Dealing with Abusive Customers

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Article by Donna Earl

Today’s customers are angrier than ever. Some customers go beyond angry and become abusive. They might start the call in abusive mode, or might escalate to abusive from mere anger. Sometimes if you don’t tell them what they want to hear, they become abusive. Abusive is defined as verbally threatening, using foul language, and emotionally out of control. When you’ve used your best skills at defusing the angry customer and the customer is still out of control, or if the customer begins the conversation in an abusive manner, its time to utilize some advanced strategies for managing the customer’s behavior. It’s also time to protect yourself. It’s more likely the customer will become abusive with telephone customer service reps, as the contact is more anonymous.

Here are some specific steps you can take to manage the out of control customer.

  1. Personalize the conversation. The less personal the interaction, the more likely it can escalate out of control. As soon as you perceive the customer’s anger might escalate out of control, and you’ve tried your well practiced defusing skills and nothing works, its time to use the ‘personalize the conversation’ strategy. Call the customer by name, and refer to their company by name. Restate your name, and remind them that (your company name) wants them to be satisfied.
  2. Declare your intent and boundaries. Remind the customer you want to solve the problem. Let them know you can solve the problem only when the language is appropriate, and demands are reasonable. You should never allow the customer to continue if they’re using inappropriate language, or if they’re totally out of control. Nothing will be accomplished, and they’ll sabotage your efforts to stay composed. They’ll lose respect for you and the company for allowing the situation to continue. If they cannot maintain enough control to conduct a reasonable conversation, its time to switch strategies.
  3. Transfer the call. Whether you transfer the call to a supervisor or to a colleague, the customer has the opportunity to regroup. When you transfer the call, tell the customer you’ve done all you can, and its time for them to speak with “fill in the name” who will now handle the problem. This serves notice to the customer that they cannot continue to abuse you, and that behavior will be interrupted. When the second person handles the customer, typically the customer will try to appear reasonable and soft spoken.
  4. Discontinue the call. If there’s nobody to transfer the call to, or you’ve been the recipient of the transferred call and the customer is still out of control, it’s time to end the cycle. Remind the customer you’re there to help, and also willing to discuss a solution in a reasonable manner. Let them know your company wants them to be a satisfied customer, but also does not allow customer service professionals to continue abusive conversations. Ask them to please contact the customer service department at another time, and tell them “I am now releasing this call.”

Remember, if you’ve tried the above strategies, the customer behavior has nothing to do with you, so don’t take it personally!

See our article on Stress Management for Customer Service Reps

Copyright © 2022 Donna Earl. All rights reserved.

Donna Earl teaches the above techniques for dealing with difficult and abusive customers, in addition to many other techniques, in her customized on-site seminars on Customer Service. For more information on her courses or for permission to reprint this article phone 415.929.8110 or email at

+1(415)929 8110 US
+44(0)7783 352 886 UK

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