An Action Plan for Customer Service Agent Abuse


Unhappy call centre agent in front of yellow wall covered in post it notes

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In this article Dave Salisbury outlines an action plan for dealing with customer service agent abuse.

Back in the 1990s, when I started at a call centre on Friday, there were no locks, no badges, no traffic control, and minimal security presence. Monday morning, we had badges, electronic key cards, traffic control security points, and a host of new security measures.

Why? Because a customer showed up at an agent’s cubicle. He had stalked this employee for months, and the only thing saving this person’s life was that she went into labour that morning. Her stalker showed up with a shotgun and a dozen roses.

While not perfect at controlling my responses, I can clarify and support customer service agents against abuse.

What Is Customer Agent Abuse?

Customer agent abuse is any actions conducted over a phone that would not be tolerated in person. Customer agent abuse includes threats to personal property, life, or family. Customer agent abuse includes making personal derogatory remarks.

Customer agent abuse should not be accepted.

Reality Check

Is speaking loudly customer agent abuse? Probably not. However, the situationality of defining customer agent abuse is such that professionals will need clear and specific directions.

Would you ever see your family as customers? Why? Do you think those definitions are too simplistic? Honestly, when you think about it, no. Your fellow employees are your first customers. Your leaders are your first customers.

Then come vendors and shareholders and external customers. I have never agreed with separating internal and external customers. Some try to claim an external customer pays the bills. Sure, but without your team of employees, there are no products or services to sell.

A business owner once told me that this method of thinking was as valuable as arguing about what came first, the chicken or the egg. Yet, before you can grow into a small business, you must provide a service or good for purchase.

Hence the most essential customer is your fellow employee, and failing to understand this simple fact breeds an “Us versus Them” mentality in employee and customer relations. Worse, this aggressive attitude only grows as the business grows and is heard by your customers in every transaction!

Customer Agent Abuse

Tell me, as a business leader, would you allow an employee to scream, swear, act belligerently, and raise their voices to another employee?

If the answer is no, why do you allow any other customer to act similarly?

Nobody deserves to be harassed, sworn at, screamed at, or belittled, all in the name of “customer service”.

I have worked in many different call centres. I have had my share of abusive customer calls. I have suffered the slings and arrows of contempt from fellow employees and customers in hostile work environments.

I have been physically assaulted, threatened, sexually harassed, and more in professional settings, including call centres. So, why do we allow customer abuse?

What is driving business leaders to excuse irrational and detestably unprofessional behaviour by customers?

Honest question, if we would not tolerate behaviour in person, why is it allowed over the phone?

Why is the customer agent taking the brunt of the abuse when we all know the problem originates much higher than the agent you are talking to.

Customer service, customer appreciation, customer attentiveness, customer relations, customer retention, etc., all circle around the customer culture bred into the business from its days as a small business.

Worse, the leader’s approach to customer service is felt and observed by agents all over the company and soon will imitate that leader’s attitude and behaviours.

I have led teams where my agents were reduced to tears from the verbal harassment. When I discovered this, I pulled the quality records and calls, documented everything, and exercised my right to refuse service.

Yes, I invited customers to leave employment and my company without batting an eyelid or caring a single bit. Nobody deserves to be harassed, sworn at, screamed at, or belittled, all in the name of “customer service”. Customer agent abuse is a failure of leadership!

Ending Customer Agent Abuse

Some of what I am proposing will be anathema to your organization; I realize this. I understand that some of what I propose will be hard to implement, face tremendous pushback, and might cause some organizational design changes.

All of what I am about to suggest is achievable through leadership and customer service.

The Action Plan

1. If Employees Cannot Abuse Each Other, Then Neither Can Anyone Else!

  1. Invite those who swear to call back when they are more emotionally under control. End the call, end the transaction, make notes.
  2. Invite those who habitually abuse to stop being customers or employees.
  3. Make notes, keep documentation, and refer to legal if additional problems arise.
  4. Make your policy known to your customers, all of your customers.
  5. Set high standards of behaviour and train to meet those standards.

2. Revise Business Policies

  1. Listen to the transactions.
  2. Make notes on pain points and process problems that irritate customers, and then dedicate yourself to fixing those pain points.
  3. Enter the customer transaction with the intent to act!
  4. Listen… Listen… Listen… verify what was said; listen some more.
  5. Appreciative inquiry, learn it, love it, live it! Your customers know where and who the problems are. Repeat as often as needed to ensure understanding, then take prompt action!

3. Write Cohesive and Clearly Understood Policies

  1. Train to the policies.
  2. Adjust the policies as needed.
  3. Revisit policies every 12 months for applicability.
  4. Revise policies as needed to meet customer expectations.
  5. Set high standards and train customers to meet those standards.
  6. Use rewards for improving customer interaction and transactions.
  7. Not all rewards cost money!

To find out how to define a policy on what an abusive customer looks like and how the contact centre can guard itself against them, read our article: A Policy for Dealing With Angry and Abusive Customers

4. Embrace Change

  1. Many claim they already do this, but they secretly refuse to change and act opposite to any change that threatens their power source. Eliminate that customer!
  2. Change requires courage, tenacity, and imagination. All of which become available when appreciative inquiry becomes a principle for achieving excellence!
  3. Set shelf-lives for processes, policies, and procedures.
  4. Delegate to achieve new blood and new thinking on old topics.
  5. Demand excellence, train for perfection and watch people achieve.

For tips on dealing with changes, read our article: 8 Things to Remember When Changing Contact Centre Business Processes

5. Praise!

  1. Honest, sincere, and regular praise will demonstrate an attitude of gratitude to your people, who will then pass along the praise to everyone else.
  2. Observe people until you can even reprimand with praise.
  3. Never criticize!
  4. Never demean!
  5. Never allow anyone to denigrate or deride your customers, and your customers will always be at your back.
A thumbnail photo of Dave Salisbury

Dave Salisbury

It does not matter whether your business is a manufacturer or a service provider; it does not matter if you are a non-profit or government agency; what matters is your customer. Be the customer agent they deserve.

Admit fault, always understand that you cannot know everything, and asking questions is not an evil act. Your customers today are your customer agents tomorrow, and being a better customer is a job!

Thanks to Dave Salisbury, an Operations and Customer Relations Specialist, for putting together this article.

To find out more about how to handle difficult customer situations, read our articles:


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