How to Deal With Rude Customers


A photo of a person sticking their tongue out to make a rude gesture

We share a number of best practices for handling calls from rude customers, for both advisors and contact centre leaders.

How Do We Define “Rude”?

A common mistake that contact centres make is to include “rude customers” under the term “angry customers” when they are often two different types of customer.

Typical advice for dealing with an angry customer, which goes along the lines of “let them vent”, is great in some scenarios, but not in those where customers are being excessively rude.

There are occasions where it is wrong to expect advisors to sit back and take the abuse. So we need to provide advisors with clear guidelines for dealing with the three types of rude customers, which are:

  1. Offensive/insulting customers
  2. Swearing customers
  3. Sarcastic customers

By doing so, we can make advisors aware of the specific circumstances in which they can hang up. These are likely to include:

  • Sexist, homophobic or similar derogatory remarks
  • Insults based on race and/or religion
  • Physical threats of harm and violence
  • Deep breathing with no attempt to make conversation

So, set clear guidelines to define the difference between angry customers and the three types of rude customers. Then, define the scenarios in which advisors can be expected and not expected to hang up.

For those scenarios in which advisors are not expected to hang up, i.e. cases in which the customer curses at the advisor or insults their intelligence, we have put together the following ten tips.

The Ten Tips

1. Demonstrate That You Understand Their Problem

One of the best things you can do when coaching advisors is to run training exercises that focus on improving resilience while maintaining a positive and upbeat tone.

With a positive outlook, advisors will feel more comfortable in “rising above” the rudeness and showing empathy.

However, you can only show real empathy by first demonstrating that you understand the customer’s problem, otherwise you’ll lack authenticity.

To do this, advisors should repeat back the customer’s problem to them (without the hostility) to demonstrate that they have understood the issue, and then tell the customer what they are going to do to find a solution.

A thumbnail photo of Jacqui Turner

Jacqui Turner

Then, if the customer offers a rude response, Jacqui Turner, the Founder of Turner Corner Learning Solutions, says: “Follow that up with the sentence; ‘I’m finding it very difficult to do that when you are using offensive language (or whatever it might be). Let’s continue to work together on this to find a solution.’”

“Once you’ve done this, follow it up with a pause and what I’ve found is that they customer will also pause for a moment and this will help to settle everything down.”

2. Don’t Try to Win

In the last point, we discussed the importance of keeping a positive outlook while on a call, but that is much easier said than done when a customer is being rude or abusive.

So, one of the key messages to pass onto advisors is “don’t try to win”. Instead pick your battles and train your employees to expect the unexpected.

As Laura Basset, Senior Director of Product Marketing at NICE inContact, says: “If your employees are prepared to handle these situations, their reaction will be more effective and be able to address the situation in real time rather than prolonging the experience.”

“A negative or reactive reaction can quickly create a more explosive situation and impact the company reputation overall.”

Use group listening exercises where you listen to call recordings of situations in which customers have been really rude to set advisor expectations.

To better prepare advisors, use group listening exercises where you listen to call recordings of situations in which customers have been really rude to set advisor expectations for the type of calls that they might have to handle.

In these sessions, you can also talk about what you think the advisor did really well in terms of dealing with the rude customer, as well as areas in which they could have done better.

3. Remember That Customers Are Rude When They’re Desperate

Another key message to pass onto advisors is that a rude customer is just trying to get their attention. This is why customers use personalized attacks: they know it will get a reaction.

Rude customers will keep hitting that button if it’s the only way to get you.

Laura adds: “Rude customers will keep hitting that button if it’s the only way to get you. But just remember, it’s not out of spite, it’s desperation!”

“What you do now sets the tone for the ongoing relationship with this customer and many others.”

When you sense the customer is becoming desperate, it can be good to use an reassurance statement, along the lines of:

  • “We will help you get this issue resolved.”
  • “I see where the problem is…”
  • “This should be fixed before the end of the week.”

These can work especially well if paired with a signal that you are taking ownership of the customer’s problem – to lift that burden away from them.

4. Guide Rather Than Control

It’s easy to script responses for when a customer is rude, but different customers will react in different ways to those responses, making these scenarios difficult to control.

While a script can be nice to fall back on when the advisor begins to struggle, a well-trained advisor should be able to gauge how best to respond.

So, provide a choice of empathy statements and techniques for handling the rude customers and role-play each technique in training, so advisors are comfortable in using each.

A thumbnail picture of Laura Bassett

Laura Bassett

Laura says: “Choices are a good thing, and better than getting into a power struggle. Choices allow freedom in a way that is within your ability to resolve an issue.”

“Don’t, however, be over-focused on customer satisfaction to where you don’t solve the problem with the ‘correct’ outcome.  With logical handling both parties will know the right resolution has been reached.”

To help advisors to choose which technique is best for each advisor, you can use training activities to improve emotional intelligence and empathy.

5. Avoid Phrases Like “Calm Down”

Nobody, in the history of the world, has every calmed down when someone has asked them to calm down. Instead, they get more irritated that you’re focusing on their mood and not their query – so they get even ruder.

The customer is feeling powerless, so the aim is to get to a point where they feel as though they have some control over their predicament.

For this reason, using the phrase: “It’s becoming quite difficult to help you, as I’m hearing a lot of offensive language (or whatever it might be). Let’s continue to work together on this to find a solution,” similar to what Jacqui suggested earlier, is so much better.

A picture of an angry rabbit

Never us phrases such as “calm down” or “I am trying to help you, but you aren’t giving me the chance” when talking to a rude customer.

Other phrases like “calm down”, which are guaranteed to further rile customers, include:    

“If you keep using that language, I’ll hang up/terminate this call” – This threat works to the same effect as “calm down”. Plus, if you make good on this threat to hang up, you’ll only pass the difficult situation on to another advisor.

“I am trying to help you, but you aren’t giving me the chance” – This statement implies to the customer that it is they who are in the wrong. Making any such suggestions will only flare up an already uncomfortable situation.

“Would you like to speak to a supervisor?” – This is not a good move, because not only will your supervisor not appreciate it, if you do it too often customers will have the expectation of being passed through – making future contacts tricky.

For more about knowing the best time to escalate a call to a supervisor, read our article: How to Handle Call Escalations

6. Slow Everything Down a Little Bit

By carefully monitoring the tone of your own voice, you will be able to ensure that you are keeping a cool head and aren’t provoking the customer into further “bouts” of rudeness.

The tempo of our speech can depend on our mood at the time, meaning that when we are being subjected to abuse, we tend to speak at a higher pitch and at a quicker rate.

However, this is the opposite of what we really want to do – create a calming atmosphere, in which a productive and well-mannered conversation can be conducted.

What we really want to do is speak at a slower tempo and lower our voices, to have a soothing effect on the call and keep our own emotions under control.

So, what we really want to do is speak at a slower tempo and lower our voices, to have a soothing effect on the call and keep our own emotions under control.

If we are conscious of how our voice is “coming across” to the customer, we are focusing on something that is within our control and not the insults in which the customer is projecting onto us.

To find out how customers express their dissatisfaction, read this article which outlines the top words and phrases. 

7. Use Certain Rapport-Building Techniques

There are some rapport-building techniques, such as matching the customer’s tone, which are absolutely not relevant when handling calls from rude customers.

Techniques including using active listening to pick up on words that customers use to express their emotions can be very useful.

However, techniques including using active listening to pick up on words that customers use to express their emotions can be very useful.

For example, if a customer were to say: “I’m very frustrated by your *swear word* service…”, the advisor can settle things down by reflecting the emotion back to them and removing the swear word.

To do this, the advisor could say: “I understand that you are very frustrated by our service, so let’s now work together to find a resolution.”

By using this rapport-building technique, the advisor is demonstrating that they have understood how the customer is feeling. Only with this acknowledgement can an advisor reassure the customer that they can help the customer fully move away from any discomfort.

To find out more rapport-building techniques that could help with angry customers, read our article: 27 Effective Ways to Build Customer Rapport

8. Show the Customer That You’re on Their Side

A rude customer is likely venting their frustrations at the organization, not you as the customer service rep. The best thing that you can be to a rude customer is their “inside person”, not another cog in the wheel.

To do this, refrain from using the words “our” and “we” – as in the yourself and company – and only use these words when referring to yourself and the customer.

For example, never say sentences like: “It’s our customer policy” or “we cannot do that for you”, which can be difficult because, when coming under criticism, it is the instinct of many advisors to become defensive of the brand.

A picture of figures holding hands

Use personal pronouns such as “I” and “you” when possible, only using “our” and “we” to denote an effort of teamwork with the customer.

So, use personal pronouns such as “I” and “you” when possible, only using “our” and “we” to denote an effort of teamwork with the customer.

If possible, you should also give the customer your name, company number and company email. This means that when a customer contacts the company they are passed directly through to you, so they receive personalized service.

9. Send a Classy Follow-Up Email

Whether you, as the advisor, found a solution to the customer’s problem or not – you are in danger of losing the rude customer’s business.

However, a simple follow-up email can ensure that you have ended the contact on a gesture of good will, which can be valuable over time.

The email will ideally include:

  • An empathy statement recognizing the customer’s frustration
  • A summary of how you resolved / are resolving the customer’s query
  • A thank you for the customer’s feedback

But just remember that this email is not an excuse to ask anything more of the customer – it’s a nice way to make a “quick repair” to the customer’s relationship with the business.

It also gives the customer the opportunity to apologize for their behaviour, because after the initial conversation they may feel embarrassed about how they acted.

There is a strong chance that the customer’s frustration was due to other things going on within their life, so you may encourage the customer to say “sorry”.

10. Ask Advisors to Feedback the Cause of Customer Frustration

Advisors need to have a place where they can shout about any barriers that are preventing the business delivering its version of excellent.

This place will ideally be at the centre of any root-cause analysis, as advisors report the reasons why rude customers are calling in, to help you to identify any major sources of customer dissatisfaction.

If you can identify and work to improve in these areas of major customer frustration, you will significantly lower the number of cases where rude customers call in the first place. This is the “proactive approach”.

Isolate contact types through filtering complaint reasons and low customer satisfaction scores to find out key contact reasons.

To do this, isolate contact types through filtering complaint reasons and low customer satisfaction scores to find out key contact reasons. Then, run through the customer journey and isolate key moments of friction.

Customer feedback will help with this, so – for your most problematic call types – hold advisor focus groups or find other ways for advisors to share customer feedback with you.

The Three-Strike Rule

By employing the techniques above, you will hopefully be able to create a more positive environment to have meaningful conversations with customers. However, there will be some cases where this is simply not possible.

In these scenarios, the customer may continue making insults, start to yell or just refuse to listen – likely insisting that the advisor is “wrong”.

When dealing with such a stubbornly rude customer, Jacqui Turner suggests that you implement the “three-strike rule”, which means that on the third instance where the customer is rude, the advisor can hang up.

A picture of a moving baseball

Warn the customer that you are finding it difficult to support them when they are directing such language at you. If they continue after two warnings, at the third offence the advisor can then terminate the call.

Jacqui says: “Warn the customer that you are finding it difficult to support them when they are directing such language at you. If they continue after two warnings, at the third offence the advisor can then terminate the call.”

Once the call has been terminated, a contact centre coach should listen to the call and feedback to the advisor what they did well and what they could have done better. This is good for their continuing development and future ability to deal with rude callers.

For more on the three-strike rule and other alternatives to it, read our article: When Is It OK to Hang Up on a Customer?

What Can You Do to Better Protect Advisors From Rude Customers?

As well as providing a place for advisors to feedback the reasons for customer rudeness, there is more that the contact centre can do guard advisors against rude customers.

Below, Frank Sherlock, VP International at CallMiner, presents three such things:

Employ Call-Routing Tactics for Repeat Offenders

For repeat offenders, you can implement two call-routing tactics, depending on your willingness to continue serving the customer.

First, if you are still willing to deal with a customer who has a history of being rude to agents, route them through to an advisor who specializes in dealing with customers of this nature. You can do this through CLI recognition in your ACD system.

However, if you no longer wish to take calls from the customer who has repeatedly been a nuisance caller, you may wish to instead route them through to an extra-long queue. This is a particularly good tactic in handling prank callers.

Use Call Recordings to Highlight and Share Best Practices

Every contact centre has high-performing advisors – the advisor that seems to be great at handling difficult calls. But do you really know the secret of their success?

Listen back through their call recordings to find out and share their best practices, so you find solutions for rude customers that have worked among other members of your customer base.

Once you’ve identified those “great” calls, it can be a great training exercise to listen back through them with new recruits, so they know what to expect from rude callers and how to handle them.

Once you’ve identified those “great” calls, it can be a great training exercise to listen back through them with new recruits, so they know what to expect from rude callers and how to handle them.

Look Into the Underlying Cause and Eliminate “Triggers”

To stop rude customers from calling it is good to create a space for advisors to “feedback” customer triggers, but – if you have a speech analytics system – this will be able to do it for you.

Thumbnail image of Frank Sherlock

Frank Sherlock

By analysing each interaction, you can identify the main reasons why customers arrive angry or become angry on the call. You can then pass this insight to the relevant department, who will hopefully make the necessary changes or improvements to eliminate the reasons for the call.

Also, you will be able to recognize emerging issues more quickly than by listening to a random selection of calls.

In Summary

Rude customers are not the same as angry customers, so make the differentiation and coach advisors on how to deal with each type of customer separately.

However, you will also have varying strengths of “rude”. Some customer may deserve immediate termination, if guilty of certain types of abuse – and possibly legal action.

Then there are other types of rude customer – such as those who swear at or insult the advisor. For these, teach advisors the ten techniques above to settle them down.

If these techniques do not work, implement the “three-strike rule”, which gives advisors clear guidelines to follow in terms of terminating the call.

Finally, think about what you as the contact centre manager can do to protect advisors from rude customers, whether that’s optimizing call routing techniques, making time for call listening or eliminating “triggers” for rudeness.

For more on handling calls from challenging types of customers, read our articles:

Published On: 24th Jun 2019 - Last modified: 5th Sep 2019
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