationships” — a topic where advice abounds. When all else fails, there's a reason advice like take a timeout, do something active or just find something to laugh at has such staying power. It actually helps.

So the next time I go round and round with the current villain company in my life maybe I'll try the best of both worlds — a walk with my dog, and a friend who can listen.

NEXT: What happens to your brain when you binge watch Netflix

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