Dealing With Rude Customers

Managing Your Emotions in a Hostile Confrontation

Dealing With Rude Customers

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Facing an abusive customer can be a frightening experience.

Imagine that you've just picked up the phone to answer a customer's call, or a client has unexpectedly arrived in person at your office. Out of the blue, you find yourself on the receiving end of some shocking rudeness. And you're left gasping.

How do you manage yourself, calm the situation, and build bridges with this person, who remains important to your business? And how do you recover from the experience and prevent such a situation happening again?

Although customer service and sales people most commonly encounter such situations, everyone has "customers." Anyone who you interact with in your workplace who looks to you for results or some other output is a customer.

In this article, we explore five strategies for dealing with rude customers, and we look at how to handle the aftermath of these difficult confrontations.

Sorting Unhappy Customers From Rude Ones

If a customer is unhappy about the quality of goods or services that he or she has received from your organization, he is perfectly entitled to express his dissatisfaction. And if he remains calm and civil, despite his frustration or anger, you'll most likely be willing to help him with his grievances. You'll try hard to put things right, whether it's replacing a faulty toaster or compensating him for a missed family holiday because of an over-booked flight.

Occasionally, though, despite your welcoming manner, expert knowledge and willingness to help, there are people who can't control their anger and resort to verbal abuse, offensive language, and even threatening words or behavior. When you're confronted by these rude customers, it can be difficult to know how to respond or defuse the situation.

Strategies for Handling Rude Customers

Researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Canada, have studied "incivility" between customers and employees. Their findings show that employees who expect to encounter rude customers at work react far less strongly than employees who normally enjoy good customer relations, but who face unexpected rudeness.

The researchers recommend that organizations train their staff to deal effectively with irate customers, even when those customers are generally viewed as highly civil. And they add that employees should deal with rude customers at the time of the encounter, rather than try to repair a damaged relationship after the event.

The consequences of not handling such situations effectively can be serious. The UBC study cites customer incivility as a cause of stress, emotional exhaustion, absenteeism, and reduced performance. And if an employee reacts negatively to the customer, it threatens an organization's reputation for customer service and can impact customer retention.

Coming face to face with a raging customer can be a frightening experience. So, what do you do if you are suddenly on the receiving end of a stream of bile and abuse? Here, we explore five strategies for dealing with rude customers:

1. Stay Calm, Don't React.

The first thing to do is to remain calm and not respond in kind. If you are faced with an unexpected verbal attack, a natural defense mechanism is to "bite back." Something as simple as taking some deep breaths can give you a vital few seconds to gather your thoughts and avoid retaliating in a way that might see you being viewed as the aggressor.

Tip:

Your personal safety is paramount. If you feel threatened by an angry person, trust your instincts and leave the room immediately if you feel unsafe, or if you're too upset to resolve the situation on your own.

Ask your boss or a trusted colleague to work with you to resolve the situation. It might also be appropriate to report the incident, if the person is completely out of control.

The UBC research suggests that rude customers "can violate an employee's sense of dignity and respect, and trigger negative emotions that can motivate employees to react negatively" toward that customer.

So avoid "fighting fire with fire." Remain calm , controlled and tactful , otherwise you risk inflaming the situation further. Keeping your emotions in check can defuse the encounter. You can find techniques for controlling your feelings and presenting a positive face in challenging circumstances, with our article, Emotional Labor .

If your interaction with the customer is by email or on social media, you may have worse rudeness to contend with. People often say things online that they'd never say in person, but resist the temptation to give them a "taste of their own medicine." Take a deep breath. Go for a walk to disperse the tension. Do whatever it takes to gain distance before you hit "send." When you do write your reply, keep your cool, state the facts, and make clear your willingness to help.

2. Don't Take It Personally.

Chances are, your customer is angry about a bad product or service and you are just the unfortunate target for her frustration. Instead of taking her rudeness to heart, try to empathize with her. She wants to know that you understand the inconvenience and disappointment that she's suffered, so you need to show her that you do. Developing emotional intelligence is a useful strategy for managing your emotions and sensing other people's emotional needs.

Occasionally, though, it really does feel personal. A customer will approach you with the sole purpose of insulting you. Despite the provocation, try to remember that the customer doesn't know you personally. He was probably angry or having a bad day before he met you, and had already decided that he was going to "raise hell" with somebody. In these situations, it doesn't matter who you are, you're just the unlucky one in the firing line.

Tip:

One way of learning how to deal with rude customers is with Role Playing . Our article can help you use this technique to prepare for a variety of challenging or difficult situations.

3. Listen and, If Appropriate, Apologize.

A rude customer might want to vent her frustration. She wants you to hear every word that she says say, so listen actively , no matter how unreasonable she sounds. Demonstrate that you have taken in what she's said by occasionally reflecting back her words. For example, use phrases like, "So, it sounds like you're saying that," "What I'm hearing is," or, "Is this what you mean?"

Be aware of your body language while she speaks. Keep your arms unfolded, and maintain appropriate eye contact to demonstrate your open attitude. And when you reply, keep your voice low and even, to keep things calm.

Saying sorry might run against every instinct you have, if you've been subjected to a barrage of abuse. But if the customer's grievance is genuine, a prompt apology may staunch the flow of rudeness and provide the basis for a better relationship.

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4. Stand Firm.

You may have apologized and be going all out to help your customer, but you don't want him to walk all over you. If he's factually wrong or if he's not letting you get a word in, you may need to be more assertive to get your message across.

If you're a team manager, your team member may ask you to step in to help resolve the situation. That means balancing your responsibility for ensuring that you satisfy your customer with the duty of care you have towards your people or your organization.

In situations when a customer's behavior has become unacceptable, it's important to tactfully let her know that she's "crossed a line" – for example, when she's using insulting, threatening or racist words or behavior. It may be possible for you to negotiate a solution, but it might be one of those rare instances when it's best to let the customer go.

Tip:

Make sure that you agree with your manager or head of department what behaviors are to be deemed unacceptable in this way.

5. Solve the Problem

The best way to disarm a rude customer is to involve him in taking away the problem that's fueling his behavior. Ask him what he feels would be an acceptable solution. You then have something concrete to work toward.

Most customers just want a fair resolution , but a rude customer may make unrealistic or extreme demands. If so, remind him that you want to help, and counter with suggestions that are fair and reasonable, and negotiate towards a mutually acceptable deal.

Look for quick, simple solutions. Many problems that lead to customer rudeness will have occurred before, so your company may have policies that allow you to offer refunds or replacements, for example, with little fuss. Fast resolutions satisfy the customer, minimize stress, and end difficult situations swiftly.

Dealing With the Aftermath

Encountering a rude customer can be a highly stressful experience, so it's important to take a breather afterwards. If you can remember that very few of your customers behave in this way, you'll gain some valuable perspective.

It's also important to think through what happened, to consider whether the customer's rudeness reflects a bigger problem or a recurring issue. You may need to report the situation to your manager – for example, if the problem is beyond your remit to resolve – or follow up with the customer, much as you might prefer not to.

If you're a manager, remember that it's not just about the customer's feelings. An encounter with a rude customer will eventually end, but your team members are the people that you work with and manage every day.

So, if one of your team has been dealing with a rude customer, check in with her to make sure that she's OK. Choose your time well – straight after the situation is a good time for some team members but not for others. Discuss what was said, to ensure you have a full picture of what occurred, and find out if there's anything you need to look into in light of her experience.

Key Points

Rude customers differ from the merely unhappy in that they can't control their anger. They are unreasonable, unfriendly, and prone to using verbal abuse, offensive language and threatening behavior. But you're in business to serve your customers, so it's important to try to help them.

When dealing with rude customers, it's crucial to control your own emotions, and to counteract their inflammatory behavior with calm, considered responses. Remember, try not to take any comments personally, listen actively to your customer, and apologize if it's appropriate to do so.

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Comments (5)
  • Over a month ago BillT wrote
    Hi fxgg030,

    The situation you're describing can be really tough to deal with. I like your idea of giving them a specific target to focus on - that sounds like a workable solution.
  • Over a month ago fxgg030 wrote
    They absorb so much energy, they complain about everything, they don´t listen and some doesnt seem to care about a real solution, is just they want to be agressive or they have another issue from another company or another situation. Many of them won´t listen, or understand. In that case is important to give them dates so they can be more objective.
  • Over a month ago Michele wrote
    Hello aspire,

    You are most welcome. Completely agree with your suggestion to do regular customer satisfaction surveys and analyze the results to identify trends. Some companies call it searching for the "pain points" in the customer experience. Identifying causes of customer frustration and resolving the problems reduces the frequency of encounters with rude customers. And sometimes, there are just people who are rude because they can be - they don't see the face behind the voice. For people like this, knowing how to manage rude and hostile customers is a must.

    Michele
    Mind Tools Team
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