How to Handle Contacts From Challenging Customers


We take you through nine common types of challenging customer, sharing our advice for offering them the best possible customer service.

1. The Impatient Customer

These customers grow frustrated when you cannot give them the immediate answer that they demand, hinting that they are in a rush to get off the phone.

Customer behaviour has changed. We all expect answers and information more quickly now due to the internet and other forms of self-service.

In addition, it is quite common to receive contacts from impatient customers at certain times of the day, as customers call in just before they go to work or just before the contact centre closes, for example.

Adjust your pacing and vocal tone so that you are being more direct, which means that you are more likely to develop rapport with them.

So you, as an advisor, need to be prepared, and Steve Shellabear, the Managing Director of dancing lion, suggests: “Adjust your pacing and vocal tone so that you are being more direct, which means that you are more likely to develop rapport with them.”

“Ask if they are short of time and tell them you will do your best to help them quickly. You could also ask if another time would be better to speak and perhaps even arrange an appointment.”

To take this one step further, in complex conversations we could offer to call back once we have gathered all of the necessary information.

If the impatient customer signals that they would rather stay on the phone, we then need to make a conscious effort to signpost what we are doing, so the customer knows why the interaction is taking so long. This will help to stop impatience turning into rudeness.

So, the keys to handling calls from impatient customers include:

  • Using a direct style and changing your pacing
  • Understanding the query type and deciding whether a call-back is required
  • Signposting what you are doing

For more on what you can do as the contact centre manager to better serve impatient customers, read our article: How to Design a Contact Centre for Impatient Customers

2. The Angry Customer (With a Legitimate Grievance)

These customers have been let down by a process failure within your organization and are angrily taking out their frustrations on you, the unfortunate advisor.

Again, the first step is to listen carefully and acknowledge the customer’s complaint. But then, it’s really important that you thank the customer for bringing this to your attention and for giving the business the opportunity to correct the issue.

Straight after this, you must offer a sincere apology for the inconvenience they have had, while using empathetic phrases to inform them what you are going to do to solve their issue.

After that, you need to check that they are happy with the proposed solution, and Steve says: “It may be appropriate to offer some form of compensation, if you are empowered to do so, but beware of throwing money at a problem. Customers talk to one another and you might have calls from people wanting similar financial compensation down the road.”

Make sure you check that the customer has had their issue addressed and put a note in your diary or system to follow up. This will help you to make sure that the customer is satisfied.

“Just make sure you check that the customer has had their issue addressed and put a note in your diary or system to follow up. This will help you to make sure that the customer is satisfied.”

“Remember that when a customer has their complaint resolved well, they are likely to do business with you again and again and tell others how well you dealt with the situation.”

This final point is especially true in today’s world, with the power of social media, while it is also far cheaper to market services and products to an existing customer than look for new prospects!

So, the keys to handling calls from angry customers (with a legitimate grievance) include:

  • Listening carefully and acknowledging the issue
  • Offering a sincere apology and showing empathy
  • Checking they are happy with your solution and following up

For more on offering service to this “customer type”, read our article: Dealing With Angry Customers

3. The Offloading Customer

These customers are also angry, but their grievance isn’t so legitimate. They may be in a bad mood when they call in with a routine query and just be looking to offload their problems.

This is a difficult “customer type” to deal with because, when the conversation starts, it can often sound as if the issue may be legitimate.

So, patience is the name of the game here, giving the customer that free space to vent. As time goes on, it will become easier for us to tell if they’re just unloading other issues.

Just remember, everyone has things that upset them, whether that might be things going on in their personal life or whatever, so you – as the advisor – need to understand this and actively manage your own emotions.

We need to be conscious of our own emotional reactions and ensure that our vocal tone doesn’t convey irritation.

As Steve says: “We need to be conscious of our own emotional reactions and ensure that our vocal tone doesn’t convey irritation but remains professional and polite.”

“Then, we again just need to thank the customer for bringing the matter to our attention, acknowledging their situation and moving the conversation on. We could maybe do this while helping them further by signposting others who can assist them.”

While we hope most calls with an “offloader” go this smoothly, this will not always be the case. So make sure your advisors are fully supported by an abusive customer policy.  

So, the keys to handling calls from offloading customers (without a legitimate grievance) include:

  • Controlling our emotions and tone of voice
  • Acknowledging how the customer feels
  • Identifying the customer’s core needs

4. The Talkative Customer

These customers are generally very friendly, but they won’t stop talking and can, if not carefully managed, keep you on the phone for a lot longer than you want to be.

When we first start to interact with a talkative customer, we need to use active listening and acknowledge them whenever they express an emotion. This is because they often won’t stop talking as they believe that no one is listening to them.

However, if this is not the case, we need to take greater control of the call, asking closed questions to minimize their response and using techniques such as signposting.

Steve adds: “In extreme cases, when the customer talks over you, simply stop giving verbal nods or minimal encouragers (uh-huh, yes, etc.) that we are socially conditioned to deliver.”

In extreme cases, when the customer talks over you, simply stop giving verbal nods or minimal encouragers (uh-huh, yes, etc.) that we are socially conditioned to deliver.

“The customer is likely to notice the expected responses are not there and say, ‘Are you still there/listening?’ at which time you can acknowledge and lead the conversation.” 

Steve’s point revolves around the idea that you can change the customer’s behaviour by doing something that’s unexpected. This would no doubt disrupt the talkative customer’s flow and allow you to take control of the situation. The key is to ensure that you do this politely.

So, the keys to handling calls from talkative customers include:

  • Using active listening
  • Offering acknowledgement
  • Breaking social conditioning (in extreme cases)

5. The Indecisive Customer

These customers just cannot make a decision, so they either ask lots of questions or instead keep switching between different options.

With indecisive customers, you need to stayed focused on the end goal. To get there, you need to consider whether or not you know the customer’s decision-making criteria.

If you are unsure, take control of the situation and then ask them: “what is it you are looking for?” “What things (features) are important to you?”

You can match their requirements with what your company can offer and then reiterate the key benefits for the customer.

Steve says: “With these answers, you can match their requirements with what your company can offer and you can reiterate the key benefits for the customer.”

“Also, they may be worried about making the wrong decision, so think about how you can reduce the risk for them. Can you offer a trial period where they can return the goods?”

If advisors are empowered to offer things like trial periods, this can be a really useful tool. But your approach will likely come down to why you think the customer is delaying making their decision.

The customer’s delay reasons could be anything from not having the time to evaluate all of their options fully to there being too much pressure on the decision, so they have that “fear factor”.

If you can decipher what the delay reason is, your chances of handling the call successfully will greatly increase.

So, the keys to handling calls from indecisive customers include:

  • Effective call questioning
  • Problem-solving
  • Advisor empowerment

6. The Know-It-All Customer

These customers have done their research and will challenge the advice that you give them, using an internet search or a friend’s experience to tell you that you’re wrong.

The dilemma here is that you don’t want to alienate the customer by proving them wrong, nor should you be passive and submissive just because they are the customer.

So, acknowledge they’ve done their research and have taken the time to ensure they are informed, while keeping calm by reminding yourself that they value what you have to offer. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be speaking to you.

The next step is to respond assertively, sharing your knowledge and expertise, linking back to what the customer has previously told you, especially when it comes to their main requirements.

You know the market inside and out. Let them know they are getting ‘inside information’ based on your experience.

This is according to Steve, who says: “Remember you do this for a living. You know the market inside and out. Let them know they are getting ‘inside information’ based on your experience.”

“If they go ‘macho’ on you – use phrases like ‘as you probably know’ and ‘as you may have found’, so they don’t feel the need to assert their superiority or have you recognize their knowledge.”

Steve’s last point is key, as it is easy to react to negative tones of voice. Stay calm and professional and as the call goes on, the customer will likely begin to recognize your superior knowledge for themselves.

So, the keys to handling calls from know-it-all customers include:

  • Acknowledging their research
  • Responding assertively
  • Staying calm and professional

7. The Confusing Customer

These customers keep asking questions that are unrelated to their issue, perhaps making irrelevant points as well, potentially indicating that they are vulnerable.

To handle these customers, advisors need to be coached on how to identify individuals who could be vulnerable customers and, when a customer shows these traits, they need to know how to handle these contacts effectively.

If someone is asking unrelated questions, you will naturally be questioning their grasp of what was being said. But you mustn’t be fazed by this. Instead listen politely and acknowledge their questions at a factual level.

The basics of some of these methods may include clarifying the customer’s understanding after each point, speaking at a relaxed pace and avoiding assumptions.

This is according to Steve, who says: “Depending on your organization’s policy, advisors need to know when they can offer specialist help, and it is up to management to develop and coach methods of handling vulnerable customers.”

“The basics of some of these methods may include clarifying the customer’s understanding after each point, speaking at a relaxed pace and avoiding assumptions.”  

An experienced advisor may also be careful to use closed questions to close the conversation down, as opposed to opening the conversation up and overwhelming the customer. We just need to make sure customers are sure of what they are saying yes and no to.

So, the keys to handling calls from confusing customers include:

  • Identifying vulnerable customer traits
  • Using basic techniques like clarifying understanding after each point
  • Asking closed questions carefully

For more on handling this customer type, read our article: Dealing With Vulnerable Customers

8. The Demanding Customer

These customers have unrealistic expectations and demand something that you simply cannot deliver, leaving you in an awkward “stand-off” position.

Again, the first step in handling this call is acknowledgement. But not just acknowledging what they want, but why they want it, in order to build a certain level of rapport.

Then, we need to be truthful and say what we can’t do, but we should also let them know what we can do for them and frame that in the best possible light.

So, emphasize the positives by using positive words to put forward the realistic option, using words like ‘great’ and ‘fantastic’ to inject energy into the conversation.

Steve adds: “When the customer demands something that isn’t realistic, what you need to be able to say is: ‘I can’t do that for you, but what I can do for you is…’.”

When the customer demands something that isn’t realistic, what you need to be able to say is: ‘I can’t do that for you, but what I can do for you is…

“This means that we leave the customer with something positive and that they have control over, so the customer is confident that something will and can be done after that call.”

If the customer still isn’t best pleased, highlight where else they may be able to obtain what they are looking for.

But if they continue to still ask for the unrealistic option, spell out why you cannot deliver that, don’t just say, “It’s company policy.” Customers hate that!

So, the keys to handling calls from demanding customers include:

  • Acknowledging what they want and why they want it
  • Using positive words to frame your preferred option
  • Highlighting where else they may be able to obtain what they’re looking for

9. The Nit-Picking Customer

These customers will never be satisfied, no matter what you do. Instead, they question your decision making at every opportunity and adopt a passive-aggressive tone.

Your patience, as the advisor, is really going to be tested here. After all, some people just cannot be satisfied. If these customers won the lottery, they would complain that the notes aren’t new enough.

So, we need to again be conscious of our own emotions when taking these calls, ensuring that we are being patient, polite and maintaining a respectful tone of voice.

Steve Shellabear

In terms of controlling the direction of the call, Steve says: “Point out the benefits of what your company is offering and ask if that will help them. The key is to try and find out what they want.”

“There are a variety of different reasons for why some people nit-pick – it can be chronic, habitual or emotive. If we think it’s emotive, we can potentially turn that customer around by being human, not reacting to the negatives and showing empathy.”

Although it’s difficult, your role as an advisor is to be professional and friendly and to see if you can win the customer over.

Just remember to think the best of the customer and consider that they may be upset about something else, so there may still be an opportunity win them around.

So, the keys to handling calls from nit-picking customers include:

  • Being patient and maintaining a respectful tone of voice
  • Promoting the benefits of your product actively
  • Identifying their key “call-drivers”

The Common Themes

Handling calls from challenging customers is where advisors really earn their money. From the list of nine types of challenging customers above, we have noticed some common themes in handling different challenging customer types.

So, before this article comes to a close, we just want to highlight some of the common tools for handling challenging customers, which if used properly, will lead to many more successful contact centre conversations.

  • Using active listening to get all the necessary information
  • Acknowledging how the customer feels and showing empathy
  • Managing your own emotions and tone of voice
  • Adopting different questioning techniques where appropriate
  • Identifying the customer’s main “call drivers”

We hope that your team is confident in each of these areas. But if not, a quick search of the Call Centre Helper website should give you plenty of hints and tips to help you on the way.

Good luck!

For more on handling customers, read our articles:

Published On: 4th Sep 2019 - Last modified: 19th Sep 2019
Read more about - Skills, , , , , , ,


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