Helplessness and Anger: Your Self Service Center and the Emotional Customer

The self service center is becoming ever more ubiquitous as a customer support channel. And that is not a bad thing. Many customers prefer to look up the answer themselves rather than wait for an answer by email or call for one on the phone. It’s convenient.

Or is it?

What if something about your self service center makes customers angry? What if it makes them feel helpless? In other words, what do these two customer emotions do to customer satisfaction levels and customer loyalty? It would seem on the face of it that both would lower satisfaction and loyalty. But while both are negative emotions each leads to different behaviors.


Your customer is trying to use the self support center but the interface is very confusing and some of the links are broken. How does he react?

Reaction: Anger

When a person is angry he is placing responsibility for the failure on an external source such as the provider of the self service center; in this case, you. The angry customer wants to do something about it. Usually that means rejecting your self service center (and your product) and switching providers. Boom, you’ve lost a customer.

What is the best approach to take to defuse this emotion and provide appropriate service?

Angry customers need both emotional support and technical support. The customer must have a way to directly contact a live person, someone with the appropriate skills to calm the customer and help resolve the issue. A general information line with a convoluted IVR system is inappropriate for this purpose. The customer wants to immediately speak to someone who can fix things, not deal with someone who must ultimately pass him off to someone else. A separate line for these types of issues should be offered to give the customer the immediate response he needs.

The first thing you (represented by the customer support agent) should do is apologize and let the customer know the problem is being worked on. The agent must listen and express regret for the inconvenience. The emotional support will relieve the anger and create an environment where the agent can give technical support and actively try to resolve the issue.

Reaction: Helplessness

Instead of anger, a customer may feel helpless when the self service center is misfiring, feeling as if there is no way to affect the situation. In the case of helplessness, the customer does not blame the provider, he only blames the technology so the relationship is spared. The coping response to this tends to be inactivity. Instead of doing something, he does nothing. He does not switch providers. He does not contact you about the problem. You may never hear of the issue. He will simply reduce his use of the self service center, and as time goes by, he will not increase his business with you, losing you an opportunity for a more valuable customer.

If, however, this problem comes to light, you only need give technical support. Because the customer who feels helpless blames the technology, not you, for the problem, there is no need to offer emotional support. If the problem is fixed, you and the customer simply move forward as usual. 

Impact on Loyalty and Satisfaction

So what are the effects of anger and helplessness on customer satisfaction and customer loyalty? It turns out that only anger directly impacts customer loyalty and overall satisfaction. A person who is angry blames you for the poor service and will display a significant decrease in these parameters.  Helplessness impacts neither. Because the technology is blamed for the poor service, the relationship with you is not affected. Loyalty and satisfaction stay the same as before.

Anger = Decreased Loyalty and Satisfaction
Helplessness = No change in loyalty and satisfaction

This makes it seem like helplessness is more innocuous than anger, safer for the revenue stream. And it is true that the angry customer impacts the bottom line immediately because he rejects the provider (you) and switches to a new one (your competitor).

However, the customer who feels helpless also impacts the bottom line in the long run because he will use self service less and will not increase the amount of business he does with you; his value to you stays the same. It  is a more insidious problem because it does not show in the customer satisfaction level. You may never notice. Gaining new customers can cover up the lack of increased business for a time but once the market becomes saturated for your product or service, helplessness will begin to erode revenue generation. 


Be aware that a problem with your self support center can push a customer in one of two ways, each of which requires a different response. In any case, you must include an easy way to connect with a live person if at all possible. A click to chat or click to call should be available for when problems occur.

Offer the appropriate response for the emotion involved. Helplessness only needs technical support to fix the problem.  Anger must have emotional support as well in order to preserve the relationship.

This is not a cut and dried issue. Anger and helplessness are not the only things that drive customer behavior. Often there are other emotions and behaviors involved. Your agents will need the skill to recognize those times when anger or helplessness is the predominant driver in order to offer the correct response.

Resource: Beyond Just Being Dissatisfied: How Angry and Helpless Customers React to Failures When Using Self Service Technologies. By Katja Gelbrich, Professor of Marketing at the Faculty of Economics, Ilmenau Technical University, Germany.

Scroll to Top