The Science of Why We Secretly Like to Get Angry with Bad Customer Service
Michael dented his kitchen table by beating it with his landline phone. He was trying to resolve an issue with his credit card company, and after 20 minutes of waiting and transfers he was transferred again--back to the first division he’d called. Lisa was banned from her garage after swearing at her mechanic for his ineptitude. Jacqueline spent an hour looking for “the perfect baby gift,” only to leave it behind because the sales clerk was rude to her.
You've heard of road rage? Welcome to customer service rage.
We've all been there and can identify with the experiences mentioned above, which are among the many I've encountered during my work as a consumer psychologist. It's depressingly common to feel disrespected or ignored during bad customer service interactions, and everybody occasionally loses their temper. This is true today more than ever, because service—especially when it comes to banks, communications companies, and airlines—has arguably never been worse.
You've probably heard that it's best to be nice with customer service, not just for the sake of politeness but because, strategically, this approach tends to yield the most positive results. Uncontrolled anger, on the other hand, often results in worse service, not to mention the occasional dented table.
Even so, there's an argument to be made that customer service rage is a good feeling to have. Anger is sometimes just what we need. In fact, down deep, we may even secretly like getting mad at bad service.
How could this be? Anger, like all of our emotions, has served an evolutionary purpose. We have anger in our repertoire of emotions because in some way, throughout the ages, it’s kept us alive. Excluding neurotic emotions like narcissistic rage, the purest feelings like happiness, sadness, and anger exist to protect us, connect us with others, inspire us to be our best, or keep us on the straight and narrow.
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Anger’s purpose is to make us bolder and inspire us to take action. When we’re angry, we’re unambiguous about who is right (we are!) and, at least in the moment, we get a chest-puffed feeling of self-righteousness and superiority that gives us the confidence to act. Self-doubt drifts away, and that’s just what we need to stand up for ourselves and get through a tough confrontation--like an aggravating customer service interaction.
Lastly, anger shifts the focus from oneself to another target. Instead of dwelling on the internal pain of being ignored or disrespected, we simply get royally ticked at someone else. Afterward, there's a genuine sense of satisfaction that comes when unleashing your anger that would never be achieved while being meek and polite.
Here are three examples that demonstrate the power of anger in customer service interactions, and why sometimes calming down shouldn't be your priority.
Anger Leads to Bold Self-Righteous Action
Pam was in a long checkout line of women at a popular lingerie store. When a man bypassed the line and walked up to the counter, a new checkout clerk rushed up to help him, effectively allowing the man to cut ahead of all the women who had been waiting. The woman ahead of Pam leaned forward and nicely pointed this out to the clerks. She was brushed off with a chirpy, “Oh, we’ll be right with you.” The woman dropped her intended purchases on the floor, stated loudly that a store that sells women’s clothing should be less sexist and walked out.
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“To be honest,” said Pam, “it was thrilling! I left too and so did another woman who had been waiting. I’ve wondered if I was cutting off my nose to spite my face since I had to start the bra hunt all over, but it was so wonderful to make that statement.”
Anger Can Vanquish Self-Doubt
While doing his taxes, Don discovered what he assumed was a mistake: his financial planner had paid himself more than twice what Don had expected. Don pointed this out, and received a short email reply from his planner’s assistant simply saying that he had been sent a letter earlier in the year outlining a new financial arrangement. More than six calls and emails were required for Don to finally get a straight answer about what happened, and with each interaction Don’s anger escalated. He eventually found out that the “letter” was, in fact, an easily overlooked email from the planner’s assistant with the new fee structure buried in the sixth paragraph. Don had never knowingly agreed to the new terms.
Don hadn’t been happy with his planner for quite a while, but he largely blamed himself for their problems. “He chastised me frequently for not paying enough attention to details," Don recalled. "It’s just boring to me and I’m busy. So when something would seem wrong I’d blame myself for not paying enough attention.” But Don’s anger clarified the situation. Finally, Don felt unambiguously right and righteous, and these were just emotions he needed to help him finally leave his terrible financial planner.
Anger Points the Blame at Someone Else
Christina got what she called “brain frizzle” while trying to pick up a food order on her lunch break. “I’m standing there and they are back there ignoring me and I have like 15 minutes to get back" to work, she said. "At first it was like, what’s wrong with me, am I not here? And then I just got mad and smacked the counter to get their attention.”
Christina’s perfectly named “brain frizzle” was a mixture of her feeling guilty about being demanding and simultaneously justified in needing to be seen and helped. This is exactly how many of us feel when we get angry about being treated poorly and disrespectfully. Ultimately, Christina’s anger inspired her to take action.
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We’re not our usual rational selves when we’re angry, and there’s generally a price to pay for flying off the handle. Therefore, trying to maintain control makes sense. On the other hand, there are times when the power, selfishness, and focus inherent in anger are exactly what we need. No wonder we secretly like to get angry when we’re treated poorly by customer service. Turns out there may be some method to our “madness.”
Kit Yarrow, Ph.D., is a consumer psychologist who is obsessed with all things related to how, when, and why we shop and buy. She conducts research through her professorship at Golden Gate University and shares her findings in speeches, consulting work, and her books, Decoding the New Consumer Mind and Gen BuY.