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How to Deal with Difficult Customer Calls

See also: Customer Service Skills

Approximately one million people work in call centres across the UK, and many more work in a customer service environment.

Whether you’re dealing with complaints, queries, or simply conducting surveys, dealing with the demands of customers requires specialist skills. These skills are never more important than when you’re forced to deal with a difficult customer call.

Although all staff should have the appropriate training to deal with situations like this, it can be difficult to implement this practically on a day-to-day basis.

In an ideal world, when an obvious knowledge gap seems to be causing issues with staff’s ability to tackle difficult situations, this would be recognized by HR and internal management, meaning new training can be implemented.

However, for small businesses with low turnovers and little room for error, there aren’t always the resources needed to prepare employees, meaning they have to think on their feet.


To help employees deal with these sometimes frustrating, but regular, parts of the customer service role, here’s how experts advise you to tackle difficult customers over the phone.

Preparing For the Problem

While most customer calls may not be ‘smooth’ in every sense of the word, your training should enable you to deal with them.

Whether that’s logging problems in an internal system or giving customers information technicalities of each conversation. Unfortunately, some calls can descend into territories not covered by basic ‘on the job’ training. In order to tackle situations like this, you may need further clarity on your role and what your responsibilities entail. This may be something you need to revisit and feedback on to your superiors.

Businesses consultant at S and E Consulting, Armando Alcaraz, believes this is a vital first step towards tackling challenging customer interactions.

“Make sure you have clear guidelines and company policies. You can also ask for appropriate training and feedback on the job. Clarity on what you need to do or who you need to ask always makes the job easier and can reduce the stress that comes with it.”

Letting the Customer Get it Off Their Chest

If you’re dealing with complaints, there’s a good chance even customers with rational and justifiable points of view will need time to vent.

Customers call to resolve their issue practically but also often with the intention of getting any issues off their chest. Allow them time to explain their problems and listen, making notes if possible.

Most important is that you don’t take it personally, Tish Squillaro, a motivational speaker and author, explains:

“One of the frustrations for anyone dealing with an angry person is that you think you did something to create the anger. But here’s the secret: the anger was there from the beginning, and it keeps festering. In addition, sometimes angry people may have had their feelings pent up just waiting for something to set them off, and a simple thing that the call center worker said may have been the cause.”


Attempting to Resolve the Problem

If there’s an issue, there’s only so much venting you can allow before needing to take proactive steps towards helping to resolve the issue.

Armed with your notes, address each of their concerns individually. Listen to the specifics of what they’re describing – is there something you can do now to help resolve these specific queries?

Often, calls transcend the issue that the customer is actually trying to solve and may turn into conflicts within themselves if a customer doesn’t feel like they’re being helped appropriately. Stick to the issues, if a customer starts to divert the conversation away from it, revert them back to their original concern and offer them solutions.

Gene Caballero, co-founder of GreenPal, uses an easy to remember technique:

“I always use the C.P.R technique: – Comprehend (what happened that made the customer upset), Propose (give the angry customer options on how to fix the situation), React (once the actions have been agreed upon, react, and fix the problem).”

Escalating it

If you can’t resolve an issue on the phone, or if conversations start to go out of your pay grade, don’t be scared to escalate the issue to a superior.

Director of Human Resources at Dupray, Pierre Tremblay believes sometimes it’s the only option:

“It’s sometimes actually better to end the call as soon as possible to avoid the situation becoming untenable. The ramifications for failing to assist the customer will never outweigh the avoidance of inappropriate behavior. In any case, always escalate any information from the call to your supervisor and to HR without hesitation. Keeping them aware of the situation will keep you out of trouble.”

Someone in a senior position in your organisation will often have more appropriate conflict resolution training and should be more equipped to deal with difficult customers.


If All Else Fails…

It’s never okay to allow abuse on the phone and if a customer simply refuses to listen to you, there may be no other option than to end the call.

If abuse persists, deal with the customer in a professional yet firm manner. For example:

“I’m sorry sir/madam, but if you continue using abusive language I will have to terminate the call.”

Camille Charbonneau, Mental Performance Consultant at Peak Perform, believes keeping a level head is key:

“Don’t fight fire with fire. This will just get you worked up for nothing. Accept it and be non-judgmental to the correspondence. Be respectful and answer professionally, otherwise you may get stressed for a silly reason.”

Everyone who’s worked in a customer facing environment will have had to deal with a customer who makes it difficult for them to carry out their job. Although it can be easy to get caught up in the emotion of situations, it’s worth remembering to always put them into perspective. Jason O’Brien, VP of Marketing at Toll Free Forwarding summarises:

“Call centre staff are at the frontline and have to endure the brunt of customers’ frustrations at times, which can be quite unfair. The key for these staff is to remain calm and not rise to the bait, or simply explain that they are terminating the call.”

Listen to your customer, let them vent and try to address their concerns in a professional and practical manner. You won’t be able to placate everyone, but maintain a level of professionalism throughout and you should be able to keep things civil.

As the old business adage goes, it isn’t personal, it’s just business.

About the Author


Matt Jones is a Media and Online Relations Manager for Toll Free Forwarding and writes about marketing, PR and customer service.

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