CX Top Tips

Stunned and abused – targets of uncivil customers

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Social media is full of poor customer service and stories about employees who don’t care. It’s an easy platform to share with the world how you have been wronged.

But I find myself becoming very concerned when I see customers applauded and glorified when they retaliate in outlandish ways. (Man destroys T-Mobile Store)

Are we promoting incivility?

Are we promoting and encouraging uncivil customer behavior? What would you do if you witnessed a service professional stunned and abused by a customer?

“Are we promoting and encouraging uncivil customer behavior?” Click to Tweet

When I read the story below (shared via a Facebook post by Mary Beth Holcomb), I began to think about how noble and often thankless the role of agent and supervisor is in call centers.

Even though this story is in a retail setting, I think many who are in service roles can relate to it.

Posted by Mary Beth Holcomb

Today, I ran into CVS to grab a prescription, immediately deflated to see 5 other people waiting in line as I rounded the aisle. I settled in and started to pull out my phone when I noticed something didn’t feel quite right. Everyone was silent, save one tall middle-aged white man, who was enthusiastically berating and belittling the small-statured female pharmacist assistant at the register.

It became instantly clear this had been going on for a while, and equally evident that what he was riled up about was a computer glitch, not the fault of the clerk. She took his abuse for a while, then timidly, patiently, began re-explaining and re-apologizing, as he became more irate and demonstrative, leaning over the counter, highlighting their physical disparity and cutting her off each time she attempted polite discourse.

Everyone was shifting around uncomfortably, and the employees behind the counter kept glancing at each other. I told myself to give it a moment, to hang on and let things pass. While he continued unloading on her, I did a quick headcount, processing with sudden, overwhelming fury that there were NINE of us. NINE customers and coworkers allowing this to continue.

I felt myself step out of line and say, “She GETS it. Now leave her alone.” The man opened his mouth to speak and I shouted, “ENOUGH! YOU LEAVE HER ALONE!” Not once did he turn to look at me, but he snatched up his prescription bag and stormed off. The pharmacy assistant gathered herself and started to call up the next customer, then froze mid-sentence. After a long pause, she half-whispered, “Excuse me,” then ran crying to the back of the store.

If you think I’m recounting this story to brag, let me clarify: I’m ashamed. ASHAMED by how long I stood there. ASHAMED that nine of us hesitated to confront clearly inappropriate behavior. ASHAMED that this culture of disconnection has produced such a thoroughly pedestrian, king-of-the-hill bully to strut and preen in the oversized shoes of such a thoroughly insightful and gifted public servant. We have abandoned the required work of civil society, on even the most basic level.

When I got back to the car, the adrenalin left my body like a popped blister, in its place only a raw ache, an unshakeable fear that this communal seeping wound is infected, spread too far to treat. But there are not nine, but MILLIONS of us this time. And this time, we will not stay silent.

Was it me?

As someone who has a protector gene inside of me, Mary Beth brought out in me several emotions in the telling of her story. Was I ever the tall white man? Will I be able to prevent myself from being that guy someday? Would I step up like Mary Beth did? Would I too be ashamed if I didn’t?

What about that poor pharmacist assistant?

When I think about a call center agent on the phone are they at greater risk of being a target of an uncivil customer? Are they more likely not to be rescued because there are no witnesses?

Agents are lonely and isolated

Customer service agents in call centers a very vulnerable to customer attack.

“Customer service agents in call centers a very vulnerable to customer attack.” Click to Tweet

As humans we are more likely to display aggressive and uncivil behavior when we are not face-to-face with our target and when we do not feel the presence of others watching what we’re doing. Call center agents deal in this type of environment every interaction, every day.

“Your call may be recorded for quality purposes,” does not provide agents protection from customer aggression. While releasing the caller from the line seems like it’s a solution, it only adds more fuel for the customer to unleash their rage on a different agent.

The customer isn’t always right

The customer isn’t always right – especially if they have lost their humanity.

“The customer isn’t always right – especially if they have lost their humanity.” Click to Tweet

Nobody has the right to attack another person. Employers have a responsibility to protect their people from customer abuse.

While there are numerous techniques (A.S.A.P, D.E.F.U.S.E.) taught for handling angry and upset customers and magic words you can use – sometimes none of this is going to work. When things have gone too far, you are wasting your time trying to bring rational thinking to an irrational customer.

Stop the attack

When you’ve properly used your training and skill and all else has failed, you have to tell the customer, “ENOUGH! YOU LEAVE HER ALONE!”

Call centers are able to conceptually deploy this type of intervention in a few ways. But it’s not a simple as transferring the customer to another person or to a survey.

Report them

If a customer is threatening physical harm to your people or the organization you should report the incident to law enforcement. Thoroughly document everything you have about the customer and their interactions with the company and give it to authorities. And tell the customer you are doing it.

Block them

If a customer is continually wreaking havoc in your call center block them from getting into the agent queue. Forward them to a voice mail box with a special message about how a customer “like them” can now interact with your company.

Send them to a competitor

Tell the customer that you are not a right fit for them and they might be better served by going to [name]. Actually give them a specific recommendation. It’s best to protect your people and your company from abusers and give that present to your competitive friends.

No real-world experience

All too often I see people with no real-world call center experience talking about saving upset and angry customers. Most of them have no clue what it’s really like to be on the front-line. They are all fluff and no real stuff.

The reality is that you should not try to save uncivil customers. Nasty and uncivil customers need to be told ENOUGH is ENOUGH!

“Nasty and uncivil customers need to be told ENOUGH is ENOUGH!” Click to Tweet

Special thanks to Mary Beth Holcomb

Mary Beth Holcomb is a writer for The Washington Post and Huffington Post on Parenting, Salon, Thought Catalog and Mom to 4 kids and 3 dogs. Find her at – http://ratpetunia.tumblr.com/

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