dealing with customers is making me miserable

A reader writes:

I wear many hats at my job and manage various areas such as office administration, finance, customer service and special events. Customer service is probably the least favorite part of my job, but I do fairly well because I am friendly, personable and at least appear to be patient (even though on the inside this may not be the case!). It’s not so terrible year round because we have slower times where I don’t communicate with customers all that often. However, we are in the midst of our busiest season and I am finding myself getting quickly burned out by the demands of our customers.

My organization has pretty strict policies and unfortunately this sometimes results in frustrated customers with few solutions available to pacify them. I have grown tired of receiving the same complaints day in and day out, and I no longer feel empathy for these people who are contacting us about their various issues. What’s worse is I will receive a particularly nasty, mean-spirited email or phone call and I find myself feeling personally attacked. I stress over confrontation with customers and often feel upset about negative interactions long after they have ended. I know the simple answer is to not take these things personally and to just let go of the emotions I am feeling, but I have not been successful at detaching myself.

This job has many benefits that I am constantly trying to focus on. I am paid very well, the vacation and sick time is fairly generous, my commute is easy and short, the office environment is laid back and I have learned so much in the short time I have been with this organization. I feel like I can really grow and potentially move away from customer service, but there’s no telling how long that will take. Lately I have found myself feeling exhausted and dejected whenever I leave the office, and I wake up a good hour or two before my alarm goes off every day, already dreading the work day and unable to fall back asleep because I am so anxious.

I feel myself sinking into a depression related to my job and I am not sure what to do. I have been seeing a therapist 1-2 times a month for the past year and a half, and while she has been helpful I find myself feeling uneasy and sad about work in between our appointments. My boss is sympathetic but her general response is something along the lines of “I get that this sucks sometimes but unfortunately that’s just the way it is.” If you have any advice for my situation I would so appreciate it.

You can read my answer to this letter at New York Magazine today. Head over there to read it.

{ 141 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. James

    I have to fight to get my bosses to understand that while I may provide great service, I hate every second of it and I’ll burn out just like OP. I won’t take jobs with customer interaction anymore.

    Reply
  2. Nervous Accountant

    Oh gosh, I could have written this a few years ago when I first started–every bad review or angry client would make me feel as if I just had too sh*tty of a personality to ever succeed. It really hurt my Self esteem. That’s not the case anymore, but it definitely hasnt’ been a slow and easy progression.

    Reply
  3. Horseshoe

    I got through nearly a decade of customer service by pretending I was an actor. I got really good at the “You’re right, customer, I am human garbage” mentality because I could pretend it wasn’t real. I wasn’t getting paid to be a retail slave, I was being paid to be an actor who was embodying the role of a retail slave, and I’d only get paid if I was truly convincing at it.

    This might not work for everyone, I’ll admit. But now that I’m a role where I deal with clients and isn’t retail-based, I can call back on my experience and I have a much easier time dealing with the demands and bad attitudes some people have.

    Reply
      1. Happy Lurker

        But think of the speech you could give while you received your tin foil Oscar!

        Horseshoe – I hereby nominate you for the tin foil little man. Excellent mindset.

        Reply
    1. Letter Writer

      I am the letter-writer and I love this attitude! Definitely worth me giving a try. I did take acting classes as a kid so maybe I can jump back into that mentality. Thank you!

      Reply
      1. Nicky

        Hi Letter Writer – I work in sales/customer service in an industry with some strict policies. Your situation sounds similar to mine, and I know how you feel. Do you just get the frustrated phone calls? Or do you work with the customer upfront from the beginning? Either way, can you work with your boss and/or the sales team to give customers information about the strict policies and answers to FAQs up front? I eventually made an e-booklet that gave all the information the customer needed up front. Slowly, over several years, the booklet resolved a lot of the issues. Unpleasant phone calls decreased because people are informed at the beginning to read the booklet which gives you a leg to stand on and reduces the chance for surprises.

        Also, people told me that the issues were what they were, and I never thought it would change either. A few years later, the problem was ultimately resolved because we wound up changing our internal processes drastically, and now we are a lot more flexible. Even when it doesn’t feel like it, the only thing you can be sure of is change.

        I hope this helps, and good luck either way!

        Reply
        1. Not So NewReader

          Oh so much this!

          Look for patterns in what people are complaining about. Taking preemptive steps before the sale is closed can save some hassles later.

          If you are putting up with customers call you names or cussing at you, be sure to tell your boss. A good boss will take that customer off of you by some means, either by doing it herself or delegating it to someone else.

          Do you have someone that you can pair up with to handle difficult people? It’s easier if the customer is in front of you to switch off with a cohort. But if this is all abuse by phone, maybe you can work something out with a coworker to take over when you hit you max with a person.

          But the most important thing I think is to make sure the person understands what they are buying before they buy it.

          Reply
    2. PatPat

      I worked for years in restaurants and other customer service jobs and, while I didn’t pretend to be an actor, I pretty much did the same thing you did and convinced myself that rude customers weren’t “real” because their actions had nothing to do with me or the excellent service I was providing. Their rudeness was their own problem. But I think what helped me most is I always felt comfortable calling particularly egregious customers out on their bad behavior. I was working for a rental car company and had picked up a load of customers at the airport in my bus. I had to drop them off in the order their cars were parked on the lot and one man was enraged that he was going to be the last customer. He shouted at me several times and finally picked up his briefcase and threw it at my head. I stopped the bus, opened the door, and calmly told him to get out. I didn’t help him pick up the contents of his briefcase that were all over the floor of my bus, either.

      I don’t have any customer service duties in my current job but I use the skills I learned in customer service all the time.

      Reply
      1. Not So NewReader

        Drawing your boundary lines is a good point, OP. The problem has two parts, clearly identifying the behavior AND having a response to it. If you have to make a chart of common problems, then go for it. In one column state the problem in the next column write down how you plan to respond to it.

        Part of anger is not being sure of how to respond. Plan out some responses and also ask the boss if there is any point where you can hang up/tell the person to leave.

        PatPat, your passenger was lucky you did not call the police. I am sorry this happened to you but you had a good response given your setting.

        Reply
        1. Perse's Mom

          Yep, after one particular angry phone call at OldJob, I asked the department manager if I was ever allowed to hang up on someone. His response was, ‘As long as you warn them first.’

          Reply
    3. Mark in Cali

      Been there for sure. My problem is that at a certain point I am so familiar with the song and dance that I start to talk back . . . and then that’s where the real trouble starts.

      Reply
    4. Mrs. Psmith

      I did the same thing when I waited tables! I am naturally a pretty quiet, introverted person, so having to approach customers, reel off specials and answer questions was very strange for me to get used to. I made up a “perky waitress” persona and used that all the time. I waited tables part-time for about 8 years using that method and it really saved my sanity.

      Reply
  4. paul

    Does everyone wear that many hats in that company? It seems like kind of a recipe for stuff like this; when you require everyone to have many different, diverse roles with radically different requirements it’s going to be hard to *not* have people truly loathe at least a good chunk of their job

    Reply
    1. krysb

      It makes me wonder about the structure of the company. Is it just this role that requires such flexibility? Is it better to have a number of generalists and few specialists?

      For OP: this is my usual sign of needing to find a new job. I can handle a lot of things, but if I begin to absolutely dread going to work, I know I need to move on.

      Reply
    2. Squeeble

      I dunno, I had a similar setup at my previous job, with admin support, customer service, marketing, event planning, and so on. But typically a busy time in one area was balanced out by lighter times in other areas. That said–and I don’t know if OP is feeling this way–if you start feeling like you’re a little bit responsible for nearly every area, I agree with you that it’s a recipe for resentment.

      Reply
    3. Letter Writer

      My company is pretty small and each person does manage several different areas. With that being said, several people who once held my position have been promoted into different roles so I’m hoping something similar can happen with me. Just not sure what that role might be, or when this could happen.

      Reply
    4. Emile

      On the other hand, wearing one big hat can become tedious and boring after a while (which is where I am at with my job, frankly).

      This probably depends on the exact mix involved, and the person who’s doing it. Some may like doing lots of different things.

      Reply
    5. Hootie

      At my last job I was essentially filling five roles: legal assistant/paralegal, receptionist/customer service person, office manager, personal assistant, and bookkeeper. I was overworked, underpaid, and didn’t get much recognition. (In fact, I was micromanaged and got yelled at regularly.) It drove me nuts and yes, I resented it and I absolutely dreaded work every day. I ended up quitting with no job lined up because I couldn’t take it anymore.

      Reply
    6. Not So NewReader

      Wearing many hats can be a nice way of saying “pressure cooker”.

      OP has your job expanded over the time you have been there such that you could actually need more help?

      Reply
    1. Letter Writer

      I hope so! I actually really enjoy the accounting aspect of my job. I would love to make this my primary focus, which would also allow me to work more in the back/behind the scenes.

      Reply
      1. Accounting

        Let them know that! They might want to transition you, especially if they need more firepower in accounting! See how closely you can align with whoever is in charge of accounting and ask to take things off their plate or learn new tasks to help them out. Best of luck! I used to be in customer service, then sales, then operations, now in finance.

        Reply
  5. Berry

    My sympathies, OP. I’m also in the same place, and phone service just makes me feel like I have to turn my empathy off (especially because my bosses just don’t get things fixed at an anything other than glacial pace) and I hate it so much, just made me miserable and stressed. I’m getting out next week to a new position that’s a bit of a cut, but at least I know what I never want in a job again.

    Reply
  6. Mazzy

    You’re lucky you have access to so many areas. I’d analyze who was complaining and why and who stopped buying after they called to complain and try to make the financial case for more sales or exceptions or special rates or whatever would work in your industry.

    I do this in my current role. For example, does it make sense to give a special price to x number of customers that complained – regardless of whether the complaint is valid – in order not to lose x dollars in revenue. If you make the case for CSRs to have more tools, that part of the job would be much more enjoyable.

    Reply
  7. Anon Today

    This resonates so hard. I’ve come to a place where I need to ask my boss to move me off a particular project. I’m experiencing the same stresses as the OP – waking up early, spending all my waking hours either feeling anxious about work or finding ways to distract myself from it. It has to stop. The conversation is tomorrow. Fingers crossed.

    Reply
  8. TheBeetsMotel

    There’s something to be said for a stint in a customer-facing job; dealing with people’s rudeness, incomprehension and frustration can help you develop problem- solving and interpersonal skills that can benefit all areas of your life. That said, there comes a point where even the most patient person can experience compassion fatigue and just not want to deal with it any more. Individuals can be wonderful; “the public” tends to be a miserable, unpleasant homogenous bunch who can suck the life out of an otherwise pleasant job.

    If I were you, I’d focus on honing my other skills and taking the good parts of customer service skills and leverage all of this into a role with minimal customer interaction.

    Reply
    1. Letter Writer

      Thanks so much. I definitely plan on trying to do this. Alison also mentioned making myself valuable in other areas, and I think I am capable of doing that. It will just take some time and maybe a little extra effort on my end.

      Reply
  9. CM

    Two suggestions: one, especially if you are thinking of leaving over this, ask your boss to work with you on a long-term (but not too long-term, like in the next year) plan that involves you getting out of customer service; and two, see if you can get some training that would help you compartmentalize a bit more.

    Reply
    1. AndersonDarling

      I was also thinking this. The OP sounds like a very valuable employee and it’s possible that her boss and the company would be willing to make some changes to keep her. It’s time to bring up the dissatisfaction with the manager and see what the reaction is. The manager may be willing to suggest a role shuffle or maybe a specific customer service position could be created. If the manager comes back and says that nothing will change, then the OP will know that she needs to move to a new company.

      Reply
      1. Letter Writer

        Agreed, my boss is aware of my frustrations but I have not been so candid in saying “I am seriously considering leaving over this if things don’t improve.” Part of me is scared to have this conversation with my boss but this may be the only way things can get better.

        Reply
        1. rPM

          I’m not sure you want to be quite that blunt (“I’m seriously considering leaving”) unless you’ve already got a new opportunity lined up. From the perspective of a boss… if you’ve expressed your frustrations, your boss already knows that you could decide to leave over it. Making it sound like you’re likely to leave puts both you and your boss in a weird position if she really can’t change your role right now, and if you do end up needing to stay at the company a while longer (change of circumstances, long job search, whatever) you may miss out on opportunities because of that.

          Instead, I’d absolutely talk with your boss but approach it like any other conversation about a new job you want – focus on what you’d love and excel at in the role you want to move into, rather than what you dislike about your current role. You mentioned above that you enjoy the accounting part of your role, and would like to continue to develop and grow in that area. Talk to your boss about your strengths in that area and ask her whether she sees any potential for a role focused primarily or fully on that aspect, and if so what she’d like to see from you to get there.

          Reply
        2. Not So NewReader

          Agreeing with rPM and also adding, make examples of some of the worst offenders and ask your boss what she would like you to do differently. Don’t mention leaving the job. Here the goal is to use examples and ask for advice to show the boss what you are dealing with.

          I had one customer drop the f bomb repeatedly with me. I was just stating company policy. To make matters worse, companies similar to mine have SIMILAR policies. So there is no big news flash here, it was within norms. The customer decided to inform me they would call corporate. After she left, my boss and my grandboss who witnessed the whole conversation from a few feet away, told me “no worries”.
          I thought about telling her the bosses were right there and she could say something now. But, then I realized the problem would be more quickly contained if she was motivated to go home. She was just going to rant. It could have turned into a police call maybe. I realized her leaving the building would be best.

          Reply
  10. paperfiend

    This is much more of a short-term strategy. When I’m having one of those days when I just hate people in general and then the phone rings with a customer call, I challenge myself to do “voice acting” and see if I can handle the call in a way that the caller can’t tell I’m really seething inside.

    Because I sit in a cube, this has resulted in some really funny reactions from coworkers nearby, when I go from venting with them about the ongoing technical issue we’re trying to solve and then in the space of two seconds I can answer the phone with the most sweet, helpful, patient voice you’ve ever heard…

    Reply
    1. Horseshoe

      Oh, that’s one of my favorite things to do with people. It’s so passive-aggressive, but they have no idea. Just turn that sweetness and charm up to 11. “Oh, my goodness, OF COURSE I’ll help you with this finicky annoying detail that would be so much easier for you to do yourself! Why, it absolutely makes my day to do things like this! Would it make your life any easier if I also came to your office and helped you wipe your butt? It would?! I CAN’T HANDLE HOW WONDERFUL THAT MAKES ME FEEL!!!”

      Reply
      1. Letter Writer

        This is hilarious! I sit at a reception desk so can’t always do this depending on who is nearby, but it’s worth a try when no one is around!

        Reply
        1. Kyrielle

          It’s fun, and honestly, as long as the caller thinks you’re sincere and the people around you keep their reactions quiet enough not to mess it up, it’s not a big deal if coworkers hear. (Or customers, but if customers hear they also have to believe. Alas.)

          I once answered my phone VERY chirpily, “(Company), this is Kyrielle!” And the project manager (who worked for us and knew me quite well) on the other end of the line said, slowly, “Kyrielle…?” Like doubting what she’d heard. And when I dropped to a normal tired tone and said, “Oh, hi, Project Manager! What’s up?” …yeah, she busted up laughing. Fortunately she didn’t take it the wrong way but correctly realized it meant that I jolly knew I didn’t have to put on an act for her, I just didn’t have that number for her in caller id! And by golly I’d answered in my this-may-be-a-customer voice…and as I was tired and it was very early, it was probably about syrupy enough to dump over pancakes.

          Reply
      2. writelhd

        My only caution is, I’ve been on the receiving end of this from a coworker who is very obviously doing this exaggerated politeness and responsiveness thing to me (and my requests are polite, job-related and appropriate) and…I’m not dumb, I can tell that was what he is doing. And I do. not.appreciate.it. It is absolutely condescending and rude.

        Reply
        1. Not So NewReader

          Ditto. Coworkers may not want to watch this play acting.

          To me it takes too much effort, I try to approach everyone on the same keel. I don’t want to spend the day yo-yoing up and down depending on who I am talking to.

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      3. Freya UK

        Yes! My first proper job was as a sales assistant, at first the endless queues of grumpy buggers really got me down, but I got sick of that and decided to try counteracting their trying to ruin my day by being ludicrously perky. It’s great because not only does it provide you with a shield, it also makes them MORE angry, and it’s really fun to make a mean person increasingly angry the sweeter you are. These people are invariably “The Customer Is Always Right!” types – to so obviously take that control away from them in a way that can’t get you reprimanded is most satisfying.

        Reply
  11. Kitkat

    Since it sounds like customer service is not a full job by itself and you already do a bunch of different things, is there maybe someone you could “trade” this task with? I love customer service, and would happily trade to get more of it. I’m not sure what field you’re in, but in nonprofits at least, everyone wears a lot of hats and there tends to be a more flexible view of job descriptions.

    Reply
    1. Kitkat

      Also, when I do get a particularly mean or unreasonable customer, I just think of it as them filling up my bank of “terrible customer” party stories and focus on how fun it will be to laugh over this later with my friends.

      Reply
        1. Kitkat

          Yes and love it! My own contribution to this thread: a customer with dementia (I assume) would call every 2-3 days to berate me about the same thing and had no memory of previous conversations and insisted she would never use any rude language. She always ended the conversations by hanging up on me and telling me to go to he**. First it was alarming, then it was funny, then it was just sort of sad!

          Reply
      1. Horseshoe

        I worked at Barnes and Noble for a long time and the day I found some guy’s blog where he detailed all the ridiculous stories he had was the best day of my life.

        Someone once left poop at the top of our escalator. Not a child. It was adult-sized poop. I had to stand at the top of the escalator and physically keep people from stepping in it while a manager cleaned the carpet (people had already trod through it before I noticed it there). People actually got mad at me that I was “in their way”. Sorry, but I don’t want even more poop ground into our carpet, folks.

        Reply
        1. Xarcady

          I’ve had customers remove the neon- yellow “Do Not Enter” signs on fitting room doors and then complain that the carpet was wet. Yes, it’s wet. Someone peed in there. Maintenance hasn’t come yet. That sign was up for your protection. Sorry you didn’t pay attention to it.

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        2. RVA Cat

          This wasn’t Short Pump was it? Just because that B&N has escalators and…well Central Virginia peeps will understand.

          Reply
          1. Horseshoe

            No, it was an Ohio B&N. It was the first time we’d had poop show up on the escalator. Typically it was contained to the walls and floor in the bathrooms.

            We dubbed the phantom poop-depositer as the Unapooper. He will live on forever.

            Reply
            1. RVA Cat

              The Unapooper LOL!

              Eww I just realized he might be more likely a she, due to ummm garment logistics…not that the Unapooper cares…

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            2. Not So NewReader

              Giving customers nicknames can help release some tension and get a laugh.

              I have dubbed people “my son/daughter” because every time I see them, “Mommy, I need this, Mommy, I need that. Mommy, Mommy!”

              The only drawback is you have to make sure you do not slip up at the wrong time.
              Yeah, I only did it with the worst ones for this reason.

              Reply
        3. copy run start

          Eugh! How would you not notice? I would run for the hills if I encountered wild poop! A kid once puked in the rugs section while I worked at Kmart; it took me a week to even go back there again. (Thankfully it wasn’t my department and very out of the way.)

          Reply
  12. AliceW

    Wow, I’ve always said that if I get to the point that I dread/hate going into work, then it is time to leave. You can dislike many, many things about a job and still be okay with it- but when Sunday night rolls around and you get physically ill thinking about going into work, it is time to leave. The positives don’t seem to outweigh the one huge negative for you. I would look for another job ASAP and when you find one, tell your boss that you love your work but can no longer handle the customer service aspect of the job and see if they can modify your responsibilities. If they can’t, then you move on. Good luck.

    Reply
    1. NonProfit Nancy

      Yes yes yes this is my mental sign. Like a frog in boiling water, it can be hard to see how unhappy a job is making you. A terrible feeling of dread on Sunday night – that slowly creeps out over the whole day – is the sign that you MUST try to make a shift. [My other cue: waking up in the middle of the night with a pounding heart, thinking of work stuff I have to get through. Ugh.]

      Reply
    2. Cassandra

      Mine is either seething or crying on the way home from work.

      Yeah. I should have left that job a lot sooner than I did.

      Reply
    3. Parenthetically

      I was once let go from a job I HATED — cried almost every morning on the way to work, sat miserably half-working all day, lived in constant fear of the next whatever coming my way — and I would bet money I was the happiest person-who-just-got-axed in the state that day.

      But… There have been times when I’ve hated the job I have now, and dreaded going to work, but some of that is connected with my seasonal depression, with bad or frustrating coworkers, with otherwise hard seasons of life personally. Overall, I love my job and I’m glad I didn’t quit in those harder periods. Not to say OP shouldn’t, of course, just that sometimes in my experience even great jobs can give you seasons of total suckitude.

      Reply
      1. Not So NewReader

        This is a great point. Some jobs have hard periods vs some jobs are just plain bad.

        If you are determined to tough it out for a while longer, you could think of this as your “schooling” for your next job. Let the bad situations teach you about people and about yourself.
        I hope you smile a little: I had one job where I told myself everyday, “I am use to working with such super huge difficulties that my next job is going to be a breeze. And that employer is going to think I am a gem because I can handle their relatively minor (to me) problems.”
        I shortened that to, “I am getting sharper for my next job that I WILL keep.”

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    4. Lynxa

      I had a job that I hated so much I threw up EVERY DAY before I went in. For a month. Then I realized that was insane and quit.

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    5. Damn it, Hardison!

      My last straw was when I started to wonder if I was walking too aggressively – someone had complained that I seemed “mad” and I was given a Talking To about my attitude (evidence: I did not say hello to the person in the morning. That person did not say hello to me, but that wasn’t apparently a problem). I left within a few months for a position that is crazy in a totally different way.

      Reply
  13. NonProfit Nancy

    I agree with Alison that it may help you to try and generate solutions for common problems that customers are facing. There may not be solutions that work within the company’s structure, but I say keep trying to make one! Catalog common complaints and start a list of solutions. It will take away the feeling of helplessness if you know you’re at least *working on* making it better. And you may end up with something really valuable to the company (perhaps even helping you move out of your current role).

    Of course, some customers will always complain anyway – and if they’re not having real problems, just whining, it may be helpful to tune out / make yourself a ritual (mine is delicious iced coffee) to get through these calls. But if you can identify patterns and work towards solutions, while also operationalizing the other advice about moving up or out, it may help you feel better about the job.

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    1. amysee

      Along these lines I wonder if OP could get authorization to create a survey of some kind that could be offered to customers who are unhappy– could be a way to collect data and make a case for useful service changes, and it’s also a way for OP to feel like she’s doing *something* for those she can’t satisfy. And if she’s at all interested in things like survey design it’s a great way to learn & grow new skills, while creating ornate distractions from the existential dread of her job.

      Reply
      1. Letter Writer

        Funny enough we do send an annual survey to our customers, but this could potentially be done more often. I actually enjoy the survey design and the process of analyzing the data and results. The majority of our customers are pleased, the handful that are not just tend to make a very big fuss.

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        1. Not So NewReader

          At my Best Job Ever, the bosses would tell those certain few people to take their business elsewhere. Usually these were people who cost the company money because they were so labor intensive. A sale to them was actually a loss on the financials.

          I had never seen bosses do that, I did not know it could be done. These people were confident business people who knew their stuff.

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  14. Adam

    I empathize with the letter writer a lot as I’ve felt many of the same things over the years and even now as my entire career has been primarily customer service oriented.

    Right now the biggest snafu of my customer service job is this: the subject matter of my job (as in, what the customers are calling me about) is something I could not possibly care less about. I don’t find the subject interesting. I have no desire to learn more about it. I did not choose to be in this field so much as I chose to have a paycheck and these were the particular strings that came attached to it. Not only is my particular niche of customer service completely boring to me, the majority of the calls for help I get have the same straightforward answer. So it’s like being asked “What does 2 + 2 equal?” every day of your life. At a certain point you want to ram your head against the wall for the sake of feeling something different.

    Because of this and many other reasons I’m actually trying to position myself to switch careers into the area of Technical Writing or something similar. This has customer service ties and makes use of those skills, but for me personally looks like it would be much more challenging and rewarding in just about every way.

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    1. Letter Writer

      I’m so sorry, I couldn’t imagine getting the same question that warrants the same simple answer day in and day out. Technical writing sounds like it would be a good fit for you, I hope you can make the switch!

      Reply
    2. Not So NewReader

      People are amazing in that they tend to drift towards similar questions. If a person stays in any field long enough, I think this happens. One time a guy told me, “I just realized you get asked this question a LOT.” I told him that was true, but it was my job to explain. He said, “I am so sorry.” It made me smile, not everyone realizes you have answered this question a thousand times before.

      A friend was into beer making. He thought about opening a business. Then he realized. Familiarity breeds contempt. He decided not to kill his hobby, so he did not go into business.

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  15. Papyrus

    I used to do phone customer service in my old job, and like you, there were certain policies that had to be followed, and I only had a few solutions/explanations I could offer to the customer too. If I knew that I did everything that was in my power to help that customer, that was enough for me to get through a bad call. It didn’t feel great being yelled at, but knowing that certain things that were out of my hands helped me compartmentalize it a bit more and not take it so personally. If I could fix it, I would. If I can’t, then I can’t, and that’s ok.

    Reply
  16. nunqzk

    I think everybody’s giving really good big-picture mindset advice, so I’m going to offer a small-picture practical suggestion that works for me: read fiction or listen to audiobooks and podcasts, right before and after work. I’m not great at detaching from anxiety and interpersonal stress by thinking about abstract stuff like my career path, but it’s much easier for me to shift my focus to a story I’m immersed in. I think so much of anxiety* is about the brain’s tendency to spin too much narrative out of moment-to-moment experiences, so distracting that part of your brain with somebody else’s better written narrative helps a lot.
    * I mean anxiety in the everyday sense. I have no personal experience with anxiety disorders, and I have no idea if this advice would apply there.

    Reply
    1. Panda Bandit

      I have an anxiety disorder and I back this advice. I am always so much calmer after starting a book. My brain takes that extra energy and puts it into thinking about the story elements.

      Reply
    2. Letter Writer

      I really haven’t been managing my stress well and am looking for other options and ideas. My partner recently told me I need to find some healthy ways to detach and I like your suggestion. Thank you!

      Reply
      1. Horseshoe

        I don’t know how you feel about exercise, but taking up boxing was one of the best things I ever did for my mental health. I was awful with a lot of other forms of exercise because it allowed me too much time in my head and with boxing, I have to be completely focused or I’ll end up with a speed bag in my face. Plus you get to hit stuff.

        Reply
        1. Letter Writer

          I would love to take boxing classes, or something similar! I was just released from the hospital a couple of weeks ago and haven’t been cleared to exercise yet, but as soon as that happens I will look into some nearby classes.

          Reply
      2. Jaydee

        I second your partner’s advice. If you have a job that you can leave at work, finding a way to compartmentalize your life into work and not-work can be really helpful. Have some sort of routine that you do in the last few minutes you are at work that signals the end of work time. Maybe it’s making a quick to-do list of things you need to remember for the next day. Maybe it’s washing your coffee cup or saying goodbye to a couple of your coworkers. Then after you leave have a routine that signals the start of your non-work time. Maybe you stop at the gym on the way home or call your parents or a friend to catch up. Maybe you listen to a particular playlist or an audiobook during your commute. And then when you get home, don’t talk or think about work unless you absolutely have to. I’ve even heard of people mentally envisioning a box or a wall around their workplace and envisioning it closing behind them as they leave so that all work stuff, including stress and feelings, stays in the box/behind the wall until they return the next day. Whatever helps you get that emotional distance from work when you aren’t there.

        Reply
      3. CB

        I’ve been working customer service for a while now and one thing that has helped me during a shift was working on jigsaw puzzles during my break. (Our call center has a table where there’s always one in progress.) To me, it really helped to do something that almost forces a meditative state to keep me from getting stuck on an earlier call and being able to start up after the break fresh.
        And out of work, definitely exercise/fresh air.

        Reply
      4. Parenthetically

        Yes! Nthing books/audiobooks and exercise. Even together! Nothing rinses the gunk out of my mind like a run, and nothing calms me like a book. I’m in a pretty stressful season of life right now, therefore I am rereading Harry Potter.

        Reply
    3. SarahKay

      I can second this advice; a good book works wonders in getting the day out of my head.
      I also find if I can’t sleep then reading until I nod off will help, as it stops my mind spiralling around work frustrations. In this case I tend to go for books that are old favourites, so I’m not hooked on the plot and reading avidly! I realise this is the opposite of a lot of advice that bed should be for sleeping only, but then I’d trashed my eyesight by age seven reading under the covers with a torch…YMMV.

      Reply
    4. Not So NewReader

      I work in an arena that requires a lot of time inside my head. I can’t complain as my boss has it a thousand times worse than I do. I very fortunate to have such a smart and kind boss. So imagine my surprise when I found out she is doing the same thing I am. We come home and play silly games on the internet.
      The games are mindless. It’s a brain dump, it’s wiping the slate clean. It helps us to shift/ refocus on to other things.
      I do think that physical activity is a better long term plan, so this is just FWIW.

      Reply
    5. nonymous

      When I used to work in a call center, I would knit (yes during the calls). It really helps add a layer of distance to the customer service side, because it’s impossible to be 100% focused on a caller with a pile of pretty yarn in your lap. And then at the end of the day there’s a sense of accomplishment, regardless of what the customer’s moods are.

      OP, please remember that these customers don’t deserve your 100%, even in the moment. Your job obligates you to do the minimum that meets policy in a professional, courteous manner, but your are just facilitating (a crappy) conversation between customers and your employer. Maybe try mentally substituting COMPANY NAME every time they say “you”.

      Reply
  17. LBK

    Ugh, OP, I feel for you since I’ve been in that exact situation. It sucks when your hands are tied, and the longer you do a job like that, the harder to gets to detach and compartmentalize – you’d think that you would build up an immunity to it over time, but I’ve actually found it just wears you down.

    I’m sorry to say but I really think you need to leave if you can’t get out of doing this responsibility. I’d do it ASAP, too, because the longer you stay, the more exhausted and bitter you’ll get, and the harder it will be to muster up the positive energy to put your best foot forward while job hunting and interviewing.

    I wish I had better advice for you, but that’s what worked for me. I was so, so much happier once I quit.

    Reply
  18. Weak Trees

    Having spent years in the abject misery of retail, could I suggest you explore what, exactly, upsets you about unhappy customers? Maybe you’ll find some comfort there.

    Do you worry that taking hostile interactions personally means you’re somehow weak or over-sensitive? You’re absolutely not. This is not in your head. It’s a thing that sucks that’s happening to you, through no fault of your own.
    Make no mistake, you’re not just *feeling* personally attacked; often, you are actually *being* personally attacked. Angry customers can be like wounded bears, lashing out at anyone who comes close, actively trying to hurt the person they perceive to be hurting them. They fling accusations of racism, ageism, ableism, and any other ism they think might weaken your position. They insult your gender, weight, presumed lack of education, and the marital status of your mother when you were conceived. These are people trying (usually quite loudly) to make you feel bad about yourself to guilt, shame, or frighten you into conceding to their wishes. Don’t feel bad about feeling bad about someone trying to make you feel bad. None of this is a personal failing.

    Are you afraid enough unpleasant customers could threaten your job?
    You say your boss is sympathetic, but how supportive is she? Since she agrees that what you have to deal with sucks, do you feel like she’ll have your back in a dispute? Knowing that she’s less likely to say, “You know, Customer’s right, you are terrible and I’m going to fire you” than “Don’t worry; I realize Customer’s a jerk and I would never penalize you for being unfortunate enough to be the one to have to deal with him today” might go some way to helping you shake these things off.

    Best of luck, OP. May a promotion away from a customer-facing role come quickly and until then, may the fleas of a thousand camels nest in the armpit hairs of your hostile customers.

    Reply
    1. Horseshoe

      And to your first point, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that if someone is the kind of person who actively tries to make someone in a “lesser than” position feel bad, they are also doing that to the people who are actually in their lives everyday, like family and friends. And that means that that horrible person is no one’s favorite person. No one out in the world can look at that horrible person and say, “Yeah, Mean Old Bill is my best friend” or “Gosh, I love Mean Old Bill so much”. And that’s honestly just sad. So you can often take pity on these people because they apparently feel so insecure about themselves that the only way they can feel better is by battering someone in retail/a call center/customer support.

      Reply
      1. Anon this time

        Although I 100% am sympathetic to the OP, and have worked more than one customer service position in my day, I don’t necessarily think that’s a constructive way to look at this specific situation. The OP says that her company has strict policies and not a lot of options to satisfy frustrated customers.

        Depending on the product/price etc. this could be a really big deal for customers and they’re not necessarily yelling at the OP because of her ‘lesser than’ status as much as because she is the sole person representing the company that they can get a hold of and the company’s policies really hurt the customer.

        I happily hated customers and always sided with the customer support person until I had to deal with my medical insurance denying a medicine I needed, and the long appeal process that mostly took place via low-level reps who could not help me. That was the first time I understood the pain and helplessness you can feel against a faceless corporation who does not care at all about you. I wish I’d had this experience before my customer service positions, I think I would have been more compassionate.

        Reply
        1. Horseshoe

          I’ve dealt with plenty of frustrating situations like this with a faceless company, but I would never dream of behaving in any way to make the person on the other end of the phone feel like crap, unless I made my way up to the CEO or someone who actually had power to make changes.

          As LW said, “What’s worse is I will receive a particularly nasty, mean-spirited email or phone call and I find myself feeling personally attacked.” There is no reason to be nasty or mean-spirited to low-level people, even if you’re frustrated with the situation. There is always a way to word your frustrations so that the person on the other end of the line understands without being made to feel like garbage.

          Reply
          1. Anon this time

            Sure. It’s awful to be on the receiving end, and any customer in their right mind should be able to phrase it in a way that is not mean to the person trying to help them. I still have the occasional nightmare, years later, about waiting tables.

            My point is, a just because a customer should be able to phrase it in a way that is not angry or insulting does not mean that every customer who does get angry is intentionally bullying the customer service rep because they are “lower status.” They are not always inherently hateful, mean people in their every day life. Sometimes they are just imperfect people in a stressful situation who are polite for the first 60 minutes to the first 10 people they get transferred to, and then get angry when the 11th person says they cannot help them.

            Yes, I am speaking from personal experience, so yes, I may only ever be “Mean Old Bill” in your eyes. That’s fine; you’re in a job I do not envy and never wish to have again, so feel free to hate me. But I still don’t think your advice was constructive for the OP’s specific situation – it inspires a preemptive lens toward viewing upset customers that isn’t good for the OP, especially seeing as she understands why they are upset.

            Reply
            1. Horseshoe

              I do think there’s a difference between a person who’s been transferred 10 times and a person who goes 0-60 in the first two minutes of a conversation.

              If the very first thing out of the gate that someone says to a customer service rep is, “Your company is a joke and you’re a joke for working there” or something to that effect, I still think it’s indicative of a person who treats everyone like this. I was speaking more from my experience in dealing with clients who have acted like this from day one. They don’t get what they want immediately and then don’t want to hear why they can’t have it, even if it’s a valid reason. Those are the people who Mean Old Bills in my opinion. They abuse their perceived power to make those who they think are “lesser than” feel bad. And in my experience, treating these people as such helps me not take their attacks personally. I understand perfectly why they’re frustrated, but they don’t seem to understand that I too am frustrated.

              Reply
            2. Lynxa

              I think there’s a difference between being angry and being personally insulting. When I worked at a call center that had very rigid, court-mandated policies about documentation requirements I REGULARLY got death threats. Everyone who worked there got at least one a week. In addition to being called idiots, racists, murderers, robots, and just about everything else.

              Reply
            3. Kate

              As someone who has been in that “60 minutes, 10 different representatives” situation with a serious question, the rudest and nastiest I have ever been was to interrupt the person offering to transfer me to yet another rep, and say “No thank you, have a good day” flatly and hang up.

              It is never, ever okay to be mean to someone who is trying to help you. There is no acceptable “I had a bad day”, “I’m sick” “My house burned down”, etc. excuse.

              Reply
              1. Anon this time

                Oh good lord. I’m not saying customers SHOULD do it, I’m saying it’s not constructive for the OP to assume angry customers are being angry on purpose to bully a lower-level customer service person.

                Maybe you have actually never snapped at anyone who didn’t deserve it in your life, even after your house burned down. I think that is very admirable.

                But – if you are in customer service, and that is the standard you are holding for your customers, to the point where you believe anyone below that line is being a bully on purpose/worthy of your contempt, I do not think you are going to be happy or successful in your work.

                Reply
        2. NonProfit Nancy

          +1 this is the feeling that customer service staff have to deal with. By the time someone gets to you they’re usually already frustrated and feeling helpless (and even worse, they’re often paying money for this service!). Unfortunately, OP can’t really fix this. All you can do is try to remember they’re really mad at the company, and anything they say is aimed at the company. [Agree there’s no excuse for getting personal on the phone, but I’ve certainly been less pleasant than I would usually be to a stranger even though I was trying my best not to take it out on the innocent rep].

          Reply
        3. Not So NewReader

          This is a know your industry thing.

          I think I have a longer fuse for someone who is enraged over their insurance than someone enraged over their dish of ice cream. If you genuinely don’t like the ice cream ask for something else. It’s not that hard to ask.

          In a similar vein, some industries attract more upsets/arguing than others. I worked in a nursery( as in plants, not children). In the eight years I was there we had ONE shoplifter. I worked at a mall. We had at least one shoplifter EVERY day. The mall customers were harder to deal with by far. One guy wanted to tell me what a great man Hitler was. I thought I was going to be sick.

          Reply
    2. Letter Writer

      Thanks so much for your input. I don’t fear losing my job or being fired as I am confident I do a good job. Deep down I am a people pleaser and I strive to make sure those I interact with (staff and customers alike) are well taken care of and happy with the work that I do. When someone is angry towards me it just strikes a cord, even though I know in most cases it is not directly my fault.

      Reply
      1. Parenthetically

        “in most cases it is not directly my fault.”

        Surely if the policy is to blame, then it’s approximately not your fault in any way almost ever? I’m sure everyone has customer-service horror stories, and in my experience whether I am satisfied or irritated at the end of the call is almost never about the demeanor of the rep I’m speaking to, but whether or not that person is empowered to solve my problem. If you aren’t, because of policy things that are out of your hands, their irritation and anger may be directed at you but it’s actually ABOUT the policy.

        Reply
        1. nonymous

          See, when I’m on the customer end of things I feel part of my “job” is to figure out what the policy allows. Like if the service rep has some discretion, of course I want to present my case in the best possible light to get them to empathize and use those discretionary points to the maximum! But if the rep doesn’t have any power, it’s in everyone’s best interest for me to get off the phone asap. My life and their metrics are not improved by me butting my head against the wall.

          However, I do not apologize for hanging up and calling in again when it’s clear that the service rep is unaware of basic policy.

          Reply
      2. Not So NewReader

        It’s good to want to be of benefit to others. Up to a point. Then it’s not.

        I think all of us feel bad when a deal goes sour on a customer. And if a customer is angry, we can have various reactions from self-blame (inward) or customer blame (outward).

        There are some people who do not want to be helped.
        There are people who are NOT happy unless they are UNhappy.
        Some people you can’t fix. And there is no escaping that. Alison makes a living in part thanks to these unfixable people- there’s unfixable bosses, coworkers, subordinates and other colleagues.

        You like numbers. You said you were eyeing the accounting department. Okay, how many angry people a day do you get that turn your stomach/give you headaches?
        When you are having a bad day, how high does that number go? Conversely, what’s a good day look like?

        I am talking about containment by quantifying what is happening. Can you describe in hours per day how much time you spend with these folks who are killing your nice job for you? What I am aiming for here is to rope this in as to how big a problem this actually is. If you can find ways to make the problem seem smaller in your mind’s eye, that will increase your chances of staying longer and getting the promotion you want. (These numbers would also be handy when you talk to your boss for some pointers. “Boss, I am spending two hours a day haggling with Mr. Davis. Is our $300 sale to him worth two hours of my time every day for weeks on end?”)

        There are always going to be difficult people at work, I think you know this. Perhaps you could look into books that discuss how to deal with difficult people. It would only benefit you in the long run, you could think of this as an investment. OTH, maybe you’d be interested in boundaries books, do you recognize when someone is over the line quickly or does it take 15 more minutes of conversation before you decide? (I use to wait to long to decide.) Look around and see what types of skills sets you would like to develop in light of this discomfort you are having. Most people are fairly intuitive, so probably you will pick the right thing for you.

        Reply
  19. bunniferous

    I used to work in this type of role, and as a caring person it is always frustrating to bear the brunt of policies you cannot change.

    It helps to remember they are not railing at you but at the company. What I find helpful is letting them rant and get it out. Also if they can tell you are sympathetic and wish you could help but your hands are tied….

    I promise you the solution is in how YOU are thinking about it. It will never be pleasant but you can get to the point where you actually will not take these personally. And one more thing-there are a few customers who would not be happy no matter what you do. Is there someone you can swap stories with about these calls? Humor can definitely take the edge off!

    Remember, they are mad at the company. Not you, really.

    Reply
    1. ZVA

      +1! This is pretty much what I came here to say. The attitude shift is key here. I know it’s not as easy as flipping a switch, but I promise you, OP, that it can be done, given time and patience—and therapy. (Which it’s great that you are in.) I’m in a customer-facing job and have gotten way more comfortable in it since I started. I’m so socially anxious/shy that I was literally shaking the first time I called a customer… but I’m now doing well in a sales role! And I’ve gotten way better at letting angry customers roll off my back. I say this not to puff myself up but to say if I can do it, you definitely can, OP.

      This may sound pie in the sky, but in my experience what bunniferous says is absolutely true: the problem isn’t the angry customers, it’s your thoughts about the angry customers, or the story you’re telling yourself about them. That story is what’s causing you pain, and if you can change it, you’ll be amazed at how much better you feel. Any fellow Byron Katie fans out there? Her YouTube videos and books have helped me immensely; you may want to check her out, OP.

      This is tough, but if you can figure out coping strategies, they will benefit you in many other aspects of your life. Do the inner/mental work now, and when similar challenges crop up down the road, you’ll be much better equipped to handle them.

      And good luck!

      Reply
      1. Gazebo Slayer (formerly I'm a Little Teapot)

        I’ve always found “It’s not the situation that’s the problem, it’s your THOUGHTS about the situation” to be a victim-blaming way of framing things that made me feel worse, not better. It says “Yes, you feel terrible, and it’s YOUR FAULT, you weak selfish person.”

        I have a lot of trouble with this kind of thing – part of why I am glad my current job is not customer-facing! – but I really like the post above about remembering that it is OK to feel bad about being personally attacked because *people are personally attacking you.*

        Reply
        1. ZVA

          YMMV, of course, but I find that framework helpful because it’s a way of taking charge of what I can control (aka me). I can’t control angry customers, or anything else external to me, but I can control how I talk/think/feel about them (given time, effort, therapy, and so forth).

          I don’t see it as “you feel terrible, and it’s your fault” but “you feel terrible, and it’s within your power to feel not-terrible.” To me, that’s a reassuring thought, and I figured it might be for others, too. But if it makes you or the OP or anyone else feel worse, toss it out the window!

          Reply
        2. Astor

          If it helps to hear, for me it’s not that my thoughts are the problem, it’s that I need a new solution.

          Customer complains, and we’re both unhappy because I cannot solve the problem.
          OR
          Customer complains, but I was able to make them feel more respected than when they called in.

          It’s always better when you can actually solve the customer’s complaint. And not every customer or job can be “solved” by making the customer feel better after your interactions. But sometimes, it’s a really useful re-framing of how to solve the customer’s problem.

          Reply
        3. bunniferous

          I used to hate it too…but at my age and my experience, I found out it really truly actually works. Who knew? Of course, it really does depend on the situation, and for that ymmv, of course-but for THIS I promise it works.

          Reply
  20. Horseshoe

    I would also like to recommend the book “Pretending You Care: The Retail Employee’s Handbook”. It is so well-written and funny and TRUE. As well as the daily comic strip by the same author, “Retail”.

    Reply
  21. LQ

    A couple of real physical things.
    – Wear a uniform. If you can at all when you get home take off your Work Clothes and do not wear them when you are not at work. While I had a really rough customer service job I thought very seriously about getting a pair of Work Glasses. This is how I look at work, both how I physically look, and how I see the world. Take them off when you leave. Having a way to leave work at work is incredibly helpful for you to not stress out about it outside work, and also to feel like it isn’t you they are attacking, but Clark Kent, and he can take it, he’s superman.
    – Designated venting time. Not much, I’d say less than 15 minutes, ideally when you get home. I did this to my empty apartment. Blow out 15 minutes of steam (set a timer) and then your done. It takes a while to really commit to being Done Done, but when you can stop thinking about work outside of work it is such an improvement.
    – Something really distracting on the way home. (A walk is also good for this, even if it means walking around the block before going into your house, it doesn’t have to be long.) Listen to a podcast or an audiobook. Something you’re really excited about. I’d lean away from music in general, but if you love music, make it music you are excited to listen to, like new music you haven’t heard yet. Something that you look forward to at the end of every day.
    – Don’t talk about work on the weekends. Tell your friends you’re cutting back because it’s so frustrating and you want to talk about other things, enlist them to support you, support yourself. Develop really good weekend habits that let you not think about or dwell on work.

    I know this sounds like a lot, but I think it is really doable to leave that at work. Good luck.

    Reply
      1. LQ

        Good luck. And I do think talking to your supervisor is helpful. Make sure they know that this part of the job doesn’t work for you. (And work extra hard to demonstrate how awesome you are at other things, I did get a promotion out of customer service facing work (though all work involves customers of some kind or another) and into something that fit my skills, in large part because I was able to show I had skills outside that and then there’s definately an element of getting lucky, there being space for you.)

        Reply
    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante

      Yes! My office clothes go on the last thing before I leave the house, and come off as soon as I get home. I started it as a utilitarian thing — I have a longhair cat and don’t wanna be That Person who’s at work covered in cat hair — but it has such great psychological effects where doing myself up is putting on my work armor and then changing into (very furry) loungewear at home is me letting it all slough off.

      Reply
      1. LQ

        I started doing this when I worked at a bar and I’d come home sticky and gross every night smelling of smoke, booze, sweat and grease. I’m glad I kept up the habit and it’s the first thing I check when I start to get stressed, do I take off my work armor at the end of the day right away?

        Reply
    2. paul

      Big plus on the *limited* venting. A huge emphasis on the limited part though (particularly if you have family that’s listening to it!).

      5 or 10 minutes of theraputic “Ugh, that was bad it’s over now” is one thing and can be great as kind of a bookend, but don’t let it go on and on and on; that just makes it worse

      Reply
  22. Antie

    You might talk to your boss and let her know what you are struggling with. Ask for her advice. She may have some go-to phrases for using with customers, or she may be able to explain policy in a way that helps you understand your role better. She may have stories of her own difficulties that could help you feel more supported.

    Reply
  23. AthenaC

    My first couple years in accounting were like an extended case study of everything that I’m bad at. Not the same as bad customers, but I did pick up a thing that might help you detach.

    What is the core of your identity? For me it’s being a mom and provider for my family. So what if I suck as an auditor? I can get yelled at all day long, and it still doesn’t change the fact that my kids have a roof over their head and food on the table. That is literally all I care about in this world.

    Whatever you perceive yourself to be – whether you are a person who cares for a dog or a person who is a BFF or a person who likes to imagine dot-to-dot patterns on the ceiling … doesn’t matter. If who you are is separate from your job, it becomes a LOT easier to shrug off the crap in your job.

    Good luck!

    Reply
  24. MusicalManager

    Ooof this hits close to home right now.

    What’s your relationship with your boss like? Do you discuss career trajectory and options? If there were an option to develop a plan to grow into a role less customer facing, even if it was a year or so in the future, that may help – by transforming the situation in your head into “this is a means to a better end, and if i can stick it out for x amount of time I’ll get away from the worst of it and into a better situation”.

    Honestly it’s all that’s standing in between me and total burnout right now, so i feel you!!

    Reply
  25. I've Been There!

    The first time a customer got angry with “me” at my first job (fast food), I sobbed in front of the whole store. So I hear you.

    Most of the jobs I’ve been in since have been some form of customer service or other. It took years (like, nine) to train myself to not be affected by general assholery, but if you’re consistent about it, I’ve found it works. In the moment, I focus on de-escalating as much as I can if a customer is upset. I validate their feelings, but not their behavior. “I can understand why you’re frustrated! Let’s see what we can do to fix that.” I’ve realized if I show them that I am afraid/upset/whatever as a result of their bad behavior, they’re winning.

    Which brings me to my next point — they are winning in that scenario because, a lot of the time, the customer in these situations is looking to blow off some steam and you’re the poor guy who caught the last straw (but you, the individual, are not the last straw yourself!). They’ve had a bad day — maybe a customer at their own job yelled at them, maybe they’re going through a divorce, maybe they just found out they have cancer, maybe they have a headache, maybe a lot of things. None of those things are your responsibility. So, if you want to gamify it, remember that they are getting what they want (“winning”) if you let them see you sweat about it. (Generally, I’d advise against pitting yourself against customers as if they are your opponents, but some situations warrant it.) So, at the end of the day, remember that their response is not a reflection on you; it’s a reflection of themselves. If they’re behaving rudely, that’s on them.

    I was recently blamed for the whole nonsense that is an entire city’s bureaucratic process, despite being a 4-hour-a-week employee, complete with yelling and the suggestion that I was also useless. Jarring in the moment, sure, but five minutes after I hung up, I was laughing about it. How ridiculous that this woman believed I was personally responsible for all of the paperwork this city ever required, despite the fact that I worked in a very specific department and had no say over these processes in my department, let alone the whole city!

    A few years ago, I would’ve probably sobbed for days over that interaction. And maybe you’ve been doing this for years, I don’t know. But if you can train yourself, for the time that you’re stuck there, to remember these things, I’ve found them to be incredibly helpful. I now even enjoy the challenge of a difficult customer. Let them try and ruin me. It’ll be fun!

    And in the meantime, yes, absolutely to self-care. Consider power posing when a customer makes you feel small. Listen to music that pumps you up when you can. Read. Take walks. Treat yourself to something special (I’m a fan of candy, but you might prefer something else — a book, a manicure, a nice swim) when you survive a customer interaction, even if it doesn’t “go well” by your standards. Most of these people you’ll never see again, I imagine. They won’t remember you, either. And you’ll have some fun stories to tell at parties.

    Good luck!

    Reply
    1. Horseshoe

      My favorite story involves the nicest woman who worked at the bookstore while I was there. I never saw her get ruffled about anything and she was so sweet and kind to every single person. We had a customer who was notorious for bringing cheap paperback romance books to the counter and getting furious that the verrrrry edges were slightly bent or dented, which would happen almost instantly when these books were unboxed. So she came up to the customer service desk one day to rail against all the employees for their carelessness when this employee took the book and said, “You know what? I think we just got a new shipment of this in today. Let me go in the back and see if I can find a brand-new one for you.” She took that book in the back, shrank-wrapped it, brought it back out and said, “Yep, look! Hasn’t even been out of the cellophane yet!” And the customer smiled, took the book and bought it.

      That employee was my hero from that day forward. I strive to be like her every single day.

      Reply
    2. Gabriel Conroy

      This “maybe a customer at their own job yelled at them, maybe they’re going through a divorce, maybe they just found out they have cancer, maybe they have a headache, maybe a lot of things” reminded me of something that happened when I was a bank teller. I had one really grouchy and kind of difficult customer, and I was getting kind of defensive. And then out of the blue he said that his brother had just died and he was leaving soon for the funeral. That, of course, changed the dynamics of the interaction considerably.

      Not that that’s always the reason, of course. Sometimes people are just jerks.

      Reply
      1. I've Been There!

        Everyone is the hero of their own story. Even the worst of villains do things because they believe what they’re doing is for the best. At least, that’s my optimistic view on people. :)

        Reply
  26. GuitarLady

    Oh LW, I feel you! I work for myself as a tutor and a tax preparer, and while I enjoy the actual work, its the dealing with people I absolutely hate. 90% of the time, my clients are lovely and wonderful people who are happy to pay for my services, but the 10% when they get contentious is extremely hard on me and feels very personal, because this business is really just me. And it feels so trivial because 90% of the time, its fine, but that 10% is really driving me to find something else to do with my life that doesn’t involve dealing with people!
    Now if you are dealing with irate person after irate person though, that’s a really tough thing to do and I wouldn’t be dealing with it well either – I do hope your company might be open to changing some procedures to make it easier on clients. If they aren’t, is there anything you could do to better publicize your policies? I found I felt a lot better about pushing back on clients who weren’t following my procedures when all the info was on my website, and was included in the initial contact letter – like cancellation fees, when I need documents by, etc. Is that something you could work on? Maybe it could cut down on clients getting an unpleasant surprise that leads to angry calls.

    Reply
    1. MillersSpring

      +1 OP, can you do anything to help your organization get its policies/FAQ onto its website or onto the paperwork received by customers (invoices, notices, letters, whatever)? Maybe you could keep a running log of issues/questions, categorize them, rank their severity, etc. Publishing your policies and explaining common issues could help 1) reduce phone calls and make you more available for other tasks, 2) improve customer satisfaction, and 3) increase customer retention and referrals.

      Also, it might help if you remember that for frequent issues you encounter repeatedly, it is likely happening to the customer for the first time. (That’s the case at my company.) They are likely confused, frustrated, or overwhelmed because it’s new to them.

      I can’t tell what industry you’re in, but it might also help you to understand and keep in mind your customer’s typical circumstances. For example, if you’re in healthcare, has the customer recently had a scary diagnosis? Or if your company provides interior design, has the customer recently gone through a move? (which could be caused by a change in job or a divorce) If your company provides entertainment, is the customer looking for an enjoyable escape from a stressful life? Et cetera, et cetera.

      Best wishes! I hope it gets better for you very soon.

      Reply
  27. seejay

    LW: I had something similar to this, except it was with a volunteer position I had. Without getting too much into the details, I worked with a very specific set of victims, utilizing my specialized skillset, my experiences and recovery with what they had also gone through, and a really good well of empathy and understanding. I *wanted* to help people who were going through what I had gone through and it really felt worthwhile to make a difference and help people fight back and make a difference.

    But after ten years doing it, that well of empathy dried up. There were a lot of reasons why it did, but similar to your experience a lot of it had to do with dealing with people who weren’t actually victims but who had expectations and demands that our group help them (we had a specific set of criteria over how we would get involved, due to legal and also the time investment and what we knew worked). I had a lot of people, and some actual victims, who refused to cooperate and work with me to help themselves. When I first started volunteering, 90% of the work I did felt like I was helping people, now, I was lucky if 10% were actually helpful… instead I felt like I was getting sucked into drama and people yelling about petty things instead of actual *real* issues.

    When a real actual valid victim came across my email and I couldn’t drum up any sympathy for the case, I knew I was done. I knew that I had to step back and I was burned out. I had done everything I could to try to stay neutral all the years I was involved, to hang onto the positives of helping out the people I was helping, but after ten years I had pretty much reached the end of my time with the group. I emailed my supervisor and told her I just couldn’t do it anymore. She understood and told me I had actually been the only one that had stuck it out the longest. It was a hard job, it was mentally and emotionally draining. I took a different position in the organization, stayed on as a consultant for my skills and experience, and helped out in other ways, but I stopped handling cases. Others stepped up to the plate and took over for me.

    When that part of you burns out, you have to make changes. You’re not doing yourself or anyone else any favours. Fortunately as it was a volunteer organization, I was able to step back without any serious repercussions, it’s a lot more difficult with a job. I hope you can find something that helps. It took me nearly a year, a mental break, and my well of empathy going totally dry before being able to speak up and say I had a problem. I should have said something a lot sooner, but “volunteer guilt” made me stick it out far longer than I should have.

    Reply
  28. FilesForDays

    This was me in my last position. I thought it was ok because my boss was nice, I loved my coworkers, and had great hours/PTO. I was going home each night and unable to get the will to do anything but lay down to watch tv or sleep. Towards the end it didn’t even seem like I was that stressed about work while at home. It wasn’t until I talked to a psychologist who said “wow, you must be exhausted at the end of each day with all that customer interaction” and the lightbulb went off in my head. I told my boss I would start looking, took my time, and found a job where I rarely have to deal with customers and it is only when I’m good and ready. I didn’t realize until I got out just how awful it was at the last place for my health. You know you don’t have to put up with it and the perks clearly aren’t worth it. I would either look to move to a different job in that company if possible or look elsewhere.

    Reply
  29. Joan Callamezzo

    I relate SO MUCH, OP. I too wear many hats, one of which is customer complaint resolution. I didn’t have to do it directly often, and, like you, I was actually quite good at it, but it stressed me out inordinately.

    In a recent re-org, I managed to convince my boss that talking to customers directly was not the best use of my time or skillset; we have other departments (Customer Relations, Risk Prevention) who do this better. Instead, I act as a subject-matter expert, analyze the issue or complaint and provide necessary feedback to the appropriate customer-facing department so THEY can respond to the customer. It has been a huge relief, and the corporate messaging is more consistent.

    When you DO have to talk to actual customers, what I’ve found in my experience of both direct and indirect customer service: people mostly want to talk to a pleasant, competent person who is straight with them about what they can or can’t offer as a resolution and isn’t just going to pass them off to yet another department. If they’ve had a bad experience they also want to know whether it is the norm, or whether their experience really was an outlier. They want an apology and for someone to be accountable. And they want to be heard. So even if you can’t give them what they’re asking for, a lot of customers will be somewhat mollified by “I’m sorry about your experience. Unfortunately company policy doesn’t allow me to issue a refund, but here is what I can do…” (coupons/credit, upgrade, gift, “we’re looking into it”, whatever).

    A surprising number of people are responsive to hearing “We really appreciate your bringing [problem] to our attention, and our corporate team is conducting a thorough review of our procedures based on your feedback.”

    One other trick I’ve learned? Try to find at least one point to agree with them on–it makes them feel heard. If they provide a laundry list of complaints and you say “Nope, we don’t agree, you’re not entitled to a refund” then it comes across as a knee-jerk blanket policy of denial. If you say, “No, nope, no, no, hunh-uh; however, your point about [x] is well-taken and we are in discussions with our vendor about the quality issues you noted, thank you for bringing this to our attention; no, no, nope, absolutely not,” then customers feel you read/heard their whole complaint and are considering each issue on its merits. Again, works surprisingly well.

    Crossing my fingers you can find a way to move out of your customer-facing responsibilities. Good luck!

    Reply
    1. Not So NewReader

      The point about finding one thing to agree on, is a very powerful technique. It works.

      I remember one time my husband went on a service call. Oh man, that was one ANGRY customer, yelling, swearing and berating.

      He happened to notice family pics on her desk. She had a [critter] just like we did. My husband said, “Oh, you have a [critter], too? So do we!” (This is the point of agreement, see how subtle it can be?)
      Caught off guard, she said, “Oh yeah, her name is X and she is Y years old.” Next thing my husband knew he was swapping critter stories with this very, very angry person.
      Finally, she sighed. “It’s all okay about the machine. You are here now and that is what matters. Please do the best you can for it?” End of problem.

      Sometimes you can find that connection and defuse a situation.

      Reply
      1. Joan Callamezzo

        Yep! A couple of years ago I had to call an unhappy customer in New England, which was just about to get hit by a MAJOR snowstorm. I started out by saying, “Are you okay? Has Snowmageddon hit yet? Are you buried under 8 feet of snow?” He laughed and said, “Aw, you West Coast people are so soft.” Then he said that at least the Patriots had managed to fly out to get to the Superbowl before the storm hit, and we talked Pats vs Seahawks (I know almost nothing about football) for another 10 minutes before finally getting to his complaint. By that time he was happy to just hear that I was sorry about his experience but we were were currently rewriting our procedures (this was actually true) to help clarify the kind of confusion he’d experienced. He was in a very good mood when we hung up.

        Reply
  30. LittleLove

    When I was in retail and one of ‘those’ customers came in , I would look straight at them and imagine what had really pissed them off. They hated their job but couldn’t talk back to their boss. They caught their son dressed in their wife’s underwear and realized the kid looked great. They had a deep meaningful relationship with a sheep and it had just been sheared and it wasn’t the same. . .Got me through a lot of misery. They couldn’t yell at the person they were really mad at so they yelled at me.

    And I pictured them with their sheep.

    Reply
  31. Retail Store Manager

    Most of the customers(people) I come in contact on a day to day basis are pretty decent. The ones who aren’t are the memorable ones because they are so out of line they boggle the mind. Usually, they just want some kind of discount and they know a performance will probably result in one. My victory is a smile, and accommodating attitude and a “What can I do to solve this problem for you?”(the rant comes later). Retail is not for the faint of heart, so I remind myself to be a good customer when I shop.

    Reply
    1. Jean who seeks to be Ingenious

      Many years ago my job included providing customer service by telephone. Now, when I’m the caller receiving customer service, I look for opportunities to transform the negative energy by asking the CSRs to transfer me to their supervisors so that I can pass on a compliment. This almost always makes the day for CSRs and supervisors alike, and I get a charge from putting positive energy into the universe. (No pun intended back there.)

      Reply
  32. Gigi

    Totally relate to this! I work in a customer service role at a gym, and a lot of my time is spent resolving the members’ billing issues. We get a LOT of people expecting us to waive all sorts of fees or change their contract T&Cs for no real reason other than, “I don’t like that policy.” It definitely wears me down enforcing the policies that customers don’t like and bearing the brunt of their frustration, even if I know that the issue is not my personal fault — I’ve been yelled at, sworn at, accused of trying to scam people, threatened with legal action, and once had someone throw their keys at me.

    I realised recently that I was dealing with this by venting a LOT outside of work. My partner would come home, I’d catch up with my best friend, I’d have coffee with my dad, and the first thing out of my mouth would be, “You won’t BELIEVE what this person said to me at work…” So I set myself a personal challenge — for every negative work story I told, I had to follow up with two stories about members who were really great. And there are lots of them! It hasn’t eliminated the stress of dealing with the difficult ones, but it has helped me see the big picture more clearly, and I generally finish these conversations with my family and friends on a positive note instead of a whiny one ;)

    (Incidentally, I’m also currently upgrading my qualifications so that I can transition out of reception and start working IN the gym as a group fitness instructor! My managers have been very supportive of me doing this, too. I love the industry, I love my coworkers, I love talking to people about their training and goals … I just *don’t* love contracts and billing!)

    Reply

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