The Complaint Department: Coping with Disgruntled Customers

Perhaps the most challenging occupational hazard of contact center work is dealing with angry customers.

It’s never pleasant, even with the training that agents receive on how to handle heated situations. But such calls are not only inevitable; they can also be valuable in the feedback they provide. Call recording and quality management are the tools available to discover something positive in a hostile customer engagement. There are opportunities here to salvage a strained customer relationship, and to avoid problems in the future.

Anger vs. Abuse

This is not to suggest that every angry call is valuable. One of the agent’s first tasks is to assess a customer’s comments to determine whether any insight can be gained from their harsh words, or if someone just needed somebody to yell at.

Is it ever acceptable to hang up on a customer call? Believe it or not, the answer is yes. While the first goal of a contact center agent is to respond courteously to all customer questions and complaints, there will be instances where there is simply no possibility of a successful resolution. 

The challenge is separating angry calls, which may be turned around by a sympathetic agent, from abusive calls, in which an agent may have no choice but to terminate the conversation. 

Angry Calls

Most angry calls are the result of a previous product or service experience that went awry. The caller is angry with the company and is ready to vent that anger on the first company representative they reach. There should be best practices in place at the call center for dealing with such situations, which typically include a clear and direct apology for the customer’s inconvenience, and a steady, calm delivery that may diffuse the raised emotions on the other side of the call.

Abusive Calls

The main dividing line between anger and abuse is the nature of the verbal attack. An abusive caller will personally attack the agent, through derogatory comments and profanity. The challenge for the agent is to remain calm and try to reduce the caller’s hostility level. A reminder that the call is being recorded may change their attitude, but if it doesn’t it should be permissible for the agent to tell the abusive caller that their call will be terminated if he or she does not calm down. The agent should then inform the manager of what has happened.

Analyzing Negative Encounters with Call Recording

Recorded examples of angry and abusive calls can be valuable tools in training. Coach agents on the difference between the two, and review how the agents on those calls handled the situation. Exposure to “the dark side” of the contact center agent job can only help agents with they face similar situations.

Classifying Complainers

After a few weeks on the job, an agent will recognize recurring patterns among angry calls. Some of the classifications may even be part of the training process.

There are customers that complain in the most mild and polite way imaginable, as if they are reluctant to inconvenience the agent with their problems. While these calls are less stressful, they can take longer because callers are so hesitant to describe the details of their complaints. 

At the other end of the spectrum are those who sound angry from the first moment of the call and never relent. If these calls don’t cross the line into being abusive, most can be handled with patience and calm. 

While the majority of complaint calls are one-time occurrences, most agents will eventually become acquainted with a few regulars that always seem to have a new issue every week. Some may just be lonely and want someone to talk to; others hope their persistent displeasure will eventually result in some type of compensation. Is it tempting to give in so they’ll go away? Sure – but then they’ll try it again and tell their friends how they pulled a 50% discount with their bad attitude. 

Yes, you must respect the caller and his or her opinions – while also respecting the procedures of the contact center and the company’s policy. Be respectful, be empathetic to the situation and do what you can to make them happy – but don’t try to save a relationship by any means necessary – ultimately it will backfire. 

Here are a few additional tips and guidelines for those times when the contact center seems more like the complaint department. 

The CARP Method

CARP is an acronym for “Control, Acknowledge, Refocus, Problem Solve.” It was created by Robert Bacal, who wrote a book with a title that should appeal to every contact center agent – If It Wasn’t for the Customers I’d Really Like this Job. His advice for handling complaints – “Control” the situation with polite but firm responses; “Acknowledge concerns in a way that takes them seriously; “Refocus” the conversation to solving the problem rather than complaining about its existence, then “Problem Solve” and wrap it up.

To Transfer, or Not to Transfer?

Imagine being an angry caller who finally reaches an agent. You describe the issue you’re having in detail, only to be told to please hold, and then you’re transferred to someone else and forced to repeat everything you just said.

There is no way this comes off as anything but frustrating – but sometimes it’s the only means to get the problem solved. Only transfer when no other option is available – but when you do, try to put the best possible face on your actions. “One moment, please…*click*” is not as helpful as “Let me put you in contact with our specialist who can take care of that for you.” 

Verify Satisfaction

Ending a conversation on a grace note of courtesy will always be appreciated. When the situation has been resolved, it’s worth the extra few seconds added to average handle time to ask, “Is there anything else I can help you with?”

If Failure is Inevitable, Don’t Drag it Out

If a customer wants a full refund or to cancel an account, agents are trained to take appropriate steps to keep that customer. But as we observed in a recent blog*, sometimes the best option is to accept that some relationships are not going to be saved. Learn what you can from the situation, and then let it go.