Handling Difficult Telephone Calls

Staff who work in customer service or sales are likely to encounter difficult or even abusive customers from time to time. It is not a pleasant experience and can lead to stress and anxiety.

It is therefore important to understand why customers may get angry during calls, how to avert this, and how to defuse difficult or abusive conversations.

People can get angry for a wide variety of reasons. Certain factors may increase the chances of aggressive behaviour on the telephone, for example:

  • The caller may have a complaint about a product or service
  • The caller may be kept waiting or ‘put on hold’ for long periods of time
  • The call may not be answered in a pleasant or helpful way
  • Staff may not have sufficient knowledge of the product or service to be able to help the caller
  • Staff may stick too rigidly to a script and lack the flexibility to deal with the customer
  • Staff may not exhibit sufficient empathy to recognise and understand the caller’s emotional state
  • Staff may become overly defensive at a caller’s criticisms and get into an argument
  • Staff may be overly concerned with reaching targets and become too ‘pushy’ or forget the needs of the customer

Effective staffing, training and efficient telephone/computer systems are useful measures for dealing with difficult telephone calls. If the call can be answered quickly by professionally trained staff, who know their product and services well and (where relevant) have reliable computer systems or equipment to deal with the customer’s concerns, the organisation will be well-placed to deal with difficult telephone calls.

It is not always possible to stop people getting angry but there are some steps that can be taken by staff to defuse the situation.

At all stages of the interaction you should maintain a professional approach. This should include answering the call as soon as possible and being polite and courteous throughout the exchange. This means remaining calm yet assertive if the caller becomes angry. Try not to take things personally and do not get into an argument with the caller/customer.

If someone is disgruntled or upset about something, there is often a good reason for this. Let them have their say and do not interrupt them. Make notes if necessary. This will give you chance to understand the problem. You can then ask clarifying questions to find out more about the problem if necessary.

It is important to let the caller know that you understand what it is they are complaining about. Summarising it back to the caller will demonstrate that you have listened and allow them to clarify anything.

For example, if someone is getting aggressive about the length of time they have been on hold, it is wise to acknowledge this and apologise.

It may also be appropriate to reassure the customer – i.e. “You did the right thing to bring this to our attention.”

Steps such as these help the caller feel that you are on their side and not the enemy.

Do your best to deal with the complainant’s concerns. If there is anything you can do to help solve the person’s problem, then do so. Sometimes it will be a very simple problem that you can address quickly.

For more complex problems, offer solutions and try to get the customer involved in this process. However, it is important to stick to the facts and not to make promises you cannot keep.

If you cannot immediately think of a solution, be very careful how you treat the customer. Giving a negative response may reflect badly on your organisation.

Putting the person on hold until you can find the answer is not wise, especially if it is likely to take some time to resolve the problem. It may be more appropriate to call the person back once you’ve solved the problem. However, if you do, make sure you do this promptly and efficiently. If you forget, the situation may become worse.

In certain circumstances, the problem presented may pose complex issues. You may not have the authority to make a decision or perhaps not have the expertise or experience to fully understand the caller’s concerns. In these instances, it is best to escalate the call to a senior member of staff.

The situation should be explained to the caller and the call should either be transferred or arrangements made for the senior officer to call back at the earliest opportunity.

If the caller is abusive – for example, being rude or using obscene or offensive language – you do not have to tolerate such behaviour.

Be firm and explain in a professional manner that if they continue to use such language, the call will be ended.

If the caller does not listen, and continues to act in an abusive manner, it is appropriate to hang up.

Bear in mind that your organisation may have its own procedures and guidelines to follow for such incidents. It is worth being familiar with these to help you prepare for difficult telephone calls.

About the author

Paul is responsible for customer service delivery for the Aviva Development Zone and is usually the first point of contact for our thousands of learners. He ensures that service delivery is of the highest standard possible for our clients.

Paul worked previously as a Billing Analyst for NTL, automating some 50% of their manually produced bills for their large commercial clients before moving onto one of Wales' largest utility consultancies, where he was responsible looking after their major Key Accounts and setting up and mainlining their energy management system.

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