Strategy to deal with abusive customers

by Ashvini on June 17, 2011 · 19 comments

in Managing Customers

At our workplace,some of us are dealing directly with customers either of our company or of our own. Most of them are nice talking and talk in a decent manner, however a few of them turn about to be very abusive.

Strategy for handling abusive customers

Some customers are forced to yell and abuse because of poor response by the customer support teams because their issues have not been resolved even after sending numerous mails and making many phone calls. Probably they are just legitimately voicing their grievances.

Who are abusive customers then ?

I would define an abusive customer as the one

  • who raises his voice on trivial matters,
  • conveniently forgets the good work done for him before
  • and use cuss words frequently.

An abusive customer usually derives his or her mental satisfaction by dumping his biases and irritations of personal or official life on to a helpless customer support person.

A real life incident

This post is inspired by a real life incident when one of my friend had to be on the wrong end of an abusive customer. In his case, customer had issues with his own internet connection and he wanted support to resolve some problem with the software. In spite of support telling him about the internet connection problem,without which they were helpless, he started abusing them. My friend had a tough time dealing with him.

Tactics of an abusive customer

An abusing customer uses following tactics by abusing

  • your company’s product
  • you by referencing any single bad news about your company in the media
  • you by referencing one particular bad service response from your company
  • you by comparing the product with another product
  • you by taking one example of having difficulty reaching your office by phone
  • on price of your product

I really don’t want to sound biased. Customers sometimes do get fed up with bad customer service and thus become abusive or sarcastic. But there are customers who start any discussion by being sarcastic. Often there is some agenda behind the scene.

A few reaons why a customer may sound abusive because he/she

  • loves bullying vendors who are at his mercy
  •  wants to bring the prices down
  • wants to extract more for the same price
  • has some vested interest in putting your product down
  • dislikes support team for their frankness
  • hide his own incompetency as in the case above

The impact of an abusive customer is huge. It is a nightmare for employees when an abusive customer calls. Frequent cuss words leads to self esteem issues in the team .

How an abusive customer can hurt team morale in the long run

  • Employees handling the customer may get angry against the management if the team is not backed up by them
  • Higher resignation and attrition
  • Common symptoms of depression and fatigue
  • Increased hostility of employees against the abusive customer
  • Higher chances of making mistakes when work is done in pressure
  • absenteeism and low interest in work

Many experts tell that it is a good idea to read a riot act, for e.g. a contract T&C to the customer or just cut the call. In my opinion, it might be counterproductive to do anything like this as the abuse may increase and also it is a fact that your company is under contract with the customer to provide expected service.It is indeed a very tough situation .

So how do you deal with a customer who is abusive for not so genuine reasons? What the magic word to get on top of such abusive customer?

The magic word is Strategy.

A strategy that deals in tackling such customers with the right tactics. A strategy defines number of tactics that can be employed to tackle an abusive customer.

When my friend narrated this incident to me , I decided to spell out some points that I often used at my workplace when dealing with an abusive customer.

At the start of the project, lay out the clear contract conditions

Vague contracts such term such as “excellent support will be provided” are not useful. When you design a contract always beware of the legal implications that can arise later. Never assume that things will always be good. Think of all the possible scenarios where you could be caught unaware by one small condition. Always get contracts reviewed by experts and never prepare them in a hurry.

Keep a log of all the interactions with that customer

Do you remember last time the customer called ?

Do you remember the contents of communication?

Do you remember what problem she mentioned about ?

Keeping a ready reference of interactions with the customer or pulling them from system is sometimes necessary. It acts as an insurance against customer who is well prepared to confuse and frighten you.

Keep a ready references of problems solved

If you ever solved a problem in a record time, keep track of it. If the problem was solved much before SLA, you can showcase this to your customer who was accusing you about never solving a problem in time. Also, keeping records of discussions where delays happened because of customer or his team, can also keep customer from dominating you. Also, regularly send reports of problems that occurred and the time your team took to solve them. Such regular feedback can start a flow and prevent customer from start getting aggressive.

Be proactive in problem solving

If in the project, the customer is the only entity that always comes out with the issues while your quality team does a bad job, the customer is bound to be irritated.

If you know a problem and have a solution, it is a good idea to discuss that in advance and inform him of repercussions if any that will arise because of it. There is no use waiting for the problem to happen or being careless about it . Leaving it to the chance means that you will have a highly dissatisfied customer raging about the fact that you knew the problem and still did not do much about it .

 

Be firm and assertive ( not aggressive ) in your response

Many a times, you would be more inclined to give customer a piece of your mind. But beware it may backfire because he is the one who pays for your bills.

However it does not stop you from being firm and assertive in your dealings. A firm reply that “abusiveness is not acceptable” will help solve many things. Escalating the abusive incident to your management or to the seniors in customer will also act as a deterrence.

Being firm and assertive will always help you to keep a clear mind and deal with situation effectively.

Have a plan to handle the customer

It always make sense to have a handy plan where the strategy to deal with angry and abusive customer is documented. With a good plan in place, it is very easy to provide training to the team on the issues. If possible videos with scenarios can be used to demonstrate how to react in difficult situation. If your company does not have such a plan you can always make one for your team or even yourself.

Go back to terms of contract if required as a last resort

Sometimes customer deliberately or just out of chance would ask for something that would put enormous strain on project or service delivery. In that case before saying yes it is a good idea to go back to the contract document and check if something was really offered. If not it should be communicated to customer that this does not form part of the scope of the venture.

However going back to the contract should be the last resort option when all other options have been exhausted.

Mention the things that you did out of the scope of the contract

It is quite possible that in course of project / service execution , customer has asked you to do more than promised and you have obliged. It makes the case for great customer satisfaction and thus you gaining more reputation with customers. However all these incidents of extra work should be reported to manager or the project manager just for the purpose of keeping records. You may need to reference these in future when you are accused to not going out of the way to help the customer.

Be intelligent and aware of the situation

In a battlefield, it is very important to all time know and be aware of the situation. Though dealing with customer is not like being in a  battlefield, it demands a good preparation and knowledge of the issue. That way any abusive customer can be brought back to being nice and decent. Intelligence and awareness plays a very strong role in that.

I hope these points help you develop effective strategy on how to handle abusive customers.

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{ 19 comments }

Mark May 22, 2014 at 1:39 pm

You really laid it out Ashvini!

I particularly like your strategy of documenting what you done and whenever you solve a problem ahead of schedule for this particular customer/client, be sure and gently remind them!

That is great way to (if nothing else) partially diffuse any future aggression on their part!

You’ve offered so many sound, practical strategies for effectively dealing with irate or potentially abusive customers.
Thank you for sharing your proven strategies.

Edward Villanueva December 28, 2012 at 10:02 am

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.

mitch October 23, 2012 at 11:42 am

I’ve worked in customer facing roles my entire life. Nothing announces that its time to leave like when a company that tolerates genuinely abusive customers. Anyone who works with the public obviously needs a mixture of empathy and resilience to get through any day, but a small minority of customers (think 3-4 per year out of thousands) are so outrageously toxic that they not only cause a problem for the individual working with them, but for whole teams of people and other customers. Without fail, these tend to be the least profitable people to begin with. Failure to recognize these types is an immediate indication that a company not only has a complete lack of respect for its employees, but is so terrified of bad PR that the only logical conclusion is that it is circling the drain.

steve May 12, 2012 at 7:04 pm

I’m tired of being a welcome mat for abusive customers. i work at a major retailer on commission. the commission policy is also abusive , if the customer returns something the store delivers poorly, late or is defective by itself or delivery damage I pay back the commission until the customer orders something else. often we miss bonus because of this and management retains their sales bonus for that month or quarter. a manager recently told me she would not fight for a sale which was stolen from another outlet (warranty sale which i am supposed to receive since i lose the return from that) When my sales report came she questioned me as to why i had had negative numbers in my sales and warranties…she got quiet when i sad that , the other store stole my sale…she remembered not helping and became quiet…all of a sudden she realized what she had done…likely cost me 100 or more in bonuses above and beyond the commission…. i say that to show the abuse comes from within the corporate structure and from customers as well..it is a web of deceit. I’ve told a customer that “i’m done with you” after he dissed an item for over 10 mins ..”please sir why let me waste your time with an item you certainly dislike?” I left him with saying “I’m done” after his voice escalated. when he came to the sales desk to preach about sales etiquette and pointed his fingers at me i told him to stop pointing his finger at me and lower his voice or I’d call security. He left. My manager had a visit from the guy, who left out his part of the drama(of course). I got a speech about handing the customer to a manager in the future. I told the manager i wasn’t a welcome mat for rude people.

Manager agreed with me about the customer’s attitude. I’m done with being a welcome mat…. I visit dying people and their families in my other job in palliative care and trauma-emerg….part time and i feel they have reasons to complain. I think customers have become used to “the customer is always right” sort of thinking and think they can say anything to a sales clerk. Captive audience with a corporate name tag on.(thinking hey they have to listen and be nice to me even if i unload on them).

We have changed customers diapers for too long and now they expect us to powder their asses too.A while a go another sales person decided to upstage me and dug into new boxes to retrieve a part for a customer they did not deserve. We now have two items worth 600 + each we cant sell because the boxes are open who wants an open box?
Retail workers do deserve a union, they they would be paid properly to take the abuse the companies use them to make their huge bonuses on. Prices would rise,but then with the overseas suppliers offering lower prices, there is obviously more room for higher wages, since the margins have to be higher with cheaper overseas prices.For years the retailers have reaped the benefits of this lower supply price and never reduced prices to the consumer. If you want to continue having retail staff abused for corporate profit, then pay the price for their reduced moral. The minimum wage worker take the hit for the corporate executives who make bonuses based on “customer service”..who gives that? Not the execs..

Veronica Cervera October 21, 2011 at 5:44 am

Customers tend to care about one thing when calling for help. This is to get their problems resolved. They usually don’t listen to the why’s and the what’s. They only care about the “when”. This is why it’s extremely difficult to attend to irate customers, especially if they’re unreasonable and abusive. The tips you gave here valuable.

jonathanfigaro June 23, 2011 at 3:36 am

We have to be honest with the customer and give them out best. I know there are times where It may get frustrating, but i think i know if you stick by it, you can handle customer service very well. Put on ur smile n go.

Robert June 21, 2011 at 4:18 am

Hey Ashvini,

Great tips! I had a very awkward client recently. Sometimes you’ve got to realise that some people just can’t be pleased. In this situation, if you have the authority, it may be best to cut any ties you have with this person. However, for people working for organisations this can be much more difficult. The best thing to do is stay calm and not take it personally. Many of these type of customers have natural insecurities about something, and think because they are paying for a service they have the right to talk to the customer service department like dirt, when in most cases the original problem was nothing to do with them!

As you said, bad customers can have a very detrimental effect on the team handling their calls, if these people decide to take it personally.

FLEXIBLE strategy is a good option.

Ashvini Kumar Saxena June 22, 2011 at 1:42 pm

Hi Robert,

Welcome back !!!

I think keeping a cool head is the utmost requirement. There are sometimes indeed very difficult situations exacerbated by inflated egos of the client team members. At that time our experience comes handy.

Sometimes you’ve got to realise that some people just can’t be pleased is so true.

Thanks. I love to always hear about your experiences.

Ashvini

Adam Paudyal June 21, 2011 at 12:59 am

Right on Ash. I totally agree and being in customer service job for the past 5 years I know first hand now some customers can be no matter what you do.

I really like the idea of keeping a log for customers. I am definitely using this for my Endeavor Online clients.

Talk to you soon buddy!

Ashvini Kumar Saxena June 22, 2011 at 1:45 pm

Hi Adam,

Great to have you back. I am glad that you liked idea about keeping a log for your customers. Even meeting MOMs help.

See you soon.
Best regards,
Ashvini

Sonia June 18, 2011 at 10:17 am

Interesting subject because I have been on both sides of the train. As a rep you have to be prepared for unruly customers, but told to not look for it. Every time you answer the phone it’s your opportunity to “fix” the problem the first time and be accountable for the work you do. You are the “company” in the customer’s eyes and they could careless that you have managers and CEO’s. The CEO didn’t answer the phone, you did. It’s almost like you have to be HR, CEO, Account Manager, Sales Rep all rolled in one.

I worked for a Service company for years and we had tons of repeat customers, which mostly consisted of Commercial accounts. When we answered the phone we knew most by voice and name. Those kind of customers always feel comfortable when reps take an extra mile and remember who you are. I can’t say that applies to every company especially if you work for a large enterprise, where you have thousands of customers calling in. If a problem arises and it’s not unique, we would document what happened for a particular problem and how it was fixed so if it happens again, any rep can have some sort of solution to help the customer.

There are so many “tactics” a customer rep can have, but keeping your cool is first and foremost the most important. If you get worked up and start yelling back at the customer, it only agitates the problem more. Customers want to be heard and most reps I come across are either “timed” in some call centers and tend to cut customers off when they need to “tell” you their story. As a consumer this literally pisses me off when the rep clearly doesn’t listen to what I am telling them. What if the customer truly tried “everything” to get something to work and it still didn’t work? It happens and some problems might be more then what the “rep” is capable of doing. That’s another opportunity for the rep to get it right and get them pointed in the right direction rather than transferring them into an oblivion.

If a customer every got unruly with me, I would simply say in a “calm” tone that I am there to help them, so explain the problem you need fixed and lets figure it out together. If the rep attempts to point the finger back at the customer then it’s them against the company. Customers buy your products because they believe in the product, service and company. If they feel as if the company doesn’t stand behind their product and have a willingness to help their customer then it’s a losing battle.

Now there are some “idiots” that are just unruly no matter what you do. Those are customers you can “fire” because no matter what you do, they will never be satisfied and will always have something to complain about. Funny thing about those customers, they continue to “come back” and use your product or service. Why?

Because the other company told them that if they weren’t happy with the help they tried to give them to go find another company!

Sorry for rambling Ash..you know me!

Ashvini Kumar Saxena June 20, 2011 at 11:31 am

Hi Sonia,

Great comments. Rambling on is not a problem on my blog :). So many people are reading your comments and since you wrote your experiences in much details, they will have more knowledge about your subject.

Yes sales rep are always the first line of defense that takes the first bullet. Like in a battlefield( I often compare business to a battlefield but without any casualty), where trenches are dug and procedures are laid out for combat, a company that has a customer care department( most of them do), should also lay out the rules and procedures to protect the sales reps from abusive customers. It is absurd to think that all customers are necessary to have even if they talk rude or nonsense. Unfortunately management is often scared and they force their employees to act as some kind of slaves to the customer.
Unfortunately the cost for the industries is extremely high and that comes to knowledge only after years.
Sometimes, it happens that we are under big contracts and it is impossible to even get away from a rude customer, when you are sitting in his location. Whether you want it or not , he is breathing on your neck most of the time. My tips pertain to that scenario. Having a good communication, sending proper written mails, sending timely status report, showcasing “out of the way” help if ever done are some of the ways that you can keep the unruly customer away. Sometimes, I have even said no to them for their demands and they were not respectfulness for a few days. Eventually they realized that they could not get through us by being rude.
I have experienced this one time or the other while working all across the globe and slowly learned to deal with it. I think the company’s support makes things easier for us but most of the time it is absent leaving us to fight our own battles.

Nice and productive discussion. Thanks again and I love to see your comments.
Ashvini

Mouh June 17, 2011 at 7:48 pm

Thanks for the tried and true tips. They’re excellent! I think everything you mentioned here can be applied online too. Whether online or offline, we are dealing with customers.

I had a very bad experience with a customer before, but it was actually my mistake. I managed to solve the problem by being proactive. The customer was really angry and didn’t want my product at all. But I reached out and offered a solution. After that the customer thanked me. She was so satisfied.

Mouh :)

Ashvini Kumar Saxena June 20, 2011 at 11:41 am

Hi Mouh,

I am now realizing that the tactics to stop customer abuse cover so many scenarios that it is not possible to write them in one blog post. The tips I provided here were from my consulting experience working in an MNC for MNC customers. Now I can understand that there are many other kinds of business with different problems and different handling of customers.
Being proactive means protecting ourselves in time. I think in your case if you identified a mistake and informed the client before hand , it saved you from a lot of trouble. May be your rule book now says “Inform client immediately of your mistake”. We all need to write them down or at least keep them in mind while dealing with those kind of customers.
Best regards and thanks for your comments !!!!!

Daniel M. Wood June 17, 2011 at 6:16 pm

As a company I think it is important to fire customers occassionally.
When you get an abusive customer who is just calling to take out his or her anger it is better to just apologize and tell them that maybe we just aren’t the right fit for you, we will cancel your subscription.

That way they don’t waste time and energy that could be better spent on customers that really need your help, will appriciate it and make you money because you help them.

It is all about prioritizing, usually it is the abusive customers that get our energy, I think it is better to put that energy into the good customers.

Ashvini Kumar Saxena June 20, 2011 at 11:54 am

Hi Daniel,

Great to see you here back again.
Yes, I agree that it is important that abusive customers are shown their place and some of them even dropped as well .

However it happens sometimes that we do get caught up in situations ( when we are in consulting for e.g. and meet really annoying rude customers) . At that times we are bound by contract and thus in a difficult situation. My tips points out to those situations. But I think I can modify my post to add your point as well.

Thanks for your comment and hope to see you more here.
Ashvini

Aswani June 17, 2011 at 5:12 pm

Some excellent points there. Ashvini, here we have been facing similar issues in recent times. Though I am able to handle it quite well, the same gets very difficult for my tech guys. One of them is a new-comer and gets very demotivated while handling such customers. I have been advising him to keep cool in such cases. But I have also told him to let customer know that he/she should be speaking in a professional manner instead of being abusive and violent. I think he will learn these things as the time progresses. But anyways, I agree to all your points and especially those tactics. What I like the most – Keep a log of all the interactions with that customer…that’s one of the best ways to handle such issues. Rest depends mostly upon one’s intelligence and presence of mind in such situations..!

Ashvini Kumar Saxena June 20, 2011 at 12:02 pm

Hi Aswni,

Be patient and things will work out . Just follow the tips I mentioned here and you will be able to handle the customer.

Best regards,
Ashvini

lawmacs June 17, 2011 at 2:42 pm

You are right in the job that i work i deal with an average of about 1000 customers per day some of them not directly but as a manager you understand some very nice and some very nasty but there is a verse in the bible that i try to follow it says saomething like this “A soft answer turn away wrath” sometimes these customers are going under lots of pressure so a smile works at times afterall they are human.

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