Ways to handle difficult customers calling the contact center

Sometimes it feels like we live in a time of anger. This is certainly the case for customer-facing staff, who have been subjected to a growing torrent of abuse since the start of the pandemic.

In fact, according to the Institute of Customer Service, 60% of customer-facing staff have experienced customer hostility since the start of 2020, ranging from yelling and swearing to racial abuse, death threats, spitting and physical attacks. The Institute is campaign to highlight the problem.

But it’s not just about abuse. Contact center staff in many industries are also receiving increasing numbers of calls from distressed customers who may be struggling to pay bills or meet other commitments.

To research by Forrester in 2021 found that nearly 67% of contact centers were handling more complex customer inquiries than a year earlier, and 70% were experiencing more “emotionally charged” customer calls.

Much of this research was conducted at the height of the pandemic, but with the cost of living crisis in full swing, the situation is unlikely to improve.

With that in mind, we’ve put together six tips to help contact center staff deal with angry or emotional customers.

6 ways to handle difficult customers:

1) Have clear processes in place

In most cases, angry customers can be calmed down by a counselor who takes their problem seriously and, if the problem cannot be dealt with immediately, outlines a clear path to resolution.

Have guidelines in place for each eventuality and a consistent set of next steps. Make sure your team knows them (smart script can help) and can discuss this with customers. Customers are often frustrated when they don’t see the end of the problem or fear spending long periods in call queues or being transferred between departments.

When advisors take ownership of their problem, many clients quickly become calmer.

2) Give customers obvious ways to complain

It seems counter-intuitive, but making it easy for customers to complain is one way to keep them happy.

Most customers accept that mistakes do happen sometimes. Frustrations arise when there is no obvious way to bring an error or oversight to an organization’s attention. Advertise a complaints line and email, and make sure they are monitored. Customers will appreciate the easy ways to report issues, provided organizations respond quickly and appropriately.

3) Stay calm and constructive

No matter how angry a customer gets, team members need to stay calm and focus on what they can do to help. It’s easy to get angry at customers who seem to take out their own frustrations on a flawless employee, but it’s also counterproductive. This will likely prolong the call, further inflame emotions, and could lead to unnecessary escalation. Unless the customer becomes abusive, be friendly and insist on the steps you are taking – or will take – to resolve the issue. Empathy is crucial here. If the organization is wrong, officers must recognize that the customer has a right to be unhappy.

At the same time, counselors should not suffer insults and abuse. Have guidelines in place to follow in case an emotional caller becomes insulting or threatening. For example, some contact centers forward rude and abusive customers to a recorded message.

4) Differentiate angry customers from abusive customers

We should also reiterate that customers have the right to complain about poor service or an error that costs them time and energy to resolve. An angry customer who speaks out against the organization’s flawed processes is not the same as an abusive customer who directs their anger at an individual agent. Organizations must be able to accept honest criticism and act accordingly.

5) Offer reminders

If a team member can’t resolve a problem during a call, the best way to diffuse a difficult situation is to offer a callback. Advisors may need to involve another department in a customer complaint or escalate it to a senior manager. Putting a customer on hold during this process can lead to growing frustration, especially if the wait is longer than a few minutes. Offer a reminder so the customer can get on with their day while their complaint is handled. But if you offer a reminder, you must honor it and at the agreed time.

6) Train your advisors

It’s a good idea to train your team to specifically handle difficult calls, but more general training is even more essential. In a nutshell, the more knowledgeable your team is, the more confidence customers will have that they can and will solve complex problems.

In fact, the kind of contact center management best practices that contribute to efficiency can also help reduce the number of difficult calls agents face. For example, responding quickly to calls can calm a customer’s anger. Responding to an e-mail complaint within the advertised timeframe shows that you take complaints seriously. Smart Call Routing that gets them to the right person the first time eliminates a cause of customer frustration.

In other words, having the tools in place to effectively manage your contact center also helps appease difficult customers. These tools should include smart scripts. Giving agents scripted advice helps them navigate difficult conversations to a satisfying outcome.