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Handling difficult and angry people on the phone

Dealing with an angry caller is never an easy task. Unfortunately, call center customer service representatives have to do it all the time. While the stress and anxiety of handling these situations fade as reps learn the ropes, the importance of handling difficult customers well never fades.

A dissatisfied customer is likely to tell between nine and 15 people about their experience, whereas a satisfied customer may only tell between four and six. That means that, unfortunately, when it comes to customer support, bad news travels faster than good.

There are methods that can help you to effectively handle difficult customers, reduce their anger and engage in conflict resolution. Below is information borrowed from the field of psychology, a profession that specializes in interacting with difficult individuals, reducing their distress and repairing the relationship. They are few customer service techniques that you can employ to help achieve customer service conflict resolution excellence!

  • Work as quickly as possible
    As they say, time is money. The more efficient you can be means the more customers you can help throughout the day. Most, in fact 90 percent, of consumers would rather deal with issues over the phone than via chat, email or social media.
    As they say, time is money. The more efficient you can be means the more customers you can help throughout the day. Most, in fact 90 percent, of consumers would rather deal with issues over the phone than via chat, email or social media.

  • Listen to the entire story first
    When you do get a difficult caller on the phone, ask the customer how you can help them. Then, sit back and listen, really listen. When a customer is explaining a problem, don’t interrupt them at all. Don’t cut them off. Don’t even cut in to ask for clarification. As they talk, have a pen and paper or computer tab handy. This way, you can jot down any details and potential questions you’d like to ask for clarification reasons after they’re finished.
    Not only will listening to the whole story first give you a better idea of the issue or question they’re calling about, but it will also help the customer feel better. There are few things more frustrating to an angry caller than not being heard. Let them talk while you actively listen and take notes.

  • Look for warning signs during a conversation
    Chances are, your customer’s anger did not come out of nowhere. Look for signs that your customer’s emotional state is deteriorating: a clenched jaw, tense posture, clenched fists, fidgeting, significant changes in behavior (i.e. a talkative person who becomes quiet) or a more harsh tone of voice.

  • Allow them to vent
    When the customer has reached the point of anger, allow them the space to voice their frustrations. Spend the time that is needed, do not interrupt and occasionally show support with statements such as, "I understand", "I agree, this can be frustrating", etc. Simply put, that's good customer service.

  • Show empathy
    When the customer has finished venting, respond calmly and treat the individual with respect. Empathize with the individual with statements such as, " I understand how upsetting this must be for you".

  • Don’t get into a power struggle
    By giving your customer the space to speak, you are putting the ball in their court and communicating to them that their situation deserves attention. Do not try to overpower the customer by cutting them off, telling them they are wrong or ending the conversation.

  • Identify their mood state
    Are they irritated, annoyed, frustrated, anxious or angry? Accurately identifying their mood state will help you understand the causes for their mood (let’s call it anger and adjust our customer service).

  • Make sure to understand their anger
    Try to figure out exactly why they are angry. This may take some work on your end as sometimes the thing they are yelling about might not actually be what they are angry about. Ask yourself the following questions: What triggered the anger? Were they criticized, ignored, treated unfairly or overwhelmed with hassles? Do they have unmet expectations, needs or wants? Do they lack options?
    Look at the situation from their point of view.

  • Keep your cool
    Do not let yourself be manipulated by the customer’s anger. Always remain calm and professional. Speak softly and address the customer by name.

  • Don’t try to justify your point
    Trying to speak rationally to someone who is angry is not effective and will make matters worse.

  • Use active listening
    Try to paraphrase back what the customer has told you. Keep your statements short and simple. Avoid company jargon or referring to company policy.

  • Try to find one point of agreement
    If the complaint is valid, acknowledge that.

  • Ask for their solution to the problem
    Use phrases like, "Can you tell me what you need?"

  • Break their problem down into manageable segments
    Start by addressing the issues that are easiest for you to solve. If the customer can see an immediate change, they will understand that you are helping them fix their problem.

  • Try to solve the issue
    If you know the solution, fantastic! Dive right in. If you’re unsure, don’t make any promises that you can’t keep. "I’d love to help you with this issue" isn’t quite the same as saying, "I’ll send you a new one by tomorrow" if it can’t be done
    If you don’t know the answer, put the caller on hold and consult your manual or other resources as quickly as possible. Remember, an angry caller is only going to get more annoyed the longer he or she sits on hold. If you can’t resolve the issue quickly, you’ll need to ask a coworker or manager for help.
    If you actually need to transfer the caller to another department or manager, let them know first rather than just pushing a button and sending them along. Many annoyed customers are hesitant to be transferred because they fear their call will be dropped, they’ll be placed on hold again or they may be annoyed that they have to explain their issue again.
    One way some companies handle this is by having the first customer service rep actively call and then introduce the customer to the second service rep. This attended transfer gives the worker a chance to efficiently explain the problem and it does not leave the angry caller hanging.

  • Always have a solution
    Provide information about why something is not possible, but always have a solution that might help meet their needs. If your company cannot meet their needs, refer them to one that can.

  • Negotiate for a win-win
    Explain your viewpoint carefully and negotiate the differences.

  • Repair the relationship
    Compliment the individual. Tell a joke.
    You may have to give them particularly special treatment. Not all companies are able to offer discounts or freebies to disgruntled customers, but many do. If you have a problematic customer who refuses to relax, you may have to throw them a freebie as a last resort.
    This is sure to calm them down because everyone loves free stuff. Even though it may seem like a loss of money upfront, paying to keep a customer loyal will likely pay for itself in the long run by cutting back on marketing costs. A new customer costs six or seven times more to market to than a returning one. Plus, it’ll save on the bottom line. Increasing customer retention by just two percent decreases overall costs by an average of 10 percent.
    Do whatever it takes to make sure the customer is happy at the end of the conversation.

  • Take a deep breath
    and, most importantly of all, be as helpful as possible but never take an angry caller personally. The majority of the time, it’s not you. It’s them.

These techniques are the key to calming a customer, arriving at an effective solution and winning back their trust is being prepared to deal with a difficult customer. Practice these steps before the situation arises so you will be fully-prepared to handle anything that comes your way.


Recommendations for Call Center Agents

Call center agents can be the first and only contact point for customers and are therefore often the face of a company.

Every positive interaction a customer has with a company can turn them into a loyal customer and evangelist. Thus, positive interactions with well-trained agent will increase customer lifetime value and brand awareness.

Below are tips for call center etiquette excellence agents and managers should always be aware of when interacting with customers.

  • Be courteous
    Agents should always treat each caller with courtesy. Ask how they prefer to be addressed, make every attempt to pronounce their name correctly and use this name consistently. Talk with a smile, remain calm and speak clearly. Wait for the person to finish speaking before speaking. These simple tips will go a long way in interacting with the caller in a positive and professional manner.

  • Be professional
    Agents should maintain a level of professionalism throughout the entire conversation. They are the face of the company, so they should have adequate training and should be monitored for adherence to quality standards. All conversations should be in line with corporate values and goals.

  • Be respectful
    All customers should be treated with respect. Throughout each interaction, agents should remain calm, act rationally and treat the caller as if they were the most valued customer. Respect also involves understanding the caller’s needs and making an effort to accommodate them. Agents should attempt to understand the causes of the customer’s problem, realize how their problem affects their behavior and respond with compassion.

  • Be honest
    Agents should always be honest with their customers and with themselves. Agents should never lie, guess or make up an answer. If the customer’s problem is beyond their competence level, the agent should politely explain that they will transfer the customer to an employee who can better address their needs.

  • Be trustworthy
    Building trust is essential, not only for the interaction to progress smoothly, but also to build positive brand awareness for the company. Trust is based on ethical principles such as character and competence. It requires truthfulness, honesty, reliability, loyalty and integrity. In order to ensure that your staff is trustworthy, monitor for their adherence to these character traits and the values of your company.

  • Be confident
    Confidence is critical for any productive interaction. Ensure that your staff is well trained, well managed and properly equipped to handle difficult situations. This will instill confidence, interactions will be more effective and the image of the company will be more positive.

  • Be competent
    Agent must demonstrate a certain level of competence to adequately address the customer’s needs. When the customer’s demands are too high, they must refer them to someone with more experience who can effectively handle their issue or concern.

  • Be interested
    Agents must take a genuine interest in the customer’s question or concerns. This will make the process more enjoyable for both the agent and the caller. Call center work can be very monotonous. Agents should keep it fresh by taking a genuine interest in each caller’s unique situation, asking personal questions and attempting to make a quick connection.

  • Be neutral
    Agents should not offer opinions or introduce their own biases into the conversation. They should always take a neutral stance on issues, but empathize with the caller’s needs. Taking a neutral stance will allow agents to more effectively solve problems in an efficient manner.

  • Be flexible
    Agents should anticipate the unexpected and be prepared to change course when necessary. Sometimes pertinent information will be obtained that can change the course of the problem solving efforts. Agents should always be flexible, welcome the change and keep the customer informed of the reasons for the change.

Providing quality service to each customer should be a priority of every call center. Managers and decision makers should define call center etiquette guidelines, allocate sufficient funds for proper training and monitor for adherence to the guidelines. When all agents adhere to etiquette guidelines, companies will gain an image of trustworthiness, honesty and effectiveness. This positive brand awareness is critical to any company’s success.