Customer meltdown 101: meet rage with sage

Aimee Giese | August 9, 2016

Can your call center agents handle enraged callers?

by Heidi Miller, Chief Conversation Officer

Frustrated man on phoneWhile most customers are at least a tad annoyed and impatient by the time they dial in to your call center, others display more intense emotions such as frustration, anger and full blown rage. And what’s worse, very often those intense emotions are justified based on their customer experience. According to Gawker, this is what one hapless customer experienced at the hands of his security company:

After an
unidentified security systems company missed an appointment, one
inconvenienced customer phoned the company’s customer service line to
straighten things out.

Following a
little back and forth, the issue was bumped up to a supervisor named
Michelle, who subsequently phoned the customer and left him a message
asking him to call her back to her direct extension.

And so he did.

Except that
Michelle had apparently gone home for the day, and no one at customer
service seemed to know her by name, so the customer was kicked around
the system for over three hours.

He ultimately reached a tech support agent named Mark, and that’s when he officially broke down and let the expletives fly.

When I ran across this audio of a rage-filled customer rant, I cringed. I mean cringed. I was physically uncomfortable listening to a (justifiably) enraged customer spew frustration and expletives at his customer service agent. If you’re brave, eight minutes of the tirade are on YouTube.

Scripts are not your friend


bored customer service agent The script is not the solution to an angry caller

What was even more painful, however, was hearing the customer service agent take the by-the-book approach in the face of the real human pain this customer was experiencing. Rather than expressing any type of sympathy or even acknowledging the caller’s ire, the agent ignored everything but his script and asked for the caller’s information to look him up in the system. Ouch. Playbooks work better than scripts in most situations, and this one was no different.

After three hours of being kicked around the organization, understandably, the caller had lost faith in the organization’s ability to meet his needs and refused to give the information again. The agent again took the scripted approach and stood firm with the hardline scripted response: in order to help you, I need to look you up in our system.

Oh, dear. While it’s true that the agent does need that information and can’t diagnose the account issues without it, it’s not at all true that the agent couldn’t do anything to help without the account information.

He could listen.

How to deal with a customer meltdown

I had an experience many years ago that entailed quite a few enraged customers calling me directly and subjecting me to a barrage of insults and expletives. I had worked for an excellent organization that unfortunately and quite suddenly went out of business. Since I was the sales rep and always gave out my direct line to call day or night, I immediately had enraged customers calling up to demand their money back, threatening to sue me personally and launching into tirades in which they called both me and the organization I’d worked for a variety of colorful names, the most printable of which were “scam,” fly-by-night” and “shysters.”

While unpleasant, this experience was incredibly valuable to me in both my personal and professional lives, because it taught me some indispensable lessons about how to deal with angry callers. The basic principles:

  1. Listen. Anger is an emotion that may not be easily dispelled. Let the caller take the time to express his anger. Don’t interrupt. This is not the time to worry about Average Handle Time. This one will take a bit longer. Go off script.
  2. Don’t argue or defend. It is very difficult not to defend oneself when faced with name-calling or abusive language. This is not the time for a reasonable response. The kindest and most efficient action is to say, “Uh-huh” to indicate you are still listening.
  3. Express sympathy. This is where our customer service agent above failed in spades. Ignoring the caller’s state of mind does not make it go away! Acknowledge with a simple, “It sounds like you’re upset.” Now, keep in mind that when the caller receives this affirmation, she will likely go off again–that’s OK and in fact necessary to resolution. Let her rant.
  4. Express solidarity. One of the most effective phrases I ever learned was to respond to a completed rant with, “If I were you, I would feel exactly the same way.” Express some solidary so you can get on with solving the problem!
  5. Ask permission to help. If the caller has been tossed around the phone system, it’s likely that he will become enraged when you ask him for the same information a dozen other agents have asked him for with no results. After steps 1-4, say, “I’d really like to help you. I know you’ve heard this before, but can you give me your account information just one more time?” Acknowledge the caller’s previous efforts in your response.
  6. Resolve the issue. At this point, in my experience, the caller’s rage had always dissipated, and in the end, we were able to resolve the issue to her satisfaction.

How do you train your agents to deal with angry callers? If this person had called your organization, how would his experience have differed?

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