Answers: Coping with Angry and Abusive Customers
Question: I manage a contact centre where our people have to cope with complex calls – frequently covering a number of queries from the one customer.
Our operators are trained to deal with difficult and often emotional conversations. But we’ve recently realised that we now need to start coaching our people in how to deal with angry customers too.
We’re finding that customers are becoming a lot less patient on the phone, and sometimes our people are subjected to a barrage of verbal abuse that they simply don’t deserve.
It’s beginning to affect morale in the contact centre, so I’d appreciate any advice you can give me on tackling angry and abusive customers. Also, do you have any tips on dealing with the aftermath – when our operators are upset and often emotional themselves? We don’t want to start losing staff because of the way they’re being treated by our customers.
Don’t take the criticism personally
With competition in key industry sectors getting tougher, companies have no choice but to learn how to deal effectively with angry and demanding customers. It’s the reality today, not just in the private sector, but in many areas of the public sector too.
The text book method of ‘effectively handling angry customers’ is to train advisors to overcome customer objections, build rapport and take ownership of the problem resolution.
But anyone that has worked in a contact centre knows that it isn’t that easy.
If advisors are subjected to constant abuse over issues that are not of their making, and they are not equipped with the tools to deliver effective problem resolutions, then that abuse will start to wear them down. It’s an outcome that’s in no one’s interest: the customer, the advisor or the organisation.
Equipping staff to be able to cope with abusive customers
Our response is both to equip its people with the right tools and, on a psychological level, to ensure that if advisors are subject to a tirade of abuse, they don’t take that criticism personally and that it doesn’t affect their morale and ability to deliver great service in the future.
It’s a process that starts with induction training. All our recruits are taken through a comprehensive five to seven week induction training programme that comprises sessions in both classroom environments and our Academy. This is conducted with an experienced ‘coach’ dedicated to each team of six new recruits.
Dealing with difficult questions and angry customers is an important part of this training and impacts all modules: generic customer service training as well as call handling skills and specific departmental skills training. Our approach is not to match but to exceed customer expectations, for example, to build rapport with an irate customer by proactively using techniques to take the heat out of the situation.
For instance, an advisor may say: “I can hear you’re very upset. Can you tell me exactly what happened that made you very upset? or maybe “You are right to be angry. everyone is busy today and service is suffering” It’s an approach that’s designed to help advisors see issues better from the customers’ perspective and thus help manage their expectations.
Advisors are taught to take ownership of the problem resolution. But they are also taught not to panic, not to over-promise and not to admit fault to appease the customer until they are in receipt of the full facts. I have often found that saying, for example, “If that is what was said to you, I’m very sorry and can assure you that is not the policy of my company,” is a response that can be both helpful to the customer and enable the advisor to research the issue in more depth.
Take full ownership for a problem
If the customer is very irate, then to take full ownership of the problem by saying, “I am going to put the phone down, check with another department and I’m going to call you back in 48 hours,” could also be appropriate in exceptional circumstances.
Once new recruits have received their initial training, it’s important that they have the opportunity to try out their new skills and techniques in a simulated environment before going live. In the Garlands Academy, new recruits are monitored closely with team managers coaching them in out-of-the-ordinary situations and in advanced questioning techniques. Once they hit the contact centre floor, skill and knowledge training is ongoing. All Garlands’ advisors receive additional dedicated skills and behaviour-based training plus specific product training as necessary. Ongoing coaching is also delivered by team managers who in turn receive management and succession training from contact centre managers and the Garlands’ people development team.
Maintaining morale and creating a team-working ethic where our people support each other is vital.
One to one sessions for upset advisors
If an advisor is clearly upset following a call, they can immediately have a one-to-one session with their team manager or contact centre manager. This session will be used to find out exactly what upset them, and an appropriate response will be made. If the advisor has struggled to overcome a customer’s objections, for example, then it may be suggested that they buddy-up with an experienced advisor for ‘peer’ coaching. While reviewing calls, the more experienced advisor may suggest “what I would have done is””. It’s a technique that we’ve used to good effect on many occasions.
To succeed, contact centre managers need to know that their people are capable of delivering excellent customer experiences time after time. It’s something that can only be achieved when those people are skilled, confident and motivated, supported with appropriate processes and technology, and work in a positive environment. If the contact centre is viewed by management as a dead-end job, then that attitude is often mirrored by low morale and dissatisfied customers. If customer service is viewed by management as a career-grade role with genuine career growth prospects, then it’s astonishing how attitudes, performance and customer satisfaction can be transformed.
Courtesy of Michelle Greaves, contact centre and training manager.
Diffusing the situation lies in the tone of voice, empathy and the human touch
Understanding both sides of the story is important in this situation. In this case, two negatives do not make a positive.Handling difficult calls can be soul-destroying. Nobody can take ‘knock backs’ and ‘put-me-downs’ all day without some form of negativity creeping in. In a negative mindset it is very easy for an employee to expose their unprotected, soft underbelly, leaving themselves more emotionally susceptible and vulnerable to angry callers.
For this reason it is important to support and encourage call centre staff at all times. Have employee champions that understand the culture of the call centre and who can spot signs of frustration and negativity. Have the champions provide encouragement and support where necessary.
It is important to understand the caller’s situation
It is also important to understand the caller’s situation. At one time or another all of us have received unwanted calls, have been stuck listening to tinny classical music, or have not been unable to understand the person at the other end of the phone due to accent or poor line quality. It can be very frustrating.
Diffusing the situation lies in the tone of voice, empathy and the human touch. Call centre workers need to be able to listen, allowing the person on the phone to convey what is troubling them. A calm response is always needed. If your staff are unsure of the problem, get them to ask comprehensive questions. Through interaction, the caller will enter a rational conversation.
So, when coaching your staff in what to say, get them to recap what they have been told by the customer – for instance, by asking: “Ok, as I understand this”” – and ensure they ask for their confirmation. Once the problem is clear, they might suggest: “Ok, this is how I propose we tackle it”. They should always seek agreement.
Finally, they should terminate the call by reviewing what they and the customer have both agreed to do, and by offering the reassurance of further assistance if required.
Allow a break to regain composure
If an employee is affected by an incident, allow them a break to regain composure. If possible, accompany them and encourage them to talk over the situation. It is important to state your support for your employee and the manner in which they handled the situation.
If they were in the wrong, highlight it as a ‘misunderstanding’, but ask how they might handle the situation if faced with it again. It is important to be constructive; talk through different methods of handling such problems. If they were in the right, reinforce this and offer your complete support.
Courtesy of Karl Howleger, chief executive at outsourcer Pell & Bales.
Doing something about the root causes of customer anger is the responsibility of your whole organisation, not just the guys on the front line
Your situation sounds like it has the potential to downward spiral rapidly. With that in mind it’s frustrating to read that you seem so accepting of the way things are right now. Come on. Be ballsy and fight for getting things right in the first place. You mention verbal abuse that operators don’t deserve. Who does deserve it? Are basic customer expectations not being met? Is it a process that’s badly designed?
Is key information lacking? Remember doing something about the root causes of customer anger is the responsibility of your whole organisation, not just the guys on the front line.
Get every senior manager within your organisation to the ‘front line’
We’re not suggesting passing the buck. However, you need to address the root cause of change by getting every senior manager within your organisation to the ‘front line’ so they can a) experience it first hand; b) show their people they care; and c) gather essential management information around processes, customer ownership, end-to-end service delivery, and service and system challenges.Armed with information you can run a 90-day project to get it sorted.
This is going to take more than ‘angry skills’ training.
Firstly, design ‘team talk’ sessions to reassure the teams you are doing something about their problems. Secondly, involve your front line teams in fixing the broken bits. And finally, show them what the business has done about it.
It’s important that operators and team leader staff work directly with senior managers to design and deliver solutions.
Moving on to skills coaching. Do you already have a consistent positive coaching culture? We would only recommend more coaching if you are confident that you have. In order to be successful, coaching should be positioned as proactive support for overall growth and success. Coaching is not an alternative to tea and sympathy. Nor should it be used as reactive fire fighting. This is because giving people new skills only works if they feel positive about using them, and it sounds like you still have some work to do on that score.
Shift the focus to the positive
In terms of something you can implement straight away, start by shifting the focus to the positive. How many customers get their queries dealt with successfully? Are you letting people know they’ve done well on those interactions?
As the person in charge it sounds like you’ll have to stand up and be counted to lead improvements from the front. The good news is you’ll be surprised by how much engaging your colleagues with some positive thinking can achieve. We wish you every success.
Courtesy of Jo Thomson, managing director at training and change management consultancy Procter.
I work in a call centre and customers are just horrible.
Call centres are the lowest paid in the company, if you don’t want to count the cleaners. After working their a while I have realized the customer thinks you personally are the company and thinks their problems are your problems, when in fact, you really couldn’t care less.
Call centre staff are the dogs are the buttom of the company and are barely involved with it and to be honest don’t care at all if a customer will never use the company again and doesn’t care if the customer is annoyed for this reason or that reason.
We are just people trying to make money to get by.
We will do our job but we don’t get paid nearly enough to actually give two hoots about the customer or customer service.
If you bought something and it wasn’t exactly with you wanted and you’re angry about it, you don’t need to vent your unhappiness to them.
I think on my last day of work I will probably tell any rude, ignorant customers I get to [go away].
This is in response to Katalina, I am a CSR in an amazing call centre, with the most incredible csr support. Not knowing your situation I am only going on your original post, however my first thought while reading your post was that it sounds as though call centre work simply isn’t your cup of tea. I adore my work and it’s clear the customers appreciate my energy and creativity that I bring to my job each and every day. I see each call as a new opportunity to grow and develope my own skils, each day I start off by saying today my words, my voice, my choices will directly effect each and every person I come in contact with so I strive to make each communication count! I think that’s the difference between someone that loves thier job, and someone that simply isn’t doing something they are happy with. I firmly believe life is way too short to be stuck in a position you aren’t happy in. In your situation it sounds like there was no winners, the customer was forced to deal with someone that didn’t want to help them, the company you work for was being represented by someone that perhaps wasn’t representing them in a very positive light, and of course you weren’t doing yourself any good and as a result, perhaps turned a little bitter. I truely wish you the best of luck in your journeys and hope you find something you will feel passionatly about!
From working in call centres and coaching staff I have found that getting the coachee to listen to the way they handled a call can be helpful especially if it is soon after the call.
Ask the coachee –
1. Action: what action they took, why, how
2. Impact: what impact they had on the customer, the call, the company, what effect did the way they handled taht call have on the business/service levels, how did they feel on the call, how did they think the customer felt before and during and after the call.
3. Do again: what went well on that call
Do differently: what would they change about that call and the effects it would have if they did make those changes.
If you do not have a call to listen to you can use the above method with evidence collated.
Also having a group discussion about how they feel when they receive poor service when they make that call to resolve thoer problem. What perception did they have before the call and after.
How do they feel about good service received.
What changes are they going to make.
Getting the customer on side always helps. If the customer is determined to escalate the call and will not disclose any info to the service representative, try telling the customer “I have read the notes on your account and so far I understand ….in order to direct you to the right manager I will need to take some information about your issue.” Always empathise with the customer.
Listen, take ownership, apologise, make notes, escalate if neccessary (nothing worse than someone refusing to escalate out of pride – effects the company and the customer), build rapport, keep promises, dont take it personally, go at customers pace.
Ask your coachees what they want to learn too. Is it a knowledge gap or behavioural problem.
Create an advice board in your call centre or on each community. Updated by representatives, team leaders, coaches etc on how to handle difficult customers, top 10 most asked questions by callers this quarter etc.
I am a Quality Analyst in a call center for the last 14 years. We have a great amount of support for our CSRs but the best support and most effective in our experience is the one-on-one coaching with the CSRs. We schedule 1 hour sessions with CSRs who have difficulty meeting the service levels expected or new CSRs.
Every session is focused on their individual needs. First we review the errors they made on the previous month audits and make sure they know the correct ways to handle those things, and then we allow them time to get their questions answered. If there is time left in the session, we will review some of the call tapes together and allow them to evaluate themselves on what they did well and what could have been better.
These mentoring sessions have been well-received by the CSRs and we have seen a great deal of improvement in the quality of their service levels. It also helps to have the entire management team supporting and encouraging top customer service.
Thanks for sharing your ideas and comments on this site, I plan to use some of the information for further development of the team.
Problem is in some call centres they just sit you down and support can drift away after training leaving the agent feeling alone. From 6 years of experiance of call centre work I cant truthfully say that training to deal with difficult calls doesnt really cut the mustard so to speak. What I have seen so far is that companies know that this is a problem but lack the tools needed to tackle the problem. What is needed is constant training and refresher session on how to detach yourself from a call without sounding inpersonal to a customer. Also general outlook is also important and role models are needed to be able to show the company the direction that agents need to go. I personally have dealt with training with 2 of the companies on this list one of those companies sit you down at a desk and leave you to deal with the call with only knowledge of product to guide you through and does not try to tackle serious call control until its too late. Allowing agents to become negative is very dangerous as this comes across in the call and then makes a hole for an agent for which to spiral down. There negativity is from becoming worn down as said in a previous post due to factors like problems being out of reach of resolution due to the business not providng sufficient tools to resolve problems. When this start to turn agents morale to negativity it causes more issues and can lead to bad health. Some companies dont understand it and may send agent through disciplnary routes instead of taking “ownership” and providing a route to success that agent can take to get them back on track.
I know constultancy companies do understand this and recommend correct training to help tackle this phenomenom. Its up to the Call centre to take advantage if this resource or to follow suit if you work in a call centre that says there aware of it but skirts around it, this is not a good place to work.
I work in a Customer Service Call Center and we assist customers from many different companies. We do receive many calls from irate customers and the steps that we have taken to make sure that we are providing great customer service for the companies that we serve as well as to keep the moral up on the team is-
we have developed a way to direct each call. The benefits of developing a plan that directs the CSR or CSS through the call is that it can allow the rep to be able to do their job without feeling attacked. Yes we just do the customer service for the companies but in reality we are the last impression these customers have about the company or product that they are calling in about so quality customer service is a must and by having a filter system in place will help you resolve the customers concerns and leave the customer satisfied with a one call solution.
Having a team that you feel a member of-
The team that I am a member of has both CSR’s and CSS’s and the great thing about it is that we will talk about what we have done and how to improve on our calls. For example if one of our team members is upset about a call they will explain the call and what the customers concern was and why they feel the call went bad. Our team will give suggestions to the member about how they can address the concern of the customer. This has helped so much in order to make our team members trust and respect each other. But understand we do not put the other rep down about what the rep did wrong. We only give suggestions.
Positive Work Enviroment-
For a while our work enviroment was not the best because everyone was afraid about being fired or written up for the things that they would do wrong. When you use these threats it only temporary fix but creats a long term problem. Our team started to reward the things that our members did right and give suggestions about the things each could improve on. We understand from time to time we might be written up but our team really feels like a team rather than each member feeling alone and incapable of doing their job.
Focus on selling-
Our company focuses on trying to difuse the customer and sell the programs. This does two things. The first is that the customer feels that if the rep is excited about the product then the product must not be so bad. The second thing it does is retains customers for the company allowing the company to be able to grow.
We do assignments each week and the assignments benifit us by allowing us to focus on one area that we could improve on. Our Team Lead compiles the assignments and we share the answers that each member has come up with. In doing this it will give each team member the ability to see how other reps control each situation so the rep can have many different options when it comes to irate customers.
Being Honest about your work-
Our team is free to express concerns that we have with our work or how things are going that directly influence our work. The support of being on a good team means a lot. Our members are the first to point out what we have done wrong and we are more than willing to fix our mistakes. We understand that we will not always have those phone calls that we handle 100%. But being on a team where the members accept what they are doing wrong allows us to grow faster than any other team in our company.
Well These are just a few things that we have done. Hope this helps. I have come up with a saying that goes… As long as there is hope there is a way and the only time there is not a way is when you lose hope… This means that if you make up your mind that your call is going to be bad… IT WILL BE!
“For instance, an advisor may say: “I can hear you’re very upset. Can you tell me exactly what happened that made you very upset?” ”
Except that this increases call time and when customer concerns are persistently met because of call time average targets this increases anger – customers fo through accepting / then being annoyed // then anxiety // then frustration (because of constant promises to get back to them but in truth call center operator are not allowed to call back – which makes the promise to call back in 48 hours a lie
Actually, if you pay attention to what the original article is about, this concerns undeserved abuse directed at call centre staff, not at the company. To assert that better coaching and peer review is what is required is absolute nonesense. What is require is to empower the employee to actually not have to deal with the tirade of undeserved abuse. For example if I board a train and become abusive to the conductor not only will I be kicked off the train, I would also be prosecuted for a public order offence. If I call a call centre and act in the same manner is this any more acceptable? Of course not. Call centres must empower their staff and support them in allowing them to be treated fairly as one might accept, if I am rude to a custome then live by the sword and die by the sword, however If a customer becomes abusive towards me then I am well within my rights to tell, not ask that I want the custome to curb his attitude and speak in a civil manner, when a complaint against a company becomes a personal tirade and is misplaced, this simply ought not to be tolerated. Allow your employees to tell the customer to be more polite or not recurve any service at all and end the call. To continue to do so undermines the whole system. Call cntre staff are not here for Joe public to vent their frustrations, and besides once you’ve insulted someone you can bet they don’t care about your customer service anymore for that call. Protect your employees as much as your customers from abuse.
I guess it depends on the type of service you are actually offering. For instance if you are in a business that is trying to retain customers you will want to train your reps to diffuse the customer instead of fighting with them. I personally feel that it is better to let a customer vent and then handle the concerns than to get upset at the customer and not provide any service. I understand that some customers are mad or upset however a good employee should be able to do their job and get over it. If the customer is making personal attacks that is one thing. In this situation a rep could give 3 warnings and then hang up which makes a 1 call resolution. If you just hang up on the customer the customer will get upset and call back over and over again which will make the actual call time for that one customer much longer than it would have been. I do feel it is important to control the call as a rep but the practice of hanging up on a customer when a rep gets scared or insecure just seems crazy to me.
I have worked in Call Centres for 8 years now and the problem is getting worse, I recently had a caller tell me that he can say whatever he wants to me as he was paying for the call and hence my wage!!
I am sick to the back teeth of managers telling CSRs that abuse will happen, deal with it and get over it!!! No-one has to right to verbally abuse staff, as in the example above, on a train but in Call Centres we’re suppossed to put up with it as part of our job.
Why should I give some-one 3 chances of verbally abusing me?
It is time managers realised that we are not there to take abuse and deal with it rather always shifting the blame on to us – it is “Could you have handled that call better?” or “Is there a way you could have difussed the situation better?” when I have just been insulted in every way possible.
Then they talk about “improving your Customer Service skills” which really means putting you on a warning for not letting the caller insult you some more!
I work in a call center as a supervisor. Our customers are horrible. We have been given no training at handling angry customers and when I have suggested that we at least get books I am told they will look into it and it never happens. The policies in the company create angry customers and corporate cares not. We are paid low wages and the stress is unbearable. I cry at the thought of going in there every day.
In an ideal world an organisation worth its weight would invest heavily in ongoing training and coaching in order for their frontline staff to be knowledgeable and equipped to deal with all enquiries – both good and bad. But let’s face it, too few companies truly understand the importance of customer service and these types of companies aren’t bothered by their staff’s wellbeing.
That said, there isn’t a single working CSR who can’t – at the very least – find and try new ways to make themselves feel better. The Internet holds hundreds of techniques and tips that when used successfully can effectively handle even the worst of callers.
Is it your job to do this? Of course not. But instead of admitting defeat and resigning yourself to unmitigated abuse, find positive ways to deal with it, even if it is simply to make your days at work seem better. You may not be paid to do this, but it seems to me a rather small price to pay for sanity.
I’ve worked in organisations where I’ve had immense support and ones where I’ve had none. If there’s one thing thats true of both of them, is that you have the ability to change your own working life.
You’re not always going to have the support you want or need – hell, deserve! – but you’ve always got you. So use that as a starting point.
And if you truly are only in the customer service industry to pay the bills, than you’re seriously in the wrong job. Find employment elsewhere… immediately.
I work in a call center and I agree with the comments above concerning the fact that customers do NOT have the right to shout down and insult staff for someone else’s mistake. Today I hung up on a caller because he was so out of control and it has ruined my day – hence the reason why I ended up looking at this site! I’m sorry, but managers need to step out of the protected zones of their cosy glass offices and see how hard it is when you’re on the ‘front line’. Unfortunately I work in a call centre where we get minimal support for angry calls, in a holiday property organization so it literally means people’s livelihoods are in our hands – which makes for some very unpleasant calls.
Some callers are just plain crazy and a little unhinged so it’s not as bad when they go berserk, it’s when someone tries to get a rise out of you by attacking you with poisonous remarks and is very aggressive that it really becomes an issue.
At the end of the day I agree with the comment above – live by the sword then you die by the sword – if someone is bold enough to ring a place up and shout their head off, then what on earth do they expect in return? This is the 21st century and the days of serfs and the bourgeoisie are over.
I never let customers get away with shouting at me, and I NEVER make things easier for a caller just because they are angry, because by bowing to their every wish you are making them think that their behavior is acceptable, and they leave feeling satisfied that being aggressive and abusive is the way to achieve results.
I work in call centre for nearly 10 months and we have never been given any training to handle angry customer. I feel very upset and even cry in room when customer get crazy and speak dirty words to me. I used to discuss and talk to my supervisor regarding this but he just asked me to call back without resolution. I am very upset and I always think that I deserve the scolds on behalf of company until I found this website to teach me on how to handle the angry customer. Thanks for all your suggestions and I will try it out!
I have angry Customers, but don’t let it get to me or take it personally. I feel that if a Customer is angry, they have usually been pushed to that emotion – so am always willing to listen, empathise and try and put things right. I find it also helps to lower your own tone when conversing with the angry customer. I pride myself on turning the customer around, and love it when I get feedback at the end of the call (which I do 99.9999% of the time) telling me that I have restored their faith – just with a little bit of patience!
I am and have been a Supervisor in a Call Center for 8 years. Some days I love my job – some days not so much…
The callers are becoming more and more abusive every day – I can deal with frustration, anger, even a bit of swearing. However – I am sick to death of individuals who feel it is their right to degrade, degenerate, intimidate, threaten, and absue anyone they wish.
In my environment – we are an In-bound Center – the customer calls us as opposed to us calling them and interrupting their day – if you’re going to call me – be civil.
Also in my environment – we offer a service that is is distributed my many, many clients to their customer base. The Clients rarely properly educate the caller – however, as the consumer – the customer’s need to take some responsibility for learning what they’re buying.
Do not call me in an abusive manner because you were too busy or pre-occuppied to read or ask questions to determine exactly what it is that you are entitled to – that’s not my fault.
Their are laws that protect just about every form of workplace abuse EXCEPT the Call Center – and Call Centers are becoming more and more the way of the future every day, with less and less face-to-face contact. In my city – 4 out of every 10 people work in a Call Center. Finding another way to support a family is not always optional – this is what is available.
At some point – the FCC and Governments need to take stand on protecting innocent people trying to make a living from being abused, regardless of the customer situation.
I work at a contact center take internal calls for the company, that is I help company employees by answer their concers, suggest solutions, correct their mistakes if possible. A lot times their problems don’t get fixed or corrected the way they wanted, I get yelled. Most of the time I tell them that we all work for the same company and we are on the same team. Don’t be upset because the error they caused can’t be fixed the way tehy wanted. I was only trying to help, but I still being yelled all the time. I try to bring this up to managers but most of the time were told I work at the contact center, deal with it. I was yelled by company employees 3 times today 🙁 I need the money but really can’t deal with this much longer!!!!!!!!!!
First off your agents need to be nurturing. If the person on the other end is angry they want to feel like they are being heard. For example, “I understand your frustration and sympathize with you. I’m probably speaking out of place, so I’ll ask you to be patient with me if I am. And if I am please don’t hesitate to tell me so. I may even sound self serving, but with your permission, I’d like to tell you what I see and then let’s work together to see if we can figure out a solution that’s a good fit for you.”
Sometimes the customer is requesting things you simply can’t do. At which point you ask the customer “What do you want me to do?” If again, you can’t come to an agreement you can ask “is it over then.” There are other variables that if possible should be considered as well. For example, what’s the lifetime value of that customer? Sometimes a customer simply can’t be pleased and it’s worth cutting your losses. But do so rationally and calmly.
Spencer,sorry but how much time do you think agents have to spend ‘nurturing’ abusive callers? Asking the customer what they want you to do is totally pointless as agents are extremely restricted in what they can do within their role and customers are in the main abusive when an agent cannot do what they demand. I suspect you do not work within a target driven call centre.
Nice to know I am not the only that is fed up with abusive callers.