Strategy to deal with abusive 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. 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.