One of the things my clients often ask me to do is support their customer service teams, complaint handlers and helplines with the more difficult customer behaviour they encounter on the phone. ‘Difficult’ is a highly subjective term, so the first thing I always do is talk to the people taking these calls, and find out what behaviour they’re experiencing.
It can be a huge range; callers who are rude and sarcastic, or anxious, or hard to understand; people who are sobbing uncontrollably, people who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer or accept an unwelcome message; lonely people who want to chat for hours on end… even threats of violence. Telephone work can be a tough job, and the people who do it need a combination of resilience, knowledge and great skill to deal effectively with their unpredictable workload.
One of the techniques I share combats the behaviour of angry customers whose shouting and/or swearing becomes unacceptable. (Swearing is an interesting one, isn’t it? Many of us can tolerate the person who liberally sprinkles his or her speech with colourful expletives, but it’s a different thing if they start making personal insults). Good customer service professionals know about the need to stay calm, and should have trusted methods that will usually stop a call from escalating in the first place. But sometimes you need to take back control from an abusive customer, and I have received very positive feedback from training participants who have gone away and tried this one out.
I call this the Four Step Assertiveness Technique, and it comes from a terrific book called ‘Managing Aggression’ by Ray Braithwaite. The four steps are linked together and each follows on quite swiftly, so the caller doesn’t have the opportunity to argue back.
The technique recognises that when someone is aggressive or speaks inappropriately to you, your surprise and shock can temporarily put you at a disadvantage. This places the balance of power with the aggressor. The Four Step Assertiveness Technique redresses this imbalance, at the same time opening the door to a win/win outcome, where nobody has to make a huge climb down.
A note of caution: The technique does require practice, and it won’t work in every situation. Keep your voice relatively low, calm, firm and assertive at all four steps.
Step 1: Make a statement about the BEHAVIOUR.
Resist the instinct to try and interject with a question or accusation. Make a statement about the other person’s behaviour that is factually correct, and be clear, precise and specific in what you say.
“Mr Brown, you are swearing.”
“Mrs Wilson, you are shouting.”
Step 2: State the IMPACT of the behaviour on you.
People often lose their temper and regret it later, because of the upset they may have caused. Step 2 can shorten that process. Furthermore, because you are stating your own experience, the comment is factual rather than judgemental: ‘You are being offensive’ is accusatory, whereas ‘I find it offensive’ is stating your reality.
“Mr Brown, you are swearing. I find it offensive.”
“Mrs Wilson, you are shouting. It’s making me feel uncomfortable.”
Step 3: Request the customer to STOP the behaviour.
When someone is angry, asking them to ‘calm down’ is likely to wind them up even further. By identifying the precise behaviour and then asking them to stop it is direct but respectful – particularly if you also use ‘please’.
“Mr Brown, you are swearing. I find it offensive. Please stop.”
“Mrs Wilson, you are shouting. It’s making me feel uncomfortable. Please stop shouting.”
Step 4: Return to the TASK or change the subject.
Before the aggressor has had time to think or argue, add Step 4. If you were dealing with a particular issue, return to the agreed facts (not anything emotional or controversial!). If appropriate, switch to a new subject or aspect of the subject.
“Mr Brown, you are swearing. I find it offensive. Please stop. Now, tell me about the letter you received.”
“Mrs Wilson, you are shouting. It’s making me feel uncomfortable. Please stop shouting and tell me about your mother’s situation.”
Nobody likes having to deal with difficult callers, but with the right mindset and a range of tools and techniques, you can be more in control than you might think.