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Power Bite: So, You Have a Difficult Customer on the Phone

Jan 3, 2023 | 7m


Your Response Toolkit

  • Don’t Panic

If you’re on the phone with a challenging, angry customer, the first step is to pause. It’s very understandable if you panic, we’re all human. Instead of reacting right away, pause to take a deep breath. Remind yourself that you’re the subject matter expert, you’re trained, and you can tap into resources to help you if needed. Trust yourself.

  • Don’t take it personally

It might feel otherwise when you have someone yelling at you on the phone, but it really isn’t about you. The person on the other line doesn’t know you personally. They’re frustrated with the company, and you are merely a representative of the company.

  • You won’t win them all

Know that there are some customers you simply won’t be able to win over. There are some people who call in with the intention of making things difficult for you. Keeping that in mind is helpful.

  • Get help

If the situation is beyond your scope, reach out to a supervisor or an escalation line for the extra layer of support.

  • Know when to draw the line

If the customer is being abusive, most companies have policies to protect you. You can thank them for calling in but can disconnect the call if things get too heated. Just be sure to confirm what your company's policy is for abusive callers.

Identify the Issue

Let’s say a customer is yelling at you, and you’ve taken a pause to figure out your next steps. During this pause, think about what went wrong. Did the conversation start off smooth and then suddenly escalate? If so, take a moment to think, “Did I say something that may have triggered the customers and caused the escalation? Or did the customer come into the call already escalated?”

If the customer has come into the call escalated, lead with empathy. Let them vent without interrupting them. People often yell when they don’t feel heard. What you should avoid doing is matching that energy, as hard as that might be. You don’t want to end up in a shouting match with your customer. Instead, lower your volume. Some people think that speaking softly indicates that you’re retreating, but I disagree. It indicates that in order for them to hear you and get your help, they’ll need to lower their voice and be willing to listen as well.

Once they’re relatively calmer, this is your time to acknowledge their experience with a strong empathy statement such as “I understand how frustrating that must be for you. I would be frustrated too, if this happened to me.” This way, you show the customer that you’re both on the same side, and that they can trust you to resolve their issue.

If they didn’t start off the call being angry, it’s likely that you’ve misread the situation and missed the opportunity to apologize and be empathetic in a genuine way. During the course of your conversation, they probably have felt triggered by something you’ve said. This is why it’s really important to pause and think about what the customer’s emotional concern is and make sure you’re addressing it. This is called looking at the “Total Problem”. The total problem is made up of two very easy to identify things:

  1. The problem the customer is contacting in about
  2. How the problem has made them feel

In order to truly help the customer, you must address the total problem and not just one or the other. Customer Problem + Customer Emotion = Total Problem

If you have the option to put the customer on hold, take it. Once you feel the tension start to rise, let them know that you need to put them on hold to look into the issue. Take this brief time to assess the situation and think about how to get the conversation back on track. It also gives the customer some time to simmer down.

If you don’t have this option, you can always request to take a step back. Address the situation – say “It seems there’s some tension here. Let’s take a step back for a second so I can ensure I am understanding your issue in order to help you successfully resolve this issue.” This gives you the space to regain control of the conversation.

Get Back on Track

After you’ve identified what the core issue is, come back ready to build rapport. Start by addressing the customer by name and thanking them for waiting. Right away, this puts the conversation back to a friendlier tone.

Then, apologize or acknowledge their feelings. A simple sentence like, “I’m sorry I seemed to have misunderstood what you shared” can go a long way. However, sometimes, Customer Service Representatives don’t feel comfortable apologizing when they feel they haven’t done anything wrong. If this is the case for you, I recommend using an empathy statement vs apology statement.

Put yourself in their shoes and think about what you would appreciate hearing. Saying “I know how frustrated you feel” can have the same effect as an apology. For instance, let’s say a parent has called in regarding a missing delivery for their young daughter’s birthday. By putting yourself in their shoes, you’ll quickly be able to empathize with the parent who doesn’t want to let their daughter down. When you do this, you’ll shift your focus on solving the problem without taking things personally.

Lastly, paraphrase the key issues you’ve identified from the customer’s story, and ask them to confirm if you’ve got it right. If you do, they’ll be reassured that you’ve heard them. If you’ve got it wrong, don’t worry. This is their opportunity to correct you and that is okay. If you’re unsure of what their main challenge is, ask them gently to repeat their story and make sure you’re listening actively. Then outline the next steps you’ll take to help them resolve their issue.

Practice Makes Perfect

There are so many different personalities in customer service, and everyone has a unique temperament. If you find yourself struggling with keeping your cool or managing tough customers, have a conversation with your manager. It’s okay to ask for help or to be coached in a specific area. You could also ask to be paired with a peer who is really good at the area you’d like to grow in. Role playing with your team will also help you hone your skills in a safe environment.

That said, the communication skills required to excel as a CSR can also be honed outside of work. Practice taking a step back when you’re feeling a situation escalate with your siblings or a partner. Identifying someone’s emotional concern, too, can be practiced in all aspects of your life. You can choose to apologize to someone you bumped into by mistake and be kind to the staff working the drive through. There are opportunities all around us to work on our tone and response. Eventually, this will become second nature to you.

Take Care of Yourself

My biggest piece of advice for CSRs reading this: practice self-care regularly and intentionally. Check in with yourself often. Customer service is one of the most mentally draining jobs out there, and unless you take care of yourself, you’ll risk having personal life issues affect your work and vice versa.

Take care of yourself. You don’t have to stay the extra 30 minutes at work at the expense of your mental health. When you clock off, leave your work behind completely. Do things that replenish you and fill you with joy. That way, you come to work the next day with a clean slate instead of feeling depleted, stressed, and running on fumes. You’ll find that by prioritizing yourself and filling your own cup, you’ll have a much easier time responding to difficult customers.

Lastly, remember to take breaths between calls so you don’t carry energy from one contact to the other. If you’ve experienced an extremely escalated call with a customer, reach out to your manager. It is okay to ask for time for a short break so that you have a minute or two to cool off. That way, you don’t go into the next call feeling irritable and escalated.

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Brittney Jasper

Customer Service Team Manager




Improve Your Customer Service Skills