Categorized | Customer Care, Support EDGE

@#$%! Dealing With Abusive Customers

Anyone who has spent any time at all in the customer-support industry has at one time or another encountered this category of difficult customer. This is the customer who calls and immediately bombards you with foul or abusive language. These are the worst kind of difficult customers precisely because they seem to go out of their way to intimidate you. The good news is, (1) these customers are rare (much rarer than the typical difficult customer), and (2), if handled correctly, these customers will apologize to you up to 80% of the time. When confronted by this type of customer, there are certain guidelines you should follow to help to turn a bad call into pone that is not so bad, or to effectively end the conversation.

The first step in dealing with this kind of customer is to determine whether the foul language is intentional or merely a slip of the tongue. Sometimes the customer, try as s/he might, is unable to refrain from colorful language completely. If it appears the customer does not intend to be offensive, and the foul language is not repeated, simply ignore it and continue to serve the customer.

If it is obvious that the language is indeed intentional, determine whether the target is you or the problem the customer is having. If the language appears to be directed at the problem, politely and calmly suggest that the conversation be kept at a professional level. It is the persistent calmness of your voice that will be persuasive here. This will allow the customer to save face without becoming defensive. If the foul language is being directed at you, politely and calmly offer to transfer the customer to your supervisor (or, warn that you will release the call if it persists). Again, the calmness of your voice will reinforce a professional tone. The mistake most customer-support agents or tier-1 support specialists make at this point is to allow the customer to control the tone of the conversation. If the customer can lower you to his/her level, both you and the customer will have lost. Instead, you must set and maintain the tone. Even if the customer doesn’t follow through, you will have maintained your professional integrity.

Much of the decision as to whether you should transfer the call to a supervisor or terminate the call will be determined by company policy. It is always a good idea to check with your supervisor to see what your company’s policy is. Surprisingly, many help desks, call centers and service desks have no policy one way or the other. This may be a good time to suggest creating one. It is almost always preferable to transfer than to terminate. Even if your supervisor is not immediately available, simply transferring to another agent or specialist sometimes does the trick. Don’t be surprised if the customer suddenly turns “friendly” when speaking with the next person. The strategy of the abusive customer is to win others over to their side so as to make it appear that you were the unreasonable and irrational one all along. If after the warning the foul language persists, place the customer on hold and let your supervisor know that you are about to transfer an abusive customer. This will mentally prepare your supervisor; but more importantly, you will have procured the advantage of telling your side of the story first. This will go a long way toward earning your boss’s empathy in case the customer escalates the problem to a higher authority. If neither your supervisor nor a coworker is immediately available, terminate the call and immediately record what happened. Tell your supervisor about the incident as soon as possible.

After the call, it is important to take care of yourself. If possible, take a break. Go for a short walk, or relax in a quiet room. You need some time to cool down before you take another call. No matter how hard you try, it is always difficult to have a normal tone of voice immediately after a stressful situation; and unfortunately, this will set the tone with your next customer unless you do something about it. If it is not possible to take a break, try taking a few deep breaths, or listening to relaxing music.

Your own tolerance level will determine much of how you choose to handle the abusive customer. Some of us have much higher tolerance thresholds for this than others. On the other hand, some customer-support agents and tier-1 support specialist just don’t feel comfortable asserting themselves in this way. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that no one is obligated to tolerate abusive language. If you are having difficulty asserting yourself with this kind of customer, there are ways to remedy that.

First, be certain that you remain calm during the conversation. If you feel anxiety setting in, take a few deep breaths while the customer is talking (do this with your mouthpiece covered or held away from your mouth). Second, refuse to take the language personally. In most cases, this customer would say the same thing to anyone who happened to pick up the phone, not just to you. Third, practice talking with this kind of customer before it happens. Think through (or, better yet, write out) a hypothetical scenario in which you are engaged in a conversation with someone using abusive or foul language. This is called scripting. During the scripting process allow yourself to feel the level of stress rise as the conversation becomes more and more heated. Repeat this scenario ten to twenty times. After a few repetitions several things will begin to happen. You will become more comfortable speaking with this kind of customer. You will also notice a marked reduction in your anxiety and stress level over this kind of situation. You will feel as though handling this kind of customer is “old hat” to you (in fact, by now it is!). All of these work together to help you develop a professional tone. The more professional your tone, the less successful the abusive customer will feel in upsetting you, and the more likely it will be that you can turn this call around.

One final suggestion for avoiding this situation altogether is to let all your customers know up front that their calls may be monitored. This may be included in the form of a message in the ACD or queue, or you may incorporate it in your personal greeting: “IT Help Desk, this is Jim, may I have your name please? . . . Mr. Smith, to ensure quality service please be aware that this call may be monitored or recorded; How may I help you today?” Once the customer knows that the call may be monitored or recorded, the customer may take a more positive approach than originally intended.

Dealing with abusive customers is one of the many hazards of customer support; yet it is one that most customer-support agents and tier-1 support specialist are ill prepared to handle. Applying these principles will assist you not only in surviving such a call, but handling it effectively. Again, to be on the safe side, be sure to check first to see if there is a specific policy in place for dealing with these customers, and then modify your approach accordingly.


Eric Svendsen, Ph.D., is principal and lead consultant of SCInc., a learning and development consulting company. Eric has over 20 years experience in creating and executing results-oriented, outcomes-based learning and development initiatives aligned to corporate goals. He specializes in leadership development and coaching, and leading organizational culture-change initiatives around customer support and safety leadership. Eric was personally involved in the development of certification standards, performance standards, exam validation, competency models and training for the customer-support and technical-support industry, and was instrumental in the creation of the only performance-based certification in that industry.

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