Handling Difficult Customers

A photo of a difficult customer

An angry customer calls your organisation with a complaint and starts shouting.  So what do you do?

Christine Knott looks at how a simple technique called Transactional Analysis (TA) can help. 

First a little theory.

Transactional Analysis (TA) focuses on the interaction between two or more people. By understanding how we communicate, Eric Bearne, the founder of TA, discovered that changing the interaction was a way of solving emotional issues that could hinder a positive outcome to a conversation.

Bearne, a psychoanalytic-trained psychiatrist, believed in making a commitment to “curing” his patients rather than just understanding them. TA describes how people are structured psychologically. It uses a simple Parent-Adult-Child model to do this which indicates that, at any given time, a person manifests their personality through a mixture of behaviours which fall into one of the three categories, Parent, Adult or Child, known as Ego states.

Parent ego state: represents the occasions when during conversations we respond in a manner that copies the behaviours and actions of parental or influential figures from our lifetime. Can you recall instances when you’ve heard yourself thinking ‘I sound just like my mother/father/teacher’? You are reflecting and copying their behaviour.

For example, during a conversation a person may display anger by shouting at someone because they learnt from an early age that when the parent shouts the child takes notice.

Adult ego state: represents the occasions when during conversations we draw on our lifetime of experiences as an adult to guide us objectively to a positive outcome. When we are in our Adult state we see, hear and respond to people as they really are, and have an understanding of why they are reacting as they do, rather than accepting at face value the way they choose to communicate.

For example, if during a telephone call our organisation is criticised we would respond with a calm, logical response which aimed at reducing or removing the emotion from the discussion in order to resolve issues in a logical and factual manner. We would adopt this state having learnt throughout our lifetime that shouting, sulking, answering back or other emotional states will detract from our ability to reach a solution, and extend the time needed to reach it.

Child ego state: represents the occasions when during conversations we revert to behaving, feeling and thinking similarly to how we did in childhood.

For example, during a conversation a person who receives criticism may react as they did in their childhood when they were reprimanded. This reaction may take on an emotional form, crying, sulking, answering back or perhaps feeling ashamed or angry.

When we adopt an ego state it is generally through an immediate and unconscious reaction, based on how we responded to a similar situation during our early formative years.

So let’s look at the example we started with. An angry customer calls your organisation with a complaint. The customer has adopted the Parental state, learning from an early age that when their parents shouted at them, they took notice and felt bad and did all they could to make amends. By mimicking what they learnt and shouting at you they are banking on you taking notice of them, feeling bad and making amends, probably by way of an apology, refund, replacement or compensation.
So what do you do?

You have also had childhood learning and your childhood learning may have taken one of the following routes:

1) you responded to someone shouting at you by shouting back
2) you responded to someone shouting at you in the same way as your caller did as a child by feeling bad and doing all you could to make amends
3) you responded to someone shouting at you in an adult manner, by remaining calm, and using facts and logic to achieve a harmonious outcome for everyone.

If you respond with route 1 you will surprise your customer, they aren’t expecting that sort of response as their past learning has taught them that you would take notice, feel bad and make amends. Their next response is to try again this time, shouting even louder and continuing to do so until they get the response they were looking for and expected. When this doesn’t happen they may ask for a manager to try with someone else. Eventually, if they continue to get the route 1 response, they ‘burn out’ and either end the call defeated or hang up in frustration.

If you respond with route 2 your customer will get the reaction they expected and move to a position of control. They will retain the Parent ego state until they have achieved the outcome that they wanted from the call.

By responding with routes 1 or 2 it is possible that the outcome might not be suitable to your organisation. The customer might not have the correct facts, he might be ‘trying it on’, or he might have good reason to be angry. Whatever his justification, whilst you are both operating in Parent ego states, as in route 1, or Parent and Child states, as in route 2, you are not in a position to negotiate and bring the conversation to a positive conclusion for all parties. The result is either an outcome where the customer is happy but your organisation is working at a loss, or an outcome that leads to a dissatisfied and even angrier customer, which could potentially damage the reputation of your organisation.

If you respond with route 3 you will be drawing on all your experiences of handling a Parental ego state and reaching a resolution that is fair and just. You may have to negotiate to achieve a suitable outcome for both parties but negotiation can only take place when both callers are acting from their Adult ego states.

No doubt the training and guidance you have received for dealing with difficult customers is based on maintaining an Adult state.

Initially it is suggested that you:

1) Listen to your caller’s issues and apologise, whether it’s your fault or not. It may not come easily to you but an apology is the first step to resolving the issue in an Adult state. “I’m sorry you feel this way…”

2) Sit tight until they have finished complaining. Prior to making the call your customer will no doubt have practised what they intended to say, and no amount of interrupting will stop them from saying it! To react in either of these ways will prolong the point of resolution.

3) Once your customer realises you are not going to respond in the way they anticipated they will start to move from Parent state to Adult state, when the logic of the current situation is realised. They will have nothing left to say and there will be no need to repeat anything because you have demonstrated that you have listened to them, and taken on board their reasons for being angry and upset.

4) Once you are sure they have finished their ‘script’ you can address any points that need clarification. Communicating in Adult state will require you at to ask questions so that you can fully understand all the facts.

5) Once you are in possession of all the facts you are in a position to resolve the situation.   Entering the conversation in Adult state and maintaining it will have a positive effect on your caller. Initially they may adopt a Parent state but if you choose not to respond in Parent or even Child state you will encourage them to move to Adult mode too.

To demonstrate and embed the learning and demonstrate understanding of Eric Bearne’s Transactional Analysis try the following exercise.

Exercise 1. Identify the state

1. Prepare a pack of cards for each group of three or more in your session

2. Each pack of cards should include

  • 3 state cards, one printed ‘adult’, one printed ‘parent’ and the third printed ‘child’.
  • 6 cards each printed with a typical customer complaint.

3. Hand a set of cards to each group.

4. Explain the task

  • Person 1 to select one of the customer complaint cards and one of the state cards
  • Person 1 relays the customer complaint to person 2 (or the rest of the group) in the style of the state printed on the card they selected.
  • Example: relay the complaint of a direct debit being taken from their account twice in one month causing bank charges, in a ‘child state’.

5. Person 2 responds adopting any state they choose.

6. Person 3 or other members of the group will act as observers and give feedback at the end of the session. Their feedback must include:

A thumbnail picture of Christine Knott

Christine Knott

  • The state person 1 adopted to relay their complaint, was it adult, parent or child?
  • The state person 2 adopted to respond, was it adult, parent or child?
  • Feedback on how the states adopted by person 2 affected the outcome, and what could have been done differently to ensure a positive result of the complaint

7. Keep the sessions light-hearted and fun whilst ensuring that the learning points from your course are displayed and understood.

8. Repeat the exercise, ensuring everyone plays the role of observer in order to consider how best to resolve complaints.

Christine Knott is MD of specialist training company Beyond The Box

For more ideas for handling difficult customer contacts, listen to the following episode of The Contact Centre Podcast:

The Contact Centre Podcast – Episode 29:

Dealing With Challenging Customers

For more information on this podcast, or alternative ways to listen, visit Podcast – Dealing With Challenging Customers

Author: Christine Knott

Published On: 1st Apr 2009 - Last modified: 30th Apr 2024
Read more about - Skills, , , , , , ,

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  • Its sound theory and works if your taking a limited amount of calls per day, however in a fully accredited commercial contact/call centre, agents can take up 60 calls or more per day. in that event its a probable chance that in amongst those calls, if ten customers are awkward and those calls come in one after the other, then that would wear thin on the most rational human being in the world. It could be that all 60 calls could be aggressive, humiliating and incensive. Human beings can only take so much- one then needs to question the state of the organisational structure, and the external market enviroment for that product or service.
    Nevetheless in the event that its one call in 60 or one call in 100 that is awkward or difficult, then its merely down to the individual agent to excercise professionalism- which reverts back to your theoretical model.

    James Sedonne 2 Apr at 09:57
  • At first, the technique sounded to me like common sense. Upon reading further, I realise that it’s a good way to categorise different ‘styles’ (from both customer and agent’s point of view). It encourages ‘adult’ behaviour which is the professional style that all call centres want their agents to follow. At the same time, it advises against agents using the ‘child’ style, which many agents think is okay (since they are being polite and giving in to customer’s demands). I am a Quality Specialist in a Contact Centre and will try out your technique. Thanks!

    Michelle 3 Apr at 05:46
  • All I can say it is theory but its strength lies in the way it teaches the concepts with fun.Stress still remains one of the greatest challenges that call center employees face.My purpose of reading articles in this site has been to find ways in which learning can be driven with fun and this is exactly one such article that teaches you how you can drive learning with fun.Thank you !

    Anonymous 22 May at 11:15
  • from my own experience, reality is different from theory. but still we keep on trying to satisfy the customers in a professional manner. good article. good luck to everyone as i believe customer service is the most difficult job out there. 🙂

    md 5 Mar at 17:03
  • This is very important to provide a quality customer service from your contact centers, but handling difficult customers are really difficult, well your article is quite beneficial however I ‘m with all other commentators’ statement of : it is all theory”, but if we think and realize that every concept and every exercise depends on any ideology (theory) and if we tend to establish every parameter of every theory, it will defiantly reflect with a positive or negative results.
    I myself will start training call center team on how to handle the difficult customers? Where I definitely will push them to bring all these theories into practical practice and will also share you the outcomes on……

    Aamir 6 Jul at 09:04
  • Commenting as a customer who recently had occasion to be the one MAKING a complaint to the call centre of a well-known mobile provider, my experience was completely frustrating; not due to the “state” that the agent was employing (though I doubt that she had ever had any training in this methodology)it was the complete “brick wall” I encountered because the “script” she was using just did not have an exit strategy to cope with my complaint. Having been sent the “wrong” SIM card compared to the one shown on my account, I failed the security check and according to the script, this was something that “simply could not happen in our organisation”. The result was a total breakdown in communication.

    Paul 8 Jul at 11:17
  • I really like this article. I started reading through articles looking for ones to share with an agent I want to begin developing. Currently she carries out call monitoring and I want to find ways to get her thinking about how she can improve quality in the team and give her lots of options to find something that ‘speaks’ to her so she can take ownership and run with the idea and begin to enhance her coaching skills.

    This approach may not work for every angry customer but from my own experience as an agent and as a TL taking over calls I can definately see it’s merits.


    Bunnycatz 19 Jul at 13:43
  • I am a trainer, and talk about transactional analysis in almost all my training – it’s incredibly useful in so many situations. I love your exercise with the cards, and will start using something similar. Thanks!

    Heidi 7 May at 11:54
  • Here’s a tip for getting what you want out of a call center.

    Even if you’re angry, even if you’re at the end of your tether, BE NICE TO THE PERSON ON THE OTHER END OF THE LINE!

    A little bit of manners go a long way in reaching a mutually agreeable outcome. If you lay out your complaint in a calm and rational manner, the agent on the other end is more likely to go out of their way to help you if they can.

    If you scream shout and spit your dummy out, you’re going to get the brick wall treatment, and the agent is not going to try to bend over backwards for you because whatever you can dish out is nothing compared to the bollocking off their boss if they end up doing something that’s against regulation or the rules stated out to them. Make sure your demands are reasonable, you’re not going to get anywhere demanding to speak to the CEO of the company or demanding a 100% refund.

    In the language of this article, behave like an adult and you’ll get treated a lot better by the likely frazzled and completely burnt out agent who’s handled more than their fair share of nasty customers that day.

    Marceline 8 Jan at 00:34