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How to Deal with Abusive Customers

Article by Donna Earl

Some customers go beyond angry and become abusive. They might start the call in abusive mode, or might escalate to abusive from mere anger. Sometimes if you don't tell them what they want to hear, they become abusive. Abusive is defined as verbally threatening, using foul language, and emotionally out of control. When you've used your best skills at defusing the angry customer and the customer is still out of control, or if the customer begins the conversation in an abusive manner, its time to utilize some advanced strategies for managing the customer's behavior. It's also time to protect yourself. It's more likely the customer will become abusive with telephone help desk agents, as the contact is more anonymous.

Here are some specific steps you can take to manage the out of control customer.

1. Personalize the conversation. The less personal the interaction, the more likely it can escalate out of control. As soon as you perceive the customer's anger might escalate out of control, and you've tried your well practiced defusing skills and nothing works, its time to use the 'personalize the conversation' strategy. Call the customer by name, and refer to their company by name. Restate your name, and remind them that (your company name) wants them to be satisfied.

2. Declare your intent and boundaries. Remind the customer you want to solve the problem. Let them know you can solve the problem only when the language is appropriate, and demands are reasonable. You should never allow the customer to continue if they're using inappropriate language, or if they're totally out of control. Nothing will be accomplished, and they'll sabotage your efforts to stay composed. They'll lose respect for you, your help desk, and the company for allowing the situation to continue. If they cannot maintain enough control to conduct a reasonable conversation, it's time to switch strategies.

3. Transfer the call. Whether you transfer the call to a supervisor or to another help desk agent, the customer has the opportunity to regroup. When you transfer the call, tell the customer you've done all you can, and its time for them to speak with another agent who will now handle the problem. This serves notice to the customer that they cannot continue to abuse you, and that behavior will be interrupted. When the second help desk agent handles the customer, typically the customer will try to appear reasonable and soft spoken.

4. Discontinue the call. If there's nobody to transfer the call to, or you've been the recipient of the transferred call and the customer is still out of control, it's time to end the cycle. Remind the customer you're there to help, and also willing to discuss a solution in a reasonable manner. Let them know your company wants them to be a satisfied customer, but also does not allow help desk professionals to continue in abusive conversations. Ask them to please contact the help desk at another time, and tell them "I am now releasing this call."

Remember the customer behavior has nothing to do with you, so don't take it personally. Take a deep breath, and if you're stressed, try some stress management techniques. See our article on Stress Management Tips for Help Desk Professionals for some proven stress busters.

Copyright © 2004 Donna Earl. All rights reserved.


Donna Earl is an international expert in Customer Service. She specializes in helping technical help desks deliver world class customer service. To use or reprint this article, or for further information about Donna's consulting or training services, contact us by phone or email.

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