my boss told me to be more assertive with difficult customers

A reader writes:

I work in a customer-facing role, and often I am dealing with customers who are Not Happy. Recently I had an incident in which the customer used all the right key words (“sue,” “media,” “lawyer,” etc.) and hung up on me, so I felt the need to loop my manager in that this could escalate into something larger. During this meeting, my manager repeated to me that I’m doing a great job, that I’m doing everything right … and that I need to have more confidence in my knowledge and skills and “not let myself get pushed around” like that. Specifically, he told me to be more assertive when I know I’m right, that I have his permission to escalate my language when someone is swearing at me, that I should be “shutting down” more complaints when I know that the higher-up would say exactly the same thing that I am saying, and that I don’t have to “take it” from unhappy people.

My issue is that I don’t really know how to do that. I’ve always relied on the out of “if you’re not happy with what I am saying to you, I can transfer you to my manager.” I’m not sure how to put it into words … I guess I’ve liked NOT having autonomy over my position? Hey, man, sorry you’re mad but I’m just the messenger — let me transfer you to someone with power (who will just say the same thing to you that I am). I also have liked not being the Final Say In The Matter for those times that we are sued — I’d much prefer that to be my manager. The way he phrased it — that I need more confidence in the role — is this what impostor syndrome is? I know for a fact that I don’t respond aggressively back because I AM afraid of making the wrong call … even though I’m 99.9% sure that I’m correct. And how should I be more assertive/aggressive vs. when should I pass someone along to my manager?

This doesn’t sound like imposter syndrome. That’s about feeling like you don’t have the qualifications for the job you’re in, and that at some point people are going to realize that you’re a fraud.

This sounds more like what your manager framed it as: that you need to have more confidence in yourself and your ability to handle difficult customers on your own.

He’s telling you that handling more of those situations yourself is part of the job, and that by just transferring people to him, you’re sort of declining to do the job when it gets hard and pushing it off on him instead. That doesn’t mean that you should handle every difficult customer on your own — sometimes things are worth escalating — but it sounds like you’re defaulting too quickly to transferring people to your manager, rather than trying to deal with tricky situations yourself first.

But handling people yourself doesn’t mean being aggressive with them! In fact, in every customer service situation I can think of, that would be the wrong approach. It usually means listening to people, responding with empathy and kindness, and explaining what you can and can’t do about their situation.

But to do that with any confidence, you need to be better aligned with your boss on what he does and doesn’t want you to handle yourself. I assume there are still some situations you should escalate to him, and you need to find out what those are so that you’re not just guessing. I’d also talk with him about exactly what he wants these new-to-you conversations with customers to look like, again so you’re not guessing and can act with the confidence that you’re managing customers the way he’d want. In particular, be sure to ask him, “What’s the point where you do want me to transfer a caller to you?” If he’s vague or you don’t feel his answer tells you what you need to know, try walking through some concrete examples. Say, “Can we revisit a few of my toughest recent callers and talk about how I should handle situations like those that?”

And because you’re afraid of making the wrong call, ask him about that! It’s okay to say, “I’m worried about making the wrong call. Can I tell you what decisions I would have made for some recent callers, and see if you agree with my instincts?”

In general, though, when you need to be assertive with someone who’s aggressive and angry, here are some phrases that can help:

* “I understand why you’re frustrated. I can’t do X, but I can do Y. Would you like me to do that?”

* “I’m really sorry that happened. Let me see what I can do to help.”

* “I understand why you’re frustrated. Unfortunately, because we do state our policy about this on the purchase page, I’m not able to do X. I’m so sorry about that.”

* “I’m really sorry I can’t do what you’re asking. Our policy is X because of Y.”

Ideally your boss would empower you to offer something — like a small discount on this order, a discount on a future order, or so forth. If that’s not currently the case, you could suggest it to him.

Beyond that, if someone is being abusive, you can and should shut that down — but even then you don’t need to do it with aggression. In those cases, you can simply say, “I want to help you resolve this, but if you keep using that language, I’ll have to end this call. Would you rather call back another time?” … followed by, if necessary, “I’m going to end this call now because of your language.”

Really, though, the first step is to talk to your boss and get more clarity on what these conversations should look like on your end. It’s very reasonable to expect that kind of guidance, and it should equip you to act with more confidence.

Last, keep in mind that this type of thing gets easier with practice. So if you feel uneasy when you first start doing it, that’s not a sign that you suck at it or are getting it wrong. It’s just a sign that it’s new to you, and that you’ll probably feel more comfortable as you get more practice.

{ 297 comments… read them below }

  1. Female-type person*

    You may need some coaching about your business’s actual exposure to legal liability so people can’t bully you with threats of legal action. You seem very worried about “being sued.” People who are not lawyers tend to conflate “this thing that I see as unfair” or “this thing I don’t like” with “things that actually rise to the level of legal liability.” I spend a lot of time (as a lawyer) comforting non-lawyers about absurd threats of lawyer and lawsuits made by angry people. Most actual lawsuits don’t start with someone threatening you with a lawyer.

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      This is so comprehensively true—especially that most lawsuits don’t start with someone threatening you with a lawyer.

      Sometimes knowing what you can and can’t reasonably be sued over will help you feel more capable of shutting down bad behavior. And to a certain extent you also can’t stop someone with a meritless claim from suing your employer. So this is all part of understanding what’s in your control, what isn’t, and how to distinguish. Developing that judgment sounds like it’s part of your job, OP, and I think if you realize that you have more cover than you realize, it may be easier to shut down irate calls instead of transferring them up.

    2. k.k*

      I worked in customer service for years, and I can’t tell you the number of times someone was going to sue me, sue the company, was going to call their lawyer, or the ever popular “well my friend is a laywer!”. It’s 99.999999% total BS. Familiarizing yourself better with your actual exposure is a great way to be able to call that out easily on your own.* If you have things like written policies, terms and services, anything with fine print, get to know those.

      *By call out their BS, I mean in your head. Use softer language with them, but it gives you more confidence if you can say in your head, “This person is full of it and 100% wrong.”

      1. LKW*

        Agreed. I’ve also seen some CSRs conclude the call as soon as they say “I’ve talked to my lawyer” or “I’m going to sue you” with a very polite “I’m sorry, since this is now a legal matter, I am no longer authorized to assist you until I receive direction from our legal team. Goodbye.” Not sure if that would work here but worth considering if people are getting that agitated.

        1. Lindsay J*

          This is what I was advised to say when somebody threatened to sue me/the company I was working for at one place.

          (Apparently telling someone that if she were actually a lawyer she would know she had no legitimate basis upon which to sue was the wrong move. It felt so good at the time, though.)

          No, the fact that you bill $150 an hour for your job does not mean that we owe you $300 because you brought tickets for a boat ride 2 hours ago and now the ride is shut down due to inclement weather. I’ll refund you the ticket price, but that’s it. It says explicitly prior to purchase that the sale is non-refundable, and the ride may be cancelled at any time due to weather, required maintenance, staffing, acts of god, and a whole bunch of other stuff. No, you can’t sue me for pain and suffering either because you are upset your whole vacation is ruined. That’s not how this works.

          1. Observer*

            (Apparently telling someone that if she were actually a lawyer she would know she had no legitimate basis upon which to sue was the wrong move. It felt so good at the time, though.)


            Yeah, really bad call. But I can see how satisfying it must have been!

    3. Jesca*

      Yes, this. I mean if your manager wants you to be able to mitigate these calls, then you need more information in this regard. I would politely point that out to your manager that you are just unaware of torts and business law and company practices/history, and if he wants you to learn this or to just transfer “lawsuit” up the chain.

      As far as the other stuff, Alison’s script is right on. It worked well for me when I was thrown into a customer complaint role whole restructuring the process at a medical device company. Jesca is not customer complaint oriented. Haha not at all. BUT I used these exact same scripts and combined them with an emotional distance and it did the trick! Good luck!

    4. Amber T*

      Yeah, sometimes asshats just respond with “I’m going to sue you!” I remember being a 19 year old, new to the work force retail worker, and in my first week, some idiot didn’t like our return policy, so she was going to sue our company, my store manager, and me personally. Cue me nearly being sick behind the counter, because I thought that could be A Thing. My manager was in stitches laughing (until she realized I thought the idiot was serious, then was like “wait, no, she can’t do that, please don’t worry.”)

      The thing with customer service roles… sometimes people go in looking for a fight so they get free stuff. You can’t fix everyone’s problems, because sometime’s people’s problems are so imaginary and made up, that you giving them the world won’t really fix it. So figure out what you *can* do to fix problems, what lengths you’re willing to go to help someone (I was always willing to go the extra mile to help someone who was nice to me than screaming at me and calling me names). And sometimes, the final answer is just “I’m sorry you’re not happy with our service.”

      1. Random Comment*

        Exactly this. I worked the returns desk at a Circuit City (ugh) and once a man pulled out his badge (so I guess he was a cop), flashed it at me, and used words like “fraud” because he was mad that he couldn’t return something. I just looked at him until he left.

        1. Tuna Casserole*

          Often people come in angry at something else entirely, and you get that anger, even though it has nothing to do with you or your business. People think “I’ll sue!” is a magic phrase to get people to do what they want. It’s not. working so close to a military base, I’ve had people try to pull rank by using their rank. They think saying “I’m Major Smith” or “I’m Colonel Cooper” means they won’t have to abide by the same rules as everyone else. They’re wrong.

          1. kb*

            Yeah, having worked in retail, I can confidently say the bulk of extreme customer aggression is rooted in emotions from some other part of their lives being projected onto this mundane scenario. Not to say customer service agents are always perfect, but when a customer is screaming because an employee told them to “have a good one” rather than “have a good day” there’s clearly something else going on in their lives.

        2. amy l*

          Ugh. My husband has a badge. That he loves to Flash. Every. Chance. He. Gets. He is an inspector, not law enforcement. The best way to shut him down is to say something like, “Oh, well. If you wish to take that route, let me call your friends at the police station.” It’s magic. He knows he can get in big trouble for trying to intimidate people with The Badge. He tried it while driving aggressively once. It did not end well for him, but he wasn’t fired. So I can personally tell you that those who like to flash The Badge are in unending, unadulterated ego trips.

          1. CityMouse*

            Oh gosh. He can get in so much trouble for that. He really really really needs to stop doing that. He could be in criminal trouble for wrongly implying he is an LEO.

      2. Anon for this*

        Ah, memories. I used to be a newspaper reporter. I can’t even tell you how many times I was threatened with lawsuits because I had dared print Junior’s name. (When Junior was 25, or 45, and had committed some especially stupid crime, and had admitted to it, and I had the police affidavit… but I was the one destroying Junior’s life and prospects.) My unfailing response was, “Okay, if that’s what you feel like you need to do.” Of course I always told my editor about the threats. And we never did get sued.

      3. aebhel*

        The thing with customer service roles… sometimes people go in looking for a fight so they get free stuff.


        (I have a general policy of only bending the rules for people who are nice about it. I have the seniority to make that call, but I won’t do it for people who are rude jerks, because I’m not going to reward that kind of behavior if I don’t have to.)

        1. Aerin*

          I did the same thing when I was at Disney. I generally had a lot of discretion for arranging perks for guests, from cutting the line to VIP seating to free stuff. But if they were jerks who clearly felt entitled to get something extra, I would give them the bare minimum of courtesy (usually just a sympathetic ear) to make them go away.

    5. Higher Ed Database Dork*

      When I was working tech support, I had a lot of angry customers threaten to sue – and because I’m at a large state university, the word “lawsuit” sends HR and Legal into a tizzy. However I would just tell the customer they were welcome to contact our Legal dept if they felt that was necessary. To my knowledge no one ever did.

      By recommending contacting HR or Legal, you take your manager out of it (so they don’t just have to repeat what you said) and 9/10 times the customer won’t contact anyone. If they do, then that will likely be the proper channel.

      1. OP here*

        I also work for a local government, not a private business. This is a suggestion that I can definitely use!

        1. Higher Ed Database Dork*

          I’d still check with your boss/HR/Legal to make sure that is the right thing to do, but I’m assuming it is, since most government institutions want anything legal to go straight to Legal first. My university is very strict about that.

        2. DivineMissL*

          Local government worker here too, I deal with lots of angry folks who tell me either 1) “Hey, I pay a lot of taxes!”, 2) “I ‘m going to the press about this!” or 3) “I’m going to sue!”. The response in my head is 1) “You and everybody else!”, 2) “Hope it’s a slow news day!” and 3) “Have at it; there’s no lock on the courthouse door!”. But, in real life, when someone threatens to sue, I say, “You certainly have a right to do so; but if that’s the case, I can no longer speak to you about this issue and your attorney will have to discuss the matter with our attorney.” This is followed by a lot of back-pedaling and sputtering about “Well, I don’t really want to do that”, and then I am generally able to resolve the issue. Alison’s suggestions about diffusing the situation are all on point.

          1. Say what, now?*

            My husband is a City Planner and we get threatened with lawsuits every time he has to talk annexation. It’s always “you’re trying to take my land!” No, sir, you keep your land you just get a higher tax level because you’re using city services like our fire department. “I don’t need your fire department because the county volunteer one is just fine!” The county volunteer department enlists the help of city fire services when homes catch fire because they typically can’t get there as quickly. “Well, my home hasn’t caught fire yet! You won’t scare me into giving up my rights!”

            Hubby so wants to withdraw emergency services to show them what they’re actually getting but that WOULD be a lawsuit if someone got hurt.

            1. Jennifer Thneed*

              I’ve read about this kind of thing in an area where the only fire department was a volunteer one. I think this really happened.

              An un-neighborly resident refused to pay whatever their share was on the basis that the fire fighters wouldn’t *really* let their house burn down. This goes on for years. Finally, when that house does have a fire, the fire fighters make sure everyone gets out of the house safely, and they prevent the fire from spreading to other houses, and they let the house in question finish burning down.

              Maybe it didn’t happen, but it surely feels good to imagine it!

              1. Former Employee*

                I believe it really did happen. And some people were outraged that a volunteer fire dept with limited resources didn’t do whatever it would have taken to save this freeloader’s home.

                Or maybe I read the same “what if” piece you did, Jennifer.

              2. Say what, now?*

                I would say it would be tempting! I wonder if there were ever lawsuits filed since he did offer to pay as the house was burning and they could have theoretically back-charged him.

            2. Julia*

              My former boss thought we didn’t need fire alarms (and evuation drills!) because we were an embassy and exempt from local laws. Except there was no diplomatic line that held the fire in, and the firemen were certainly not being depatched from the country the embassy represented. Boy did he hate me when I said I wouldn’t work anywhere without fire alarms…

        3. Free Meerkats*

          As someone who has worked in government since Nixon was in the White House, one of the things about being sued is (at least in every state I’ve worked in) it’s not your problem. So long as you are acting in accordance with your position, you have immunity from personal lawsuits. And if the agency is sued, you don’t even have to hire a lawyer, your agency has them. Worst could be that you have to testify, it’s not all that bad.

          Check with your legal department, not HR or your boss, about how they want you to handle it when a lawsuit is threatened. In my last two cities, the rule has been as soon as the words “sue” or “lawsuit” or “my lawyer” come out of their mouths, our response is, “Since you have threatened legal action, I can no longer help you. Please contact the Legal Department, here’s their phone number.”

          And my response to the “I pay your salary!” comment is always,, “Thank you, I’m also a taxpayer.”

          1. Tuna Casserole*

            Years ago, someone told me “I pay your salary!” and before I could stop myself, I responded with “Then I need a raise.” The person sputtered a little, then turned around and left. Not the best response, in hindsight, but it felt good at the time.

            1. boo*

              Ha this is the best possible response!!! I can see where it might not always get the best result. But it is the best response!

            2. Windchime*

              My son used to work for a government agency that helped people to access benefits such as food stamps, help with rent, and other things like that. One particular client was really angry and combative when my son was trying to gather information, and the (unemployed) client said, “I pay your wages!”. Son replied, “Actually, right now I’m paying yours.” Not sure that was the best response, but at least the guy started answering the questions.

        4. Local Entity*

          I, too, work for a local government entity.

          In a few months, you will have enough “I handled a call that was SO [strange/creepy/rude/unintentionally hilarious]…” stories that when a caller says “I’m going to sue!”, you’ll deadpan reply “Sorry, Sue is on vacation. I can take a message.”

      2. Lord Gouldian Finch*

        I’d actually suggest that your response to anyone threatening a lawsuit should be along the lines of “I’m sorry, if this is going to litigation, I can no longer discuss this. You will need to discuss this with our legal department.” And then maybe give the Legal department’s number, and hang up.

    6. LouiseM*

      +1. Knowing the law can be really empowering for people in all industries! And it may make you feel more confident in general.

      1. amy l*

        I would just add that people who truly want your help with an issue are going to generally agreeable to trying to work out a solution. If it’s Mr. Important calling to just rant about how you have managed to Ruin Entire Vacation, yeah pretty much nothing you offer is going to satisfy Mr. Important. Give him the number for your legal department (if you have one) and let him call Mr. Lawyer.

        1. boo*

          This is a good point! Even people who are, um, forceful on the phone will work with you when you’re clearly trying to help them get what they need. The people who aren’t even trying to work with you don’t want to be mollified.

        2. tangerineRose*

          And using the empathizing language Alison suggested should help. A lot of times, the person calling wants to feel that *someone* understands and cares, even there’s nothing that can be done. People need to be heard.

          I do hate it though when people call in and are angry to start with, before I even have a chance to help.

    7. Harper*

      So much this. I can’t count the number of times when I worked in retail that I heard people say they would sue us for things like a sign being in the wrong spot.

    8. Isabelle*

      Some call centres have a policy of automatically escalating any calls, texts or emails where the customer uses certain keywords like “suing”, “lawyer” or “lawsuit”.
      I much prefer a prefer a system where the rules are clear and agents are empowered, then they are less likely to be bullied by abusive customers.

      1. AnotherMansTreasure*

        That’s a really great concept. Plus one for technology making these unpleasant situations better. I use a system for customer service emails that has similar functionality.

  2. with a twist*

    This was super helpful for a similar situation I’m in. My boss is trying to be more hands-off to free up his time to work on other projects (and not micro-manage as much), and has started to tell us to “ask for forgiveness rather than permission” if there’s a decision we want to make. But when we do that, it’s causing huge issues because he wasn’t consulted first! It’s frustrating for all of us and leads us to second-guess ourselves even more, unfortunately. I’m worried when I bring stuff to him, and I’m worried when I don’t. I think I just need to sit down with him and get more clarification on when to handle things myself and when to loop him in. I’ll take any other suggestions I can get though!

    1. Naptime Enthusiast*

      We’re big on “empowerment” these days, and there’s a very wide range of decisions that have to be made every day. Basically, what we’ve been told is we can make a decision, but we have to be able to explain it or back it up with data/analysis/information from customers and suppliers, because there are times that there will be pushback and you need to be ready for that. It doesn’t mean that you were wrong, it’s that others need to understand why you say that this is okay. If there are other factors you aren’t aware of, then that needs to get figured into your decision and sometimes, it will reverse it. Maybe this doesn’t apply to your situation exactly, but it’s made me much more confident in my own decisions and recommendations.

    2. Specialk9*

      One thing I recommend to the OP is to create a difficult customer SOP. Write down scenarios and how you plan to handle each one. Email it to your boss with a request for review. Save the SOP and your email to the boss and any response, preferably in PDF. (Cheerful paranoia is my approach.)

      This will help you sort through in your head what your scripts are in various situations, and give you coverage if your manager later changes their mind (‘but you said I should handle things myself!!’).

      1. tangerineRose*

        Good idea – people sometimes feel much too busy to come up with SOP, but if the manager has something to start with, he’s more likely to respond.

    3. with a twist*

      These are both great suggestions, thanks. I’m big on data and documentation (mostly to make up for my own memory gaps), and my boss is too, so I could see this helping a lot. Thanks!

  3. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

    I went through the same thing in my current job, OP, and what I had to realize was that “Sure, let me get you to my manager who will say exactly the same thing I will” is 100% incorrect in my job, and it sounds like in your job. Think of it this way: your manager earns more than you, yes? Does it make more sense to spend 30 minutes of your time at $X/hour (whether you’re actually hourly or not, your salary can still be broken down into a dollars-per-personhour number) or 30 minutes of your manager’s time at $2X/hour to deliver an unchanging message to a client?

    The transition for me came with a transition from being in a position where we basically were barely trusted to not mess things up, moving into a position where we are licensed and considered even at a low level on the ladder to be independently skilled and intelligent people. I definitely had to adjust my thinking from “I’m just a peon!” to “No, I am a licensed professional who is correct and knows what she’s talking about.” You’re mad about what how we reported your capital gains? Too bad. It’s not worth my manager’s time to explain to you that the IRS makes the rules and we’re not going to bend them just cause you’re mad about it.

    “Let me get you to a higher authority” comes into play when there is something that can be done, but you don’t have the discretion or the flexibility to do it. That’s when speaking with your manager actually has added value. Otherwise? Trust yourself to be able to handle them, and to have the information and power necessary.

    1. Detective Amy Santiago*

      Agree with this, though some people will be insistent on talking to “someone higher up”. In those situations, I go and brief the person I’m transferring the call to on exactly what I said so they can repeat the same information. It’s surprisingly effective in getting people not to question your information/authority next time around.

      1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

        Something that my managers occasionally do when someone is getting insistent on escalating on an issue that really doesn’t merit escalation is offer a call back — something like “Sir, no manager is available to take your call. I can have someone call you back later today, or continue assisting you now without transferring.” It definitely helps weed out people who just want someone else to yell at. (And a lot of the times, the person who calls back isn’t actually licensed in a supervisory capacity, just a more experienced rep or someone who is known to be good at dealing with BS.)

      2. ThatGirl*

        When people demand to speak to a manager/supervisor in my job, we often just transfer them to another team member… any one of us are allowed to pretend to be “the boss” because we all have the same level of authority.

        1. Aleta*

          My boss at OldJob definitely authorized me to say I was a manager when someone wanted to speak to one because I wouldn’t let them do something 100% against company policy. We definitely had very very little ambiguity in that though so I could be completely certain about what a manager would say.

    2. Future Analyst*

      But I also think the money thing can cut both ways: if OP is early 50% of what the manager does, it seems as though in part, the manager is being paid more to deal with the difficult people. I’m not saying OP should transfer people to her manager the minute things seem even slightly difficult, but I have a real issue with people at the “bottom” being used as punching bags, when they’re not paid to take that kind of abuse.

      1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

        It very much depends on how the OP’s job and the manager’s jobs are structured as. You’ve got a very valid point about the people at the bottom not being punching bags. We are empowered, and the OP should be, to end any interaction that is abusive. There’s nothing for the company in keeping that person on the phone, period.

        For us, our managers have to be available for things like approving large trades, so it is very much not their job to sit on the phone arguing with a client for ages.

      2. Washi*

        If the company has a policy that a service rep can never hang up on a customer then yeah, I totally agree. But if not, then as Alison says above, there’s no need to be a punching bag, you can end a conversation if a customer is getting abusive!

        I’ve worked in customer service-type positions, and what helped me was not to think of my job as making the customer happy, but as giving the customer correct information in a timely and polite fashion. If a customer is angry, I don’t need to make them admit that they are actually being ridiculous and apologize, I just need to convey the necessary information, perhaps repeatedly, and politely end the call if the language escalates to being abusive.

        1. Raider*

          One caveat. There are well-known companies that will fire customer service or call center employees for ending a call (instead of the customer ending the call). I don’t mean just hanging up on a customer. I mean even nicely saying you’re going to end the call, and then hanging up. (This is why some call center employees will just abruptly transfer a difficult customer back into the call system or to another employee.)

      3. Parenthetically*

        Agreed, particularly if they’re not actually empowered to make changes/offers/whatever. If all they are empowered to “do” is take abuse, of course they’ll be anxious to pass tough calls up the chain.

      4. Observer*

        True. But from what the OP says, their boss is not expecting them to be a punching bag. It sounds like the boss is giving them permission to push back and shut down conversations if they get abusive. That’s a different situation.

      5. Lindsay J*

        But that might not be part of the manager’s job duties at all.

        In every business, there is a line where the buck stop, and it could be that the OP is in that line.

        Like, when I worked at 6 Flags we had a bunch of levels of hierarchy. So, it was totally cool and normal for a front line employee to escalate to their lead, a lead to a supervisor, and a supervisor to a manager. In select cases, the manager might transfer to a full-time (non-seasonal) manager if there was really a serious issue going on (like something that could theoretically actually result in a law suit).

        But the manager was where the buck stopped. It was not the director’s job to be dealing with angry customers. It didn’t matter that he was getting paid more money. It didn’t matter how angry the customer was. The director’s job was high level oversight, budgeting, staffing, planning, ect. Not customer service. If the manager escalated to him, they were just plain not doing their job.

        In smaller companies the lines are shorter. When I worked for a photography company we were expected to handle most issues on our own. If we couldn’t, we went to the store manager. And that’s where it stopped. Above the store manager were just the owners, and they didn’t have much to do with the day-to-day operations at all, and definitely wouldn’t want to be bothered with customer service stuff. If the store manager tried to just pass the buck to them, they wouldn’t be doing their job.

        And it sounds like the OP’s boss is actively encouraging them to not take that type of abuse.

        “Specifically, he told me to be more assertive when I know I’m right, that I have his permission to escalate my language when someone is swearing at me, that I should be “shutting down” more complaints when I know that the higher-up would say exactly the same thing that I am saying, and that I don’t have to “take it” from unhappy people.”

        In some of my positions, knowing that I could push back when people were swearing at me, or knowing that I could shut down complaints when I knew I was right, and knowing that I didn’t have to “take it” would be a godsend.

        When I was in those types of positions, what was the worst was when I *didn’t* have the authority t0 push back and say, “I’m sorry, this is all that I can do for you. I hear that that doesn’t satisfy you but there are no other options.” Or “Sir, if you swear at me again, I’m going to end this conversation.” Or, “Ma’am, that behavior is inappropriate and I’m going to have to ask you to leave now. If you don’t leave I will call the cops and have you removed.” (What also goes along with this is being empowered to actually be able to offer people something to make things right when the customer was wronged. A 10% discount on the last shirt in their size that has a deodorant stain on it. A voucher to come back to the park another day when it’s not raining. A new shirt and pants for a customer who was vomited on by the person in front of them on the roller coaster. A full refund if they just hated all their photos and the entire photo shoot and didn’t want any prints.) And instead just had to just take it and while not being able to offer any solutions, or call a manager only to have them undermine what I had said to keep the (usually unprofitable) customer happy and leave me looking like the jerk.

      6. n*

        This. I feel like a good manager should be willing to step in when things are really difficult.

        As others have stated, it’s great when CS reps are empowered to not be punching bags and to set clear boundaries with the customers. But you can set the best boundaries and be the most empowered CS rep ever and there will still be customers who refuse to take no for an answer and insist on escalation.

        In a previous role, I was the sole CS rep for the company, and my manager gave me the authority to inform difficult customers that I was the manager and my decisions were final. I still had jerks who insisted that there *must* be someone higher than me. They would call back, for days, weeks, and sometimes even months on end, saying the nastiest things, hoping to wear me down to escalate the call. In those instances, my manager would still refuse to get involved. It made me feel really powerless and was ultimately the reason I left. I wasn’t getting paid enough to put up with that.

        Terrible customers are trained by our terrible customer service culture (in the US at least) that if they complain enough, they *will* be transferred to a higher-up and they *will* get their way. That’s how most call centers are structured, so when customers run into a different situation where reps aren’t structured in a call center chain-of-command, they become irate. At that point, it becomes a power play to get a call escalated to a manager.

        So, yeah, if you manage employees who do CS work, you should expect that every once in a while, you *will* have to deal with a difficult customer. Or at least, you should be willing to do so if you value retaining good employees.

        1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          There’s every now and then, but there’s also what the OP described in her letter, which is a default “hey I’m only the messenger, if you’re upset talk to the boss.” That’s a very different thing from escalating to a manager being the step of last resort.

        2. Jennifer*

          In my line of work, if you keep complaining up the chain, 95% of the time you will get what you want and I think they all know it.
          This letter is triggering me all over the place like whoa.

          Anyway…I transfer them to my manager in a few cases:
          (a) They refuse to listen to me and want to hear the same message from a higher up, which is usually why those people want a manager. They’ve already decided not to listen to me as is. (Heck, a student employee called me in today for the same logic, as the customer wasn’t listening to her. First time that shoe’s been on the other foot.)

          (b) They want something that is beyond my technological ability to fix. My boss can program so he might have a better shot at it than me.

          (b) They want some special exception made for them, i.e. “I refuse to pay for X.” They could complain to me all they want about how it’s not faaaaaaaair and they shouldn’t have to pay for it and all I can do is say “I agree, but I can’t waive the fee.” My boss, on the other hand, can/will let them do it and will deal with whatever shit he might get about waiving it, so in that case I’ll send it to him.

          Generally speaking, you transfer to a manager if the problem is something you are unable to solve yourself/above your head/above your position, or if the customer is being difficult and refusing to listen except to someone with actual authority. And I concur with whoever said that any manager that manages people who do CS needs to take those calls once in a while even if they are stupid and a waste of their expensive precious time. It happens.

    3. Nervous Accountant*

      CBF You’re a tax accountant? I didn’t know that.

      I’ve dealt w angry clients as well who aren’t happy when they owe or something. Just the last week I had to listen to complaints about how we don’t have enough servers or our logo is ugly (as if these things are in my control).

      Book making thus thread

      1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

        Not quite! I’m an investment advisor. But some times of year (by which I mean about half of it) the lines between investment person and tax person do become very blurred.

      2. Editor*

        Nervous Accountant, I am the type of customer who might complain to you about server capacity. You say you can’t do anything about it, which I will accept here is true, but when I am the customer calling in about server capacity, I would like some serious consideration. I hope you can understand how frustrating it is to be confronted with total opacity when it comes to customers pushing back at policies that affect them that are presented as being unchangeable.

        What I would want out of this putative server discussion is the name and contact information for the person who makes decisions about server capacity, so I can speak or email with them directly. If you can’t provide the direct contact, then I want to talk to someone who can provide the contact information, or who can advocate on the behalf of customers for more server capacity, or who can explain why more server capacity is not feasible (for instance, if capacity is inadequate only ten percent of the time, my problem as a customer may be that I am hitting peak use times). The bottom line here is that I don’t want to be fobbed off, I do want my complaint to receive serious consideration, and factual responses are the most helpful to me (and if you can in good faith take my complaint, research it, and get back to me, then I will wait for your email or call).

        Let me tell you about one of the worst customer experiences I ever had, one which led to an exceptional outcome. My spouse and I had moved and signed up for a long-distance phone service (this was back in the day…), and our service was abruptly terminated because we were billed for charges that were not ours. When we called the company, the billing department disclaimed all responsibility. We escalated complaints through several layers of management during multiple phone calls over several weeks, citing the differences between our paper documentation and the billing department records. Finally we got to someone who just overruled the billing department and fixed the problem, asking if we were satisfied. We said no, we wanted to know why we had to spend weeks unraveling this hellish billing mess while an essential telephone service was suspended and our credit report was affected.

        So the VP who cleared up the mess promised to find out why it happened. Eight weeks later, we got a call from him. It turned out that the sales department and the billing department did not have compatible computer software systems. When we had agreed to upgrade our service, sales notified billing. A billing clerk manually entered the change, making one keystroke error in an internal-use-only field that would never print on our billing forms, and our account went to billing hell. The VP told us that as a result of our complaint, the company IT had now devised a way for sales to transfer information without an additional layer of manual data input. Knowing that our problems had led to an improvement in the company’s process and that the company took action to fix the problem went a huge way toward making us willing to get past the billing mess — and also meant we didn’t badmouth the company. Instead we had a story about how one typo could result in a huge mess. It was the modern equivalent of the nursery rhyme about how the battle was lost “all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”

        Customers are often the victims when there is a shortage of horseshoe nails; to use another metaphor, an angry customer can be the canary in a coal mine, warning of an overlooked danger. Companies that find a way to sort through customer complaints to improve their products and services are the ones I prefer to deal with, even if that means that the business cannot insulate high ranking executives from talking to those who aren’t as powerful. The most recent example of a tone-deaf response is the housing mess at Howard University, where the president of the university complained that students had an inappropriate “tone and tenor” when they complained about housing signup mismanagement (link to follow).

  4. neverjaunty*

    LW, part of your boss’s issue is likely also that by passing the buck to him, you’re making the customers even more upset, because now they aren’t just Not Happy, they’re Not Happy + the first person they’ve talked to at your company has failed to help and given them the runaround.

    1. LadyL*

      I dunno, a lot of times when I was in this position the angry customers were calmed down when my manager told them no. Especially when that manager was a white man. When I told them no it seemed that they assumed I was young and stupid and that they didn’t have to accept the things I said. When a nice man with authority told them no they’d shake his hand and pat him on the shoulder and thank him for taking the time. It was always faster and more pleasant for the customer to get a manager involved. But I see why a manager doesn’t care about that and would feel it’s worth it for me to get screamed at for 20 minutes instead.

      1. Future Analyst*

        This. I can see why the manager wouldn’t want to deal with it, but the reality is that some (too many) people take it more seriously when a Manager (emphasis in their heads) tells them something, whereas a lowly whoever else can’t possibly know what they’re talking about.

      2. Sylvan*

        I agree with neverjaunty, but unfortunately, I’ve been there with the customer who wouldn’t stop flipping out until they heard from a man, too. They called me and my female manager multiple times to harangue us before that.

      3. Washi*

        This is very true! But also, the OP says she is OFFERING to transfer people to her manager. It wouldn’t be fair if her manager said she could never escalate something to him, but I think it’s totally valid for her manager to tell the OP that she should be handling more of these calls on her own.

      4. Lindsay J*

        But a lot of times the request to the manager and the subsequent deference to them is because they are trained to do that by all the companies that just cave and offer up a manager immediately. Especially because at so many companies the manager will turn around and flip and go, “Well, in this case we will do this discount just this one time.”

        If the final answer from more front line reps was, “No. No, there is nobody to escalate this to. I understand that you are still unhappy but there is nothing else that we can do about that,” then people wouldn’t be trained to ask for a manager almost immediately, and wouldn’t expect that the manager would give them a different answer than the front line rep.

        When something works at 90% of companies, why wouldn’t they keep on trying it.

        1. NW Mossy*

          I think you’ve hit on something here – call centers aren’t all the same, and the specific product/service provided by the company will dictate a lot about what strategies work from the caller’s point of view. However, for many callers, it’s frustrating when their expectations don’t carry from one company to another.

          When you call a cell service provider, making noises about switching to another carrier can often get you transferred to another department that has a higher level of latitude to offer callers discounts or added perks. However, if you call my company (which offers employee benefits and retirement plans), legal and regulatory requirements mean that the company as a whole has very little ability to negotiate with a caller or make exceptions – getting to a senior rep or a manager rarely will change the answer. That difference is hard for some people to grasp, and it’s maddening to them when they’re forced to confront it.

        2. Jennifer*

          It depends on who actually wants to keep fighting that battle of expectations. Not to mention the risk of complaints and writeups and firings if you don’t give the customer what they want.

      5. Jennifer*

        SECONDED so much.

        Also, “the runaround” is more like, Office A tells the person to call Office B, having no idea how to deal with the issue and taking a guess as to who does. Office B has no idea and says to call Office A, and when told that Office A sent them here, they say to try Office C, still guessing as to who handles it. Then everyone gets mad, both the customer and Offices B, C, D, and E.

        Unfortunately my office is the one every other office says to call and I can’t tell you how many times I am all, “seriously, we did not send that email, Office A did, why did they tell you to come here?”

      6. aebhel*

        I get this all the time, and I am one of the most senior people at my job. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve told a patron ‘no’ only to have them confidently inform me that they already talked to ‘The Guy In Charge’ and he said it was fine (if they talked to anyone, which they usually hadn’t, it was one of our elderly volunteers). That was especially fun when I was the acting director.

    2. Cody's Dad*

      And people tend to think that talking to a manager may get them something if not everything they want. Then they are told “no” from two company representatives.

      I’d suggest reflecting on once things go south with a caller, how often is “Would you like to speak with my manager?” is your go to line to avoid confrontation. Perhaps your supervisor feels that you send him more calls than your peers do and wants you to place more emphasis on problem solving so he isn’t dealing with so many problems himself.

      1. Lindsay J*

        I mean, a lot of the time it does work.

        I’ve asked for a manager when dealing with customer service reps on the phone loads of times. I’m always nice about it, and I never scream at the front line employees or yell at them. But a lot of the time, I’m asking for something entirely fair or reasonable (usually for the company to fix some mistake it has made, honestly) and the front line rep just isn’t empowered to do anything about it because they don’t have the authority to issue credits on my bill or they don’t have access in the system to look up and see the information that they need to see to solve my problem. But they’re also not allowed to escalate unless the customer asks. So I ask, they escalate me, and the problem is solved within minutes.

        Often, it would just be solved the first time if the front line reps were empowered to do anything other than say “sorry” and explain basic things to people about how their bill or service works or whatever. But a lot of the time they’re just not.

        1. hugseverycat*

          That’s exactly how it was when I worked for the catalog sales for a big department store. You could have the world’s most reasonable problem and state it in the nicest, most compelling way, and if it wasn’t a specific type of problem I was empowered to fix, there was literally no way a first tier person could help you unless you asked for a manager, because we were strictly forbidden from offering an escalation.

          I much preferred it at my next call center job where I was empowered to do almost anything, and the “managers” (who were just more experienced reps) were basically just there for customers to hear a 2nd “no” (and also a safety valve obviously for when the first tier people were just plain wrong).

      2. Safetykats*

        This. My guess is that the company understands about how many calls each rep deals with a day, and what percentage of those calls really need to be bumped up to a management level. If OP is passing along substantially more calls that coworkers, it’s possible that OP gets more difficult issues, but much more likely that OP is just not as effective at dealing with them as they are expected to be.

        It’s probably helpful to get some clear criteria about what should be elevated. Also, coworkers may be able to provide some helpful strategies they have used successfully. Bottom line though, it’s telling that OP seems to just be more comfortable passing along the issue than dealing with it – because it’s unlikely that is the expectation.

        For OP – I’m really sure this is something you can learn to do, and to be comfortable with. Part of that is understanding expectations, and part is practice. If that simply doesn’t work, you might be happier in a different kind of job (less customer-facing, more remote problem solving.)

      3. Elizabeth H.*

        Maybe this is unusual, but every time I have spoken to a manager because the first customer service representative I spoke with couldn’t help me, they were able to assist me because whatever I was calling about was more complex than the level of experience/authority/etc. than the first person I spoke with was able to help with. I’m polite on the phone though! I just wanted to say that it’s really not the case that when you ask to speak to a manager, they always just tell you the same thing the first person did.

    3. Xarcady*

      I used to supervise the student workers at a university library check-out desk. Sometimes patrons would get very upset about a book. (Note: I love books. But pounding the desktop with your fist while shouting obscenities because a book wasn’t returned by another patron on time is . . . a bit much.)

      What I told the kids was this:

      You will get upset patrons. Tell them the rules. If at all possible, offer them something else, i.e. if the book they want is checked out, refer them to the Reference Desk, where the librarian will be happy to find a similar source for them.

      If they start to swear at you, come get me. We don’t pay you enough to deal with that.

      If they won’t accept your answer/are trying to get you to bend the rules, come get me. I will 99.99999% of the time tell them *exactly* what you have just told them. But for some reason, getting bumped up to talk to a supervisor makes them feel that they have done all they could to resolve the issue the way they want it resolved.

      I feel there are times the lower level person can resolve the issue fairly easily by getting a supervisor/manager involved. The customer then feels that they have exhausted every resource, and is more willing to accept what they are told. It is purely psychological , but it works.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I love how specific this is.
        OP, Xarcady takes specific recurring examples that are known to be stumbling blocks and tell their people how to handle it before it happens. The people are armed with information.

        Take the recurring situations that cause you to stumble and work out responses for each. I know, that sounds tedious and time consuming. It does not have to be. I have used my commute time to sort these things one by one. “What can I say if a customer says X?” Then I would think about a few potential answers. Granted I would only do one or two situations a day on my commute, but it did not take long and I had a little reference book in my head of how to handle various things because I kept doing this.

      2. LouiseM*

        Ugh, YES. So true. The amount of anger people express out of entitlement really gets me.

      3. tangerineRose*

        Wow, people screaming obscenities at a student in the library because a book they want to check out (for free) isn’t available yet – some people are just… no words. Terrible.

        1. Jennifer*

          I’m not even surprised any more to hear this happens. I’m sure if I ask my friend who works in a library about this she would second it. Mostly she just tells me strange stories about power trippers who like to do things like access the rare items in special collections without gloves and bring their food and backpacks in and of course are allowed to because they gave a lot of money.

    4. Bea*

      Nope. As the person who has been the manager in this situation, they’re calm and reasonable by the time I got on the line.

      Some may get salty they have to rehash the whole problem if the first person doesn’t fill in the manager though!

      1. tangerineRose*

        I used to be the tech person that issues got escalated to. Many times when this happened, the customer was actually fairly nice about the whole thing because they had been escalated, and they felt taken seriously. (Also, eventually I got a good enough reputation that customers were happy that I was working with them.)

    5. Lindsay J*

      This. When I worked at an amusement part we were taught that we needed to do everything possible to rectify the issue when it was brought to our attention, and to not ever just send them to Guest Relations. Because they’re upset or mad about the issue, and then if we just sent them to Guest Relations, then they were mad about the original issue + the person they told who didn’t fix it + the fact that they had to take their time to walk out of their way to get to Guest Relations to deal with an issue they felt they should have experienced to begin with.

    6. McWhadden*

      Way back when I worked nights and weekends a co-worker and I would take turns being the one angry people on the phone were transferred to. We were the same level. And never claimed to be a manager. But just the act of transferring it to someone else was soothing to the customer. They were almost always calm by the time the other person got on the phone.

      1. Xarcady*

        Maybe it’s the difference between being on the phone and being there in person. I can see how someone at an amusement park would be upset at having to walk somewhere to deal with a problem. People at amusement parks have limited time to enjoy the park. They want their problems solved quickly, so they can go back to having fun.

        Not that someone who calls a business or other organization doesn’t want their problem solved quickly, but they might have more time to wait on hold, or wait for a call back, because in many cases, the problem doesn’t have to be solved rightthisminute. And waiting on hold is usually easier than having to trudge through an amusement park on a hot day, dragging a couple of little kids along who are complaining that they want to go on a ride right now!

        So part of treating the customer right is going to be situation specific.

  5. Alucius*

    I don’t know how much it helps, but you can certainly frame your manager’s words here as a sort of compliment in your skills. He seems to be saying that you know your stuff, and that you have his support behind you when dealing with the tougher calls. This is good. This is encouraging! Yes, you may need some work on calibration of when a situation is serious enough to send up to him, but the basic read I got from your letter is that you’re doing well and that this is more about fine-tuning.

    1. OP here*

      I’ve been trying to remind myself of that! My only management experience has been in the restaurant industry, and handling customer complaints is basically what the manager’s job is! But now I’ve been in this job for six years, progressively growing in position (but never a manager) and I think he gave me that talk because he sees management potential in me – it really was mostly a positive conversation. I really want to utilize his feedback to refine my behavior so I can continue to grow here.

      1. Pollygrammer*

        Could you ask for a little more detail about calls he thinks should and shouldn’t be forwarded to him? What solutions does he expect you to decide on vs. when it should be him making the call?

        As far as callers who are simply angry, though, I think you do need to get a little tougher. Verbally abusing you is Not Okay, but your boss isn’t going to be any more prepared to assuage anger than you are. Alison’s scripting suggestions are great! I’ve also gotten good traction with “I want to help you but it doesn’t seem like this is going to be a productive conversation, I’m going to have to end this call.”

        And when they’re being aggressive but not actually berating you, don’t pile on the apologies–give them a couple, give them what information you can, and start going to “as I said” and ask if they have any other questions–some people love repeating themselves when they keep getting a grovel-y response, and IME this helps to shut it down.

    2. TootsNYC*

      I agree! He’s telling you, “You =deserve= to be more confidant and you are =authorized= to seize more authority.”

    3. Turquoisecow*

      I had that thought, too! Manager is telling you that you can handle more things on your own, so this is totally a good thing.

  6. Dianne*

    The best thing a boss ever said to me, it was within my first week on the job, is that he’d rather employees take action based on our best judgement than to do nothing at all. He was telling us that we can mess up, that we have the power to make decisions, and that we’ll learn as we go. This was so empowering. I was emboldened by his support throughout my time with the company. Best of all, he obviously meant it because he did stand behind me when even when I made an error but had used my best judgement.

    1. Lindsay J*

      Yes. I had the same experience. She said that as long as we could explain to her why we did something, she would back us 100%, even if she didn’t necessarily agree with the action we took.

  7. LiberryPie*

    I think this is a gender issue. There are some women who can pull off being tough and pushy, but for the most part when women do this they are perceived as having lost their cool whereas when men do it they are seen as standing firm. I have had men in my life tell me I need to be tougher and pushier and what they don’t understand is that this is not the approach that works for me. When I try to push on something I get told I’m being emotional and need to calm down. It generally works better for me to stay calm and not get angry back at the person who is being rude or unfair to me. It is one thing to ask OP to try to handle more calls herself before escalating to her supervisor, but she has to be able to do it in the way that works for her, and it sounds like the manager is telling her to do it in a way that’s more his style than hers.

    1. Secretary*

      Amen. It’s amazing how the customer’s demeanor changes when the person they’re talking to goes from woman to man.

    2. OP here*

      Yes, I am female. I do feel like in order to do well here, I have to have more “masculine” behaviors, which is difficult for me. (for instance, the realization that I asked Allison about “being aggressive” to customers and she pointed out that nowhere did my manager use those words – he told me to be ASSERTIVE, but my meek “ladies are always nice” “why aren’t you smiling?” and “the customer is always right” upbringing made me conflate the two.)

      1. London Bookworm*

        As a woman who has also had to deal with angry customers, I think “firm, but calm” to myself and repeat ad nauseam. Many people teach women that’s not possible to be polite and assertive. Don’t listen to those people. Boundaries and etiquette are partners, not enemies.

        I would highly recommend writing some ‘scripts’ down (with the tone you’re going for) and literally having them in front of you for when you’re on the phone.

        1. tangerineRose*

          Yes. Firm, calm, tell them you want to help. Tell them what you can and can’t do. Might need to act like a “gray rock” sometimes though. I would avoid being aggressive though. Think about it this way – the manager is empowering you; you don’t need to be aggressive.

      2. CheeryO*

        I work for state government, not local, but I get a lot of calls from angry complainants, and I’ve gotten a lot better over time about owning my role in those interactions. I would definitely recommend doing whatever you can to change your mindset away from the “messenger” role – yes, it’s harder when the buck stops with you, but there is also a power in it that makes you more confident and better able to handle the next similar call.

        And definitely get rid of the “customer is always right” mindset – it’s one thing to always be patient and respectful of people, and you can be empathetic if they are in a hard situation, but you are in the right, and you are in charge of the situation, not them. Stick to your guns and use whatever policy/regulation/etc. that you have in your arsenal as backup. Repeat yourself as needed. If they threaten you with legal action, tell them that they need to take it up with your legal department (or whatever your protocol is). You can do it!

      3. NaoNao*

        I worked as an outbound collections agent (woo hoo the stories!) and I adopted a tone that worked for me very well: firm grade school teacher. It was “feminine” in that it wasn’t off putting, but it was no nonsense, firm, assertive but not aggressive, and the authority that seemed to radiate from it helped me be firm with customers.

        I started out with “collaborative concern” and then escalated to “mom of toddler” (“Hon, why are you doing that when I’ve told you many times not to? Can you not? Thanks.”) and then “displeased teacher” as my last resort.

        Tart, clipped, precise, polite language in a frosty tone in a deeper register than normal with a hint of disappointment wafting through it is what I would call “displeased teacher.”

        I use it on my cats occasionally. Like, just one frosty word “Off.” or “[Cat’s Name.”]. Some performers call it “the voice of authority” and if you can find the tone/register it works *amazingly* well.

    3. Kittyfish 76*

      Agree. I see this when I am on the other end. If I call customer service and complain, even though I am polite but firm (always polite, I’ve been in customer service), I’m seen as a b**ch, so I have my husband call, who is also polite but firm, and he usually gets what he wants.

    4. TootsNYC*

      Here is my tactic:

      I call it “channeling my inner day-care worker.”

      I was blessed with a really good daycare for my kids when they were little. The teachers were a step more removed than the parents were. They knew the developmental milestones, and they didn’t take it all so seriously or give the misbehavior MORE emphasis than it deserved.
      Like, of course kids were going to hit one another. That’s what they do. We don’t need to vilify them if they do this; it’s developmentally normal/appropriate.
      But it’s not appropriate behavior, and we can’t allow it to go on; we can’t just let them have their way.
      Also, the teachers know, “I am in charge here, and I’m the expert. This is not a battle of wills, because I automatically win. [Parents often don’t feel that way.] This is my responsibility, to respond to this misbehavior or this inattention. I’m entitled to insist on things happening a certain way.”
      And the teachers know that this one instance is not a big deal; it’s not going to ruin the kid for life. They’re a little detached.

      So they are firm and measured in their discipline efforts and their reactions.
      Their tone is authoritative, but they’re not emotional (because their emotions are not engaged; their authority and responsibility -are-.

      1. TootsNYC*

        Oh, the other good thing about thinking of it in this paradigm:

        Women ARE authority figures, for much of our lives. Our mothers, our teachers…

        S0 this taps into the hypothetical best version of that.

      2. NaoNao*

        Just wrote a version of this :) I totally agree, as a former call center rep, retail employee and day care worker!

      3. Call centre worker*

        This is good advice. It’s easy to respond emotionally when a customer is emotional and I find it’s common for call centre staff to make the mistake of raising their voice back to a customer who is shouting, but it helps a lot to stay calm and respond to anger with a quiet, steady voice. Personally I find it helps to speak to an angry customer slowly, clearly and reassuringly without any trace of a raised voice – a lot like speaking to a child!

    5. Lefty*

      This was one of my first thoughts too, having dealt with similar issues.

      I work for the federal government and my previous role was highly public facing. We’d have near-daily interactions with our (mostly male) customers asking to speak to “someone else” or “a manager” when our mostly female staff had to deliver difficult, but correct answers. There was a pattern from previous management that the staffers could not be viewed as “making final calls”.

      There were MANY instances where the newly hired highest manager (my boss) would hear the exchanges, walk to the counter, let the customer explain their issue, then ask, “And what has she told you?” Mostly, the customers would give the same answer we did… the manager would then say, “Yes. She’s right. That is exactly how we need to handle this; there aren’t any other options in this case. Would you like to do that now or will you come back another time?” Some would storm off, some would comply, some would try to do whatever the next step is but insisted it be with the manager instead of the staff member- he had a knack for deflecting that! “Oh no, she’s the professional at that. I’m just the one who signs the timesheets.” It was a really refreshing change from some of our previous managers who would tolerate the behavior, but eventually tell the customers the same thing after a much longer conversation!

      Eventually, we broke the habit of having him come to the counter for EVERY escalation- it wasn’t the best way for the staff to be treated. Once they saw that he and I actually meant it when we said we “backed them” and wanted them to decide when to pull us in, they went for it. I was really happy to see them make those calls and consistently be more comfortable in their roles. OP- I think your boss would love to see that for you too. He already thinks you can do it, he just wants to see you do it!

  8. Luna*

    What does your manager mean by “escalate your language”? Can you ask him to provide some specific examples of what he means? IMO you should definitely not be using aggressive language with customers and that sounds like very bizarre instructions from your boss.

    I would stop offering to send difficult calls to the manager though, when I worked in customer service we only transferred calls to the boss when the customer asked to talk to a manager.

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      Escalating language usually doesn’t mean aggression, it means firmness and perhaps dropping polite/indirect phrasings. “Unfortunately, that is not something we are able to do” becomes “We cannot do that,” for example. It would be disconcertingly blunt with a customer who isn’t being rude, but also isn’t really confrontational.

      1. Pollygrammer*

        “I understand that you’re frustrated” vs. “I’m sorry this is so frustrating!”
        “That’s all I’m able to do” vs. “I wish I could do more!”

    2. paul*

      Firmness, avoiding softening language (i.e don’t apologize for not being able to do something, don’t say you wish you could do X), stuff like that. It’s…not a magical cure all, but it can help.

    3. LKW*

      Agreed. If the customer continues to argue and demand unreasonable solutions, you move from “Let me understand…” to “No.”

      In short along Allison’s guidance
      “Help me understand the problem so I can help you.”
      “Tell me how you want me to help”
      “I can/can not do what you are asking; I can do this instead”
      “I have this alternative option”
      “I have no other options that I can present”
      “I am concluding this call”

    4. Ainomiaka*

      Givendors that they used examples of people swearing, I’m wondering if escalating language means more like “I’m going to end this call if you continue to swear at me and call me names.”

    5. sfigato*

      “…that I should be “shutting down” more complaints when I know that the higher-up would say exactly the same thing that I am saying, and that I don’t have to “take it” from unhappy people.”

      This seems like not a good thing to tell someone in a customer service role. I don’t know the nature of your work, but in many cases, shutting people down and not taking it, i.e. responding to someone upset by being aggressive, is just going to escalate things and make the situation worse. I used to work customer service, and the people who “didn’t take it” and would “shut people down” were the worst, because their jerky aggressiveness a, didn’t solve the problem, and b, made everyone get more aggro vs. calming people down.

      1. Lindsay J*

        There is difference between shutting down bad behavior and being aggressive.

        I would consider aggressive behavior to be raising my voice, using harsh language, etc. Shutting down a complaint or behavior is none of that.

        Shutting down is,
        “I’m sorry, that won’t be possible. Is there anything else you need assistance with today.”
        “Our policy says [X] and that applies to this situation.”
        “I understand this is frustrating, but when you signed the contract you agreed to [X] and [X] is what is happening right now.”
        “No, I’m sorry, our policy is that all returns have to be done within 90 days and these are more than 3 years old. I cannot give you a refund for these.”
        “I understand you don’t want these clothes, but I cannot give you a refund for them. Do you want them back or do you want me to throw them out for you?”
        “I understand that you are still not satisfied, but that’s all I can offer.”
        “Please don’t swear at me.”
        “If you continue using that type of language I am going to hang up.”
        “Unfortunately there is nothing else I can do for you. Goodbye.”
        “I am going to need to ask you to leave now.”
        “If you don’t leave now I am going to have you removed from the premises.”

        And I have never had to actually have somebody physically removed, and only had to threaten this once. A guy got pissed off at one of my employees, they escalated to me, were dealt with, and left. They went to another one of my employees, began yelling at them. They called me. I recognized the guy immediately, walked up, and asked “Is there a problem here?” Then I told him I wasn’t going to tolerate him cursing at my 16 year old employees. He began curing at me instead. I told him that I had already asked him to stop cursing, and that that language wasn’t acceptable at a family amusement part. He told me to go f* myself. I asked him to leave. He said make me. I told him to leave or I would have him removed and that I had security officers as well as an on-duty police officer on property to do the removing.

        He left. He was also at least mildly intoxicated at the time. I imagine if he was sober it might have gone differently.

        Most other conversations were resolved at the “I’m sorry, there is nothing more I can do for you.” And, “Yes, I understand that you’re upset, however I’ve offered you everything I can offer you.” They leave or hang up, and that’s it. No escalation. No situation.

  9. Wannabe Disney Princess*

    I did raise my eyebrows when your manager said you could escalate your language. That’s not a way to solve anything. Unless it’s a competition in how many languages you can swear.

    Do have a conversation with your boss about when the calls should be transferred to him. Also, talk to him about legality issues. You mentioned your company has been sued in the past, there is no harm in learning how that would impact you (if at all).

    This could also be a case of this role not being right for your personality. I know myself. I know I would absolutely loathe being in this kind of position. And there is zero shame in that! Not everyone is suited for every role. Don’t throw in the towel just yet, though. Give yourself a shot to see if maybe you do like having more control and autonomy in this role. And if you don’t, well, you have that much more information on what to look for in your next job.

    1. Shiara*

      I took escalating language in response to swearing to mean dropping any “softening” phrases out to get firmer and more assertive, leading to potentially shutting down the call in response to the swearing. Not that OP should start swearing back.

      eg, going from “I’m sorry, but I am afraid that our policy prevents me from doing that.” to “As I mentioned that will not be possible. If you continue to speak to me this way I will end this call.” is an escalation, but not one that involves swearing.

      1. paul*

        Yeah, I don’t know where people are getting swearing at and yelling at from “escalating language”.

    2. OP here*

      He does swear occasionally; I’ve heard it. He didn’t say that I could explicitly but I didn’t ask. Mostly we were talking about voice volume, interrupting (meaning I can just keep talking and not let them interrupt me), dropping the “customer is always right” idea, that kind of thing. I actually work for a local government, not a private company, so our customers can’t really quit us (unless they move). The most common phrase I get is “I pay my taxes and therefore I pay your salary and you have to do what I say,” regardless of how wrong they are. That idea, I think, is also what empowers so many people to swear at us – we can’t cancel our obligation to them because we’re the government. There’s really very few repercussions for their behavior (we could call the police, perhaps, for harassment) but mostly it’s a fact of the job.

      1. fposte*

        Some of this is really tough to learn, especially when it contradicts female socialization. But the “not stopping just because somebody else starts talking” is a great lesson in life, not just at work :-).

      2. Not So NewReader*

        “No, I have to do what state and local regs tell me to do. THAT is what you are actually paying me for, to follow the rules that are made by someone else. If you do not like the rules you can call [local, county, state official].”

        Shake that whole concept of “I pay your wages” right out of your head. Don’t let that buffalo you. Take it and turn it into, “You pay me to follow the rules. I am doing what you are paying me for.”

        It’s really helpful if you have a copy of the reg or law handy to show or read to them. This only works in situations that happen on a fairly regular basis.

      3. J.B.*

        If you are in local government, it is likely that organizations have customer service training that you could attend. That would probably be a better route than asking your manager at this point. (He swears? Really? Bless my stars!)

      4. Mike C.*

        ~*~ As a taxpayer… ~*~

        Feel free to remind them that you pay taxes too, if you think it’s appropriate. My brother is a public school teacher and he tells me that it throws @sshole parents for a loop every time.

      5. Wannabe Disney Princess*

        Ah, yeah. That does lend a certain extra level of aggravation because they feel like they have no control over the situation. Acknowledging that they have a problem and that you’ll do what you are able to help should go a long way in diffusing most of the cranky ones. There are some that won’t, but they’re just angry. They’ll call up the cable company next and tear them a new one. Then drive to the grocery store and rip into the poor clerk there. (When I was in retail, I found it helpful to keep that in mind.)

      6. Jersey's mom*

        I do not recommend this. However, this guy is my hero.

        I used to work for the state, analyzing and issuing environmental permits. Very complicated, difficult types of permits. My colleague was in a meeting with an applicant, who started getting verbally abusive, winding up with “and my taxes pay your salary”. Colleague dug a nickel out of his pocket, tossed it to the applicant and said “not anymore, you don’t”.

        1. Free Meerkats*

          OMG! I’m going to start carrying a nickel, just for this!

          Also an environmental regulator, Pretreatment for a municipality. Luckily, most of the people I deal with know the drill and we work very hard to earn the regulated community’s respect so we don’t have to use the Cartman-esque authoritah!

      7. Just Allison*

        The whole I pay your salary is kind of a crazy thing to say, sure you pay your taxes and maybe one whole penny of that goes directly to my paycheck. Taxes get split so many ways that they are hardly making a dent in your salary. What do they want you to do refund them the penny that “might” have gone from their taxes to your paycheck. Its a crazy notion.

  10. MuseumChick*

    I had an epiphany recently that being “assertive” often just means stating facts calmly.

    My museum hosted an event with a car-show component a few years ago. You could register for the show the day of but most people registered in advance. One guy who registered the day of was unhappy with the location we had picked to display the cars and began yelling at my co-work. I’ll never forget how impressed I was when, after the guy took a breath, she looked at him and calmly said “Well, sir, you don’t have to participate.”

    Trying running scenarios in your mind of things your customers commonly complain about and what facts you can calmly share with them to push back.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Pure gold advice right here.

      “Well, Sir, right on the water bill it says that there is a 1.5% late fee for each month people are late with their payments.”

      I like to avoid using the word “you”. Angry people tend to personalize “you” too much. Get the focus off of them as quickly as possible. “Yes, Ma’am, I understand that you are upset about being fined for not shoveling your sidewalk within 72 hours of the end of the storm. Ten people got fined with this last storm. I have a list of people who do snow removal for a fee. Would you like me to send you that list?”

      What can also work here is if you can show that everyone is treated in the same manner and bonus points if you can show recent examples, you might be able to cause a shift in the conversation.

      If they threaten you with a lawyer, it’s fine to say, “Well if you feel that is necessary, Ms, Smith, most certainly you do have the right to consult an attorney.” And this too is a fact, they have the right to talk to an attorney about anything they want, it does not mean the attorney will take the case. What happens next is that dollar signs will flash before their eyes. They start realizing that the attorney is going to cost them hundreds of dollars and they start questioning if it is worth it. They may realize it would be a lot cheaper just to talk to you and bring it to a resolve.

      1. KWu*

        What I like about the example here from Not So NewReader is actually going into detail after the “I understand” part. There’s some discussion below about whether/how much to apologize and when I worked in customer service on a phone line, saying “I’m sorry” wasn’t necessarily as effective. What did work well was to make sure to be able to summarize the customer’s position back at them so that they feel heard. When I call into customer support, it’s a major source of frustration for me when the reps seem to be robotically repeating, “I understand” and “I’m sorry” but I can tell from the other parts of what they’re saying that they don’t actually seem to have absorbed all the details of the situation that I want them to fix.

        So, first: make the customer feel heard. Only then will they be open to hearing your explanation of what the possible options are.

  11. CrystalMama*

    OP, don’t forget that You have the skills and You have the knowledge to take charge in these situations. Allison is showing her great perceptivity in encouraging practice, practice, practice.
    This is a skill my partners’ Sister has practiced with intention again and again. She is an independent worker and is salesWOman, marketer, legal expert, manager, and medical expert rolled into one. Sometimes her customers come with empty threats, complaints, abuse (and you should see the abuse she has suffered…for her beliefs, for her appearance, for the unique road she walks, to say nothing of the abuse her babies have faced) and she stands Firm and Strong. Practice hard OP! We are all sending you thoughts of strength and confidence!

    1. LouiseM*

      CrystalMama, I’ve defended your comments in the past (even when others rightfully pointed out they were CLEARLY designed to promote your sister in law’s crystal-selling MLM) but this is just too far for me. This question is literally about someone wondering how to take a directive from their boss and knowing when to solve problems herself vs. when to delegate to her boss. Your self-“employed” SIL is just. not. relevant. here.

      If you want to leave vague comments about “good vibrations,” fine. But don’t pretend you’re giving relevant advice; you’re not.

      1. Joielle*

        Yeah… also based on your previous comments, she is not actually a legal expert or a medical expert (also known as LAWYERS and DOCTORS). In fact, there are few people on earth who are both a lawyer and a medical doctor, and I am 100% sure that your crystal-selling relative is not one of them. This is getting a little ridiculous.

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I have kind of been taking this as a comic performance, since she’s not actually linking to anything she’d want to promote. (Unless it’s just the idea of promoting crystals in general, I guess.)

        1. Ambivalent*

          Yes, CrystalMama’s comments are almost as funny as the responding commenters’ somewhat disproportionate outrage ;) No disrespect intended, but let’s not take this so seriously.

        2. Wonder Fell*

          I really hope it’s intentionally comedic, because the idea that she’s sincere is worrying! It’s hard to read though, either way.

      3. Elsajeni*

        Eh, lots of people leave comments that are sort of… tangentially relevant, especially in the “something like this once happened to me, let me tell you about it” category. As long as Alison doesn’t consider those threads off-topic, I think CrystalMama has as much right as anyone else to tell semi-related stories about her sister-in-law and wish the OP good luck.

    2. AnotherMansTreasure*

      New to this so will avoid the fray, but I will just say that Firm and Strong really resonates. My favorite quote (by anonymous) has always been “self confidence is the best outfit, rock it. Own it” i work in tech and will say the mantra of ‘customer is always right!’ is too pervasive, especially for growing businesses. Sometimes frustrated customers want to be heard and they express that in unhelpful ways with unhelpful words (‘chargeback’, ‘sue’, ‘illegal’, ‘fraud’). Tell them you hear them but dont give in if you know you are right. reminds me of a scam with my business where i was shipping refurb phones and fraudsters would order them, get them, then replace contents with clay and report ME to amazon, ebay, etc. just to keep the phone and not pay. You can’t let yourself be walked on in that situation. Call me a pessimist but I view more complaints with skepticism than not- I think when you take that view it’s much easier to be assertive.

  12. Murphy*

    This is definitely not an easy thing to do! I used to work at an animal shelter in the animal care department. I certainly had to deal with some angry customers, but it was the adoption staff who made the decisions, so they saw the brunt of it. I watched a counselor deescalate a situation with an angry customer once, and I was completely in awe. She kept her cool, remained polite, and shut that lady down hard. It was similar to Alison’s suggested language. “We’re not going to be able to do that because of X.” The lady would try to justify it again, and my co-worker would just say “I understand, but regardless, we’re not going to be able to do that.” In this case, I think the “We” language was good, because the customer couldn’t just ask to speak with somebody else. “We” (the organization) are saying no, and that’s the only answer you’re going to get.

    I think you just have to be clear on what the policies are, so that you are sure when the answer is going to be no. And I agree with Alison also to clarify with your boss when he does want you to escalate calls, since that will definitely be the right call sometimes.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      This is a great example of people missing a key point. They will wander all over in conversation, they will talk about this, that and the next thing. Basically, you say, “I am sorry, I can only take cash payments on this and that is something that cannot be changed.” And you keep repeating the same thing over and over. In my experience, you have to say it at least three times to be heard once. Don’t worry about repeating yourself, that is not a failure on your part AT ALL.

  13. Nita*

    I’m curious, when you refer unhappy customers to your manager, do you get to sit in on his conversation with them? It may help you to gain some experience by watching how he handles the situation. As others say, you might also need him to clarify what your options are for making amends to an unhappy customer – is a refund OK? A product replacement? Free tech support? And if a customer is really flying off the handle, it’s probably fine to tell them that you can help them to the best of your ability, but only if they calm down and discuss what the options actually are.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Role playing or watching him might be a great help for you,OP.

      If your desk is near his and you can overhear what he is saying perhaps you can stop your work for a minute to listen to how he handles it.

      1. Aerin*

        If your calls get recorded, you might ask to listen to a couple of examples of other agents who handled things the way your manager wants you to. Role-playing a scenario is a very different headspace than dealing with a real life, really angry customer.

  14. Hiring Mgr*

    Wait, so your boss is giving you permission to yell and swear at customers? Are you guys hiring?

    1. Someone else*

      He’s giving her permission to continue to say “No” and not sugarcoat it, not to swear and yell back.

  15. SugarpieHoneybun*

    I know where the OP is coming from. When I worked retail, there would be times when I would try to handle a situation. “No, I can’t do X because of Y”, which was a clearly-stated policy, that we’d received training in, and the customer would demand to see a manager, who would just roll over and do what the customer wanted and leave me looking like an ass. Then if I gave in to the next customer who tried the same thing, I’d get in trouble for not sticking to policy. It was honestly no-win and I did start defaulting to just getting a manager from the get-go.

    1. Wannabe Disney Princess*

      My favorite instance was when I was the manager and a customer reamed me up one side and down the other. And then demanded to speak to the manager since I was being so unhelpful. The slow look of horror on her face as I said steelily, “Well, ma’am, that would be me,” is something I still savor.

    2. paul*

      That’s reason…I’d say 3 or 4 why retail is miserable (1 and 2 are pay and unstable schedules). God I hated that.

      Thankfully not all client facing jobs are retail

      1. Jennifer*

        Yeah, but there’s enough terrible similarities at times.

        I haven’t worked retail, but I said something to my shrink about how awful my job was and she said, “In retail, they act the exact same way, except it’s over a sweater.”

  16. Sunshine on a Cloudy Day*

    I think one potential – very quick fix – is to stop offering to transfer them to a manager. If they ask or demand it – well talk to your manager about how they want you to handle it. But by simply not offering that as an immediate (or near immediate option) it might lower the number of issues passed on to boss.

    It might feel uncomfortable at first – ala getting used to the concept of “no is a complete sentence”. Use the scripts that Alison provided, but also try to stop yourself from offering up the transfer to your manager.

    To be clear – I don’t think this totally answers your question or will completely solve the problem, but its a small actionable way to possibly help.

  17. Phyllis*

    When people are raising their voice/screaming, say calmly and quietly, but loud enough to be heard: “I’m sorry, I’m unable to understand you when you scream at me. I have not raised my voice to you and I appreciate the same in return”. Repeat as needed. Swearing? Again, calmly and quietly, “Please stop swearing at me. I have not used that kind of language with you, I appreciate the same in return”. Threats to call media/sue?: “That’s certainly your prerogative.”

    Maintaining the calm, collected demeanor is key. It helps to practice, if you have a buddy you can role-play with.

  18. Higher Ed Database Dork*

    I’ve had to do this a lot during my years in tech support. I dealt with a lot of angry, panicky students and professors. My methods usually involved trying to express sympathy (because often they were just scared), repeating the facts of the situation calmly, and if they started to get aggressive with me, I would say things like “Please do not speak to me that way. I will have to end the call if you continue.” If they threatened lawsuits or going above the chain, I’d say, “You are welcome to contact Legal and/or HR if you feel you need to.” I have hung up on people before who have gotten abusive.

    Typically in my case, the person was new to the technology I was supporting, and they were stressed and afraid. Something was due, and they weren’t able to get the application to work. So by trying to sympathize and diffuse first, that went a long way. Of course, I dealt with plenty of jerks who didn’t want to be helped – so just repeating the facts to them got them to back down, most of the time. They saw that I wasn’t going to budge (on reality! ha!). For the few that got even more agitated – well they shot themselves in the foot by screaming obscenities at me. I reported them to their deans. Obviously this is not possible if you’re dealing with true customers who are not affiliated with your organization, but it’s something helpful to remember if a colleague ever gets abusive.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Good point about fear vs anger. It’s hard to tell which is happening if you don’t know the person at all. And it’s even harder over the phone because you can’t see them.
      I have had great luck with assuming it is indeed fear. Fortunately, everyone has a file. So I will calmly state, “Okay let me get your file in front of me so I can see what you are talking about.” It could be my tone of voice, too, but I can hear them over the phone starting to calm down. It’s as if they are thinking, “Oh, good she is getting my file so she can talk about my particular setting.”
      But find your own version where you say something under the assumption that it is fear not anger. Once you see that it is indeed anger you can move to the advice regarding angry people.

  19. Secretary*

    Wow I so relate to this letter.

    Alison, I really like your advice 99.99% of the time, but in this I think you’ve missed the mark.

    I’ve worked a lot of customer service and I hate it for this reason. Your scripts you’ve given are the kind of thing that works for most customers, what the OP is talking about is a small percentage of customers that can make you miserable on a call. It’s actually pretty rare for this kind of customer to actually swear at you or give you a reason to end the call. Most of the time they are just mean enough that you can’t reasonably end the call without hurting your job but nice enough that you have to sit there and take it because if you don’t the customer can complain about your poor service and say you wouldn’t help them.

    The reason that it works to say, “If you’re not happy with the way I’m helping you I can always transfer you to my manager” is because most people won’t, and they recognize at that moment there’s nothing else for you to do. Also, when it goes to the manager usually the person is actually a lot calmer, and the manager usually has the power to do whatever the customer is asking for.

    What I think is great is talking to the manager about when to escalate it and define it. In general though, this is part of being a manager of customer service, and I think the manager is just trying to get out of this aspect of the job.

    1. Colette*

      I disagree. This technique is putting the customer in charge of the call. The OP needs to be the one in charge – giving the client her options for having the issue resolved, calmly explaining the policy, etc. It’s not about sitting there and taking it, it’s about being clear and firm and telling the customer directly what you can and can’t do. If the customer wants to talk to a manager, she can ask, but the OP is being paid to deal with the customers without offering unnecessary escalations.

      1. fposte*

        Right. I’m not the “get my staff out of saying no and ending a call” solution. They’re paid to *keep* me from spending my time on that. I can understand that it’s a mental shift of gears given what the OP says about her background, but it’s also not a call center or entry-level work at this point, and it’s pretty clear that her manager both believes in her and expects her to be able to handle these calls on her own.

        1. Pollygrammer*

          A good way to cut it off at the pass is to say “I’ll pass that feedback on to my manager” and not “I can transfer you to a manager.” Sometimes that will satisfy someone’s need to feel like their complaint is being escalated, and it makes the manager sound unavailable.

        2. Colette*

          Having spent some time developing processes for call centers, I can tell you that offering to escalate a call is not something that reps should be doing in that environment, either. They can re-route to another group if that’s the best way to get the issue fixed, but not offer an escalation to a supervisor because they don’t want to say no.

          1. Aerin*

            Yup, I’m in tech support, and I find myself at least once a day escalating a ticket to second level when I know well and good they’re not going to do a damn thing about it, because the customer will believe them when they won’t believe me and at least I tried. (And I always specify in the ticket that I’m escalating at the customer’s request, so second level knows what’s up.) I’ve never once pulled a manager onto an active call in almost seven years here.

            Honestly, when someone is spitting mad and puts on their ranty panties, I just let them talk. I fall silent except for the occasional mm-hmm to let them know I’m there and listening, but I don’t acknowledge their tone, their language, any of it, and I do not interrupt until they’re done. Once they finally wear themselves out I’ll continue on as if they had said everything neutrally. They’re looking to get some kind of reaction out of me, whether it’s fear or returning anger or something, so getting absolutely nothing short-circuits them. Plus, maintaining that level of rage is exhausting, and when you don’t have an answering emotion to feed it it just runs out of steam. Hell, more than once I’ve had someone spend a solid three minutes ranting and then say, “I know this isn’t your fault, I’m just frustrated.” Because once they’ve released the tension on their emotions, their rational brain will pop back up and make them think about how they’re coming across. Knowing that I don’t have to control my body language in the interaction, just my voice, and that they’re on the other side of a phone and can’t take a swing at me, really helps. There’s a concrete limit to what they can do to me, so I just let it wash over me like a bitchy tide.

            A lot of the time, they know full well that there’s nothing I can do and that my answer is not going to change. They just want to be heard, to have their frustration acknowledged and validated.

      2. LBK*

        Completely agreed. There’s very few situations where I’d expect that you transfer someone to the manager without them explicitly asking for it (and even then I usually initially resisted involving a manager and instead just holding firm on my answer).

    2. ErinW*

      I worked retail in college and I’ve been in student service since then, about 15 years. I have always looked at my positions (I’m an assistant currently) as gate-keeping ones. My manager, my director, whoever is in charge, is trusting me to only funnel the MOST important stuff up to him/her and take care of the rest myself. I take that responsibility very seriously. The people I work under are enormously busy most of the time. They do not need to be listening to somebody’s diatribe on why they should be allowed to file their paperwork after the deadline.

      Yes, I want to assist our customers/students as best we can–that’s why I like “I can’t do X for you, but I can do Y” as a solution. I admit I also sometimes fall back on “it’s just the org’s policy, I agree it is ridiculous, but it is what it is.”

  20. Snark*

    There’s a fine line between “you need to be confident in your ability to handle contentious situations on your own.” which is a fair request from your boss, and “you need to tackle every abusive, threat-slinging customer promising anything from litigation to personal harm,” which is the kind of situation his pay grade was basically invented for. I’m a little worried OP is being asked to deal with situations too contentious and hostile for an entry-level person to tackle.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I agree with the first sentence, but the OP says, “I’ve liked NOT having autonomy over my position? Hey, man, sorry you’re mad but I’m just the messenger — let me transfer you to someone with power (who will just say the same thing to you that I am).” So I do think she’s defaulting to that option more quickly than she should.

        1. Someone else*

          Yeah, it’s tricky because I think part of the issue may be the OP doesn’t know where the line is (or should be).

      1. ErinW*

        I have worked with that person– “don’t make me make decisions, don’t make me say yes or no” even when she absolutely knew what the policy was. A major component of her job was being there to answer those types of questions. She was much too timid for a front desk position and she made more work for everybody around her.

        1. Jesmlet*

          “she made more work for everybody around her This. There’s one of two problems in this general situation… either you don’t know an answer that you should know, or you do know but you lack the confidence or resolve to hold firm. Both of these scenarios would be irritating to deal with as the manager.

          This situation is probably an extreme but it sounds like this is a general issue with OP – not wanting to take responsibility for outcomes and have the final say. Unfortunately it seems like this is part of your job so do your best to figure out where the line is for transferring to him and try to stick with that (IMO it should be purely knowledge and/or request based)

      2. Not So NewReader*

        One thing that might have gotten by OP is that the longer we are in a position the more we are expected to be responsible for. So, yeah, the boss is going to expect you to absorb more as you go along.
        This does not mean abuse, and this does not mean situations that are one-off from the norm.

        Six years is a long time to be bumping calls to a boss. I would expect after a few years it would be very rare that a call would go to a boss.
        I don’t mind shouldering responsibility. But I am in a new-to-me field where I could spend the rest of my life learning it. The first year, I could not make it through a day without talking to my boss. Luckily, she loved questions and only became worried when there were no questions. Boy, did I have questions. The second year was a bit better. I am now in year number 6 and I still have questions but she knows if I have a question it will be a beaut.

        What Alison is saying is true. The longer we stay with jobs the more we are expected to be able to handle. Truly NO ONE likes dealing with difficult people, no one. So you are not alone on this one, but you can learn this skill. Added bonus, it will help you in your personal life also. When that car mechanic over charges you, you are going to know exactly what you want to say to deal with the situation. If a contractor fails to show up to repair your roof you will be on top of that scenario also. This is because you will gather more tools for how to deal with difficulty.

    2. LBK*

      Eh, yes and no. At the call center I worked in, it was expected that managers only took maybe one or two calls a week from people who specifically requested it. Otherwise you were expected/empowered to deal with your own problem callers. Even call center managers have better things to do than get screamed at all day – like, you know, managing.

    3. paul*

      There’s not really a way to know for sure without more details but that isn’t the vibe I’ve gotten. I’ve done client facing work (helping people access state benefits mostly, plus of course retail) and there are *definitely* some people that are quick on the trigger to escalate to a supervisor. Sometimes it’s a training issue–they come from a place where that’s the norm. Sometimes they just hate telling people no, or don’t handle confrontation well.

      Like right now our teams manager needs to be able to handle getting our accreditation, write some grants, etc. They don’t need to be dealing with someone who wants to insist that XYZ has funding when it doesn’t (I mean….bitch at your politicians about that, not me kthnx). That doesn’t mean they have to put up with abuse–we tell them they can discontinue services and we mean it *

      *I mean we review what happened to make sure that a caseworker or intake person isn’t being a jerk, but that’s happened…god, maybe 2-3 times total in the last few years?

  21. AdAgencyChick*

    Does your company do the standard “this call may be monitored for quality assurance”?* If so, why not ask your boss to let you listen in on someone who handles calls the way he would like you to handle them? Of course, there’s no guarantee that every time you listen in, it’ll be a jerky customer, but if you do this enough times, you’ll know what good looks like to your boss.

    Or, if you can’t do this, can you ask your boss to help you arrange role-play situations in which he or a colleague acts like a crappy customer?

    There’s all sorts of advice and scripts you can look at, but IMO there’s no substitute for seeing assertiveness in action and practicing it yourself.

    1. Anya*

      I agree with you. Alison’s scripted responses are fine, but working with colleagues on it would probably be much more effective. LW can get a feel for what is the accepted norm. And if LW’s coworkers aren’t very good at this maybe the boss needs to take a look in the mirror and realize they’re not equipping their employees with the tools to communicate properly.

      1. TootsNYC*

        agree! In fact, maybe you can do some role-playing with colleagues to get more comfortable. They’ll know all the “buttons” that callers try to regularly push.

        1. Yorick*

          We did role-playing in training when I worked in a survey center. My go-to when being the survey taker was to yell at the kids.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        I did a lot of training in retail. I always did “what if” scenarios involving difficult customers. Employees need to know BEFORE they encounter a situation what they should do. It is so defeating to struggle from one situation to another all day long.

  22. Zip Silver*

    Back in my hotel desk clerk days in college, I was in a few customer service situations where I had to be outright aggressive. Of course, evictions are never pleasant, but I was able to accomplish several of them without having to resort to calling the police.

  23. eplawyer*

    Don’t say I’m sorry if you are really not doing anything to fix the problem. I have just spent the last couple of months dealing with a lot of customer service people. Everytime they said “I’m sorry but yeah X ain’t happening” it just made me MORE frustrated. Just say “X is not an option. I can do Y and Z.” Offer solutions not platitudes. People are calling for a solution to the problem.

    1. Ainomiaka*

      Thank you!!!!! I hate these fake apologies so much. It’s just manipulation. There are ways to accomplish customer service without it.

      1. fposte*

        Heh–whereas to me an apology absolutely makes a difference, at least when it’s done right. I suspect there’s no one size fits all on this one.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          Yeah, I would not skip the “I’m sorry” part either. I know the answer won’t change no matter what happens. I don’t see where saying “I’m sorry” puts a person in a bad spot.

          A while ago I mentioned some lousy customer service I got at a bank. No one, not even the manger bothered to say they were sorry. And this is after numerous conversations. I tend to think less of people who are unable to offer any expression of regret. In the end, I will probably move my accounts over this situation and the final straw is that NO ONE expressed regret.

          1. Ainomiaka*

            See and I guess I think that no matter what they say they don’t really regret it. At least not enough to do anything about it. So you can either have no regret or no regret and being condesended to.

    2. Someone else*

      When I managed a support team we usually actively advised people not to apologize, or at minimum, not to apologize more than once. I agree with Allison’s advice in the post mostly, but don’t love some of the scripts. In the examples the OP gave, it sounds like most of the scenarios they were dealing with are the caller is actually wrong (or had advance notice of the policy or whatever). In those situations, I really advise CSRs not to use the phrase “so sorry” or “really sorry” because if the company didn’t actually make a mistake, the “so sorry” can sometimes continue to fuel the caller’s ire. They feel justified in how right they are to be pissed, and stay pissed. The “understand that you’re frustrated” is, to me, a better approach, and definitely the “I can’t do X but I can do Y”. We reserve apologies for when we actually screwed something up though, not just when the client is unhappy for any reason. Otherwise the focus is on “this is what I CAN do for you”. Sometimes people just want to yell, and you let them, and then they tire themselves out, and you offer them a choice “I can do this or I can do that” the end. They get to choose from their actual options. And when the caller gets more emotional, the person handling the call gets LESS emotional.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I think that it’s really important to know the people you serve. I can see in some arenas where an apology might bring more trouble. But in many cases the lack of apology has triggered lawsuits. I have read of court cases where at the end the plaintiff says, “I would not have sued but the person/company/whatever never, ever bothered to apologize. If they had apologized I would have let it go.”

        1. Someone else*

          I’m familiar with those cases, but the situations in which I’m advising not to apologize are those when we didn’t actually do anything wrong or even vaguely inappropriate, and wouldn’t be something that could possibly result in a lawsuit that wouldn’t be immediately dismissed. Things like “your purchase order explicitly states you’re buying a widget that does A and only A, and B can be purchased separately” and then the client comes in fuming that they thing they bought doesn’t do B, when every communication we’ve ever had with them states outright that it won’t do B, and here’s the part where they initialed declining B. Try not to apologize in times like that, or *maybe* go for an “I’m sorry for the confusion”. But best to go straight to offering solutions.

          If you promised delivery on Monday and it is now Wednesday and not delivered, certainly apologize then, but my real point is screaming should not automatically result in apologies.

    3. This Daydreamer*

      Good point. When I’m talking to someone who is unhappy with a situation, I tend to say “I’m sorry that happened. It sounds really frustrating. Here’s what I can do.”

  24. Dinosaur*

    I definitely had this problem when I first started working at a call center. I don’t know if you’re the visualization type, OP, but I found it really helpful to take a breath and imagine myself as a huge boulder in the middle of a river. The more the caller yelled or was snippy, the faster the water moved. But I was a huge boulder and no matter how fast the water went, that boulder wasn’t going to be pushed around. It helped remind me that I am not at the whim of the customer, and that I don’t have to take on the customer’s anger. Maybe something similar could help you?

    1. TootsNYC*

      That’s a great visualization!

      Another possible tactic is to think about the OTHER customers who are waiting to be helped.

      My sister was a 411 operator. She was in trouble for not moving on from calls quickly enough, and she told me she felt obligated to help people get a number even if they didn’t have the right town, or the right spelling of the person’s name.

      I told her to visualize a library-information-desk queue. All these people who need help finding a book, waiting patiently with pieces of paper that have the author’s name or the title, or they have a subject that they want to find several books on. And the guy at the front wants a book he read in grade school about some cat that traveled to outerspace, and he can’t remember the author or the title, but the cover was blue.
      The people who show up in the line have their OWN obligation to not waste people’s time.

      So maybe remember that these people are getting in the way of OTHER customers who DID do their part of the transaction.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        It’s good to know what service you provide and what service you don’t provide.

        In Toot’s example here the library clerk was not required to remember what the covers of books looked like. Identifying a book by the cover picture was not a service they provided.

        I give things the Everyone Test. If Everyone came in with this question would we be able to handle the questions and our regular work load? As soon as I think of everyone asking me to do X or Y I get that clarity to decide if handling the question is realistic or not.

    2. JennyAnn*

      If you’re at an inbound center that just handles the calls at random instead of being assigned callers, it can also be extremely freeing to remember that when the call is over, you’re done with them forever.

      (The one glorious exception being the time an abusive customer called in with outlandish and against-policy claims of what the last representative had told him and when I checked the call logs on the account the last person he spoke to was… me that morning. And I had left detailed notes on the account. Glorious.)

      But seriously, the call can only last so long. They would yell at anyone (usually) on the other end of the line. And once the call ended, regardless of their emotions, if I had done my job correctly, it was no longer my problem. If they were really being obnoxious and it wasn’t something I could escalate (I wasn’t allowed to offer), I’d roll my eyes and remember that I could go on with my life and they were stuck being them.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        It’s great when I was on the previous call, too. I love it when I say, “Well you spoke with ME this morning” and then there is dead silence. The caller had not planned on what to say if they got the same person on the phone the second time.

      2. This Daydreamer*

        Ha! I’ve gotten that call with the impossible promises that “the man they spoke with earlier” had cheerfully given. Yeah, I’m the one you talked to a couple of hours ago, and I’d love to know why you thought squeaky me was male.

  25. Scrumtrillescent*

    I left a job that was pretty much back to back Not Happy Customers, in person, all day every day. The things that helped me the most were:

    Engaging in our interaction like we are two people, on the same side, trying to solve a problem together.

    Giving them the opportunity to say everything they wanted to say. Sometimes people feel better after venting! Letting them get it all out can sometimes make the rest of the interaction go so much more smoothly. Even if they say things that are incorrect, just let them get it all out.

    Validating their perception whenever possible. You don’t have to say they’re right if they’re wrong, but you can say that you would also be frustrated if you were in their position or that they’re you’re sorry that they’re not having the positive experience with your company that you hope for all of your customers to have.

    Explaining how I was approaching the issue and why.

    Asking for the customer’s input.

    Giving concrete options based on the information gleaned during our interaction..

    Explaining why those are the available options.

    Telling the customer which option I would choose if it were me and asking the customer which option works best for them.

    Letting them know that it is OK to take time to think about it and giving them an easy way to get back in touch. In my job that meant either setting them up another time to come by in person or having someone for our company call them at a specific date and time.

    1. JennyAnn*


      Your first recommendation is particularly helpful with a person who has a track record of being abusive. I can’t tell you how many times I’d have accounts call in that were flagged with alerts about language and abusive behavior, backed up with a list of notes recording/outlining their call history, but gave me no trouble if I treated them like I hadn’t seen the notes.

    2. Tuna Casserole*

      Really listening to what they have to say is very important. People calm down when they feel they have been heard.

  26. Ann Furthermore*

    OP, is there someone you work with — whether it’s your boss or someone else — who is good at handling these types of situations? If so, you can try and model your response to what they would do. Or ask if you could sit in on a call with an angry customer so you can get some tips. My boss is really, really good at handling these types of situations, and I have learned so much just by listening to and observing how she deals with this kind of thing. Sometimes I even take notes afterwords so I can refer back to them later.

    There’s a great book called Crucial Conversations: Tools For Talking When Stakes Are High that’s really good. There’s also training based on the same book, which I took at my last company. It was a really good class.

    And also, I agree with the poster above to make sure that you know, legally, what you can and cannot promise, authorize, deny, etc.

    1. Engineer Girl*

      I also want to recommend Crucial Conversations. Disclosure: I took the course too.

      It really helped me deal with my sister when she embezzled my Dads savings account. After that, I was sold!

      One of the biggest things is that it helps you have the conversation earlier before things blow up and become crucial. And for me, it helped me realize when people were acting dysfunctionally.

  27. Oogie*

    I have two rules with client interaction. No yelling, no cursing. If you partake in either, I will calmly ask you to stop so I can help you. If that doesn’t happen, the conversation ends.

  28. LBK*

    I disagree with part of Alison’s suggested responses, which is what feels to me like overly obsequious apologizing. It may sound counterintuitive, but I think not apologizing to angry people for things that aren’t actually your/the company’s fault tends to work out better and helps you hold firmer the way your manager wants you to.

    Back in college, I did customer service/tech support back for a relatively well-known website where that was the official policy: that we didn’t apologize for things that weren’t actually an issue we caused but were, say, just something they needed to change in their account settings, or were issues with their browser and not the site. Not only is it empowering as a CS rep to not feel like you’re groveling all the time when you didn’t do anything wrong, but it also frames the conversation so it’s not you trying to make it up to the customer for your mistake but rather you educating them and helping them understand what their actual options are in the situation.

    I carried this over when I later went into retail customer service – I didn’t apologize to people who were outside of the (readily available and fairly straightforward) return policy. When I started working in a call center that handled retirement plans, I didn’t apologize to people for tax laws that restricted access to their money. I think generally speaking, if someone is that mad about a situation where their desired path isn’t possible, an apology comes off like an admission of guilt, and it sets them up to expect you to make it up to them in some way.

    Instead, leave out the apology and just be clear and matter-of-fact about the situation. If they start yelling and swearing, it sounds like your manager has given you the go-ahead to tell them you can’t continue the call and that if they swear again you will hang up. That’s at least the advantage of working over the phone instead of in-person – much harder to get someone to leave the customer service desk before they believe the conversation is over than it is to end a phone call.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Oh, that’s interesting — I’m annoyed by obsequious apologizing, and I didn’t see it in my scripts but I definitely do see now how they could be read that way. I’d say any way of showing kindness/empathy is fine (“I’m so sorry about that” is a quick way to do it but there are others), but the main focus of the response should be on the substance of the answer.

      1. LBK*

        I think for a customer who has a problem that can easily be solved and who isn’t upset about it, it’s a bit of politeness, but I’ve found that for people who are as incensed as the ones the OP seems to be talking about, it seems to actually make it worse – they don’t want empathy, they want a solution.

      2. Someone else*

        FWIW, the part that struck me was the “so sorry” and the “really sorry”. I know I’m nitpicking here, but the same sentences with just “I’m sorry” or “I’m sorry to hear that” would be less likely to trigger my “obsequious apologizing” meter.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Yep, I can see that. I think a lot depends on tone. I use those phrases myself, but I also tend to say them briskly and tend to come across as fairly assertive, and I suspect that makes a difference.

        2. critter*

          I think a lot of it just comes down to personal styles. Some people are more comfortable apologizing more than others, and an apology sounds better coming from someone who’s comfortable doing the apologizing. If that much apologizing makes you uncomfortable, tweak it a bit until you find something you are comfortable with. Yes, customers respond to the specific words and phrases, but they also respond to any emotions they perceive coming from the service rep.

    2. Akcipitrokulo*

      That’s a good point; it’s possible to be empathetic without apologising. “It sounds really frustrating for you – what I can do is…” or “I understand that’s upsetting; unfortunately the regulations state…”

      1. LBK*

        Exactly – you can recognize their emotion without admitting fault. It sounds small but I did find it really makes a difference, both in resolving these interactions and in you not getting worn down as much by always feeling like a doormat.

        1. Ktelzbeth*

          I haven’t been in customer service since decades ago when I was a cashier in high school, so I bring no current knowledge to this discussion. I don’t see “I’m sorry” as always an admission of fault. I think about all the times I have said or heard things along the lines “I’m sorry your dog/aunt/cousin died/got sick/threw up on your favorite shoes,” in which the speaker had nothing to do with the actions of the dog/aunt/cousin at all. It can be an expression of sympathy as well as an admission of fault and that complicated duality is where some of the problems with saying “I’m sorry” or not come in.

    3. Ambivalent*

      Apologizing is cultural. In Japan, people apologize all the time. It hardly means anything, but it’s part of just being basically polite. In Germany, I found that people rarely apologized. One even said to me “it’s the company that messed up, not me”. But you are the face of the company, aren’t you? In the US, it’s been half way between the two. I still like it when I get an apology even if I know it’s a formality (I never ask for one unless the company WAS wrong in some way) and it certainly makes me less angry.

      1. Myrin*

        That is definitely not the standard in Germany – that person was just rude and stubborn.
        (I also wouldn’t agree that we “rarely” apologise. Compared to other cultures, probably, but reading about American experiences on this site doesn’t strike me as at all different from German ones.)

  29. Lily in NYC*

    I was always trained to never say the words “I’m sorry” to an angry client. “I apologize” was considered slightly more acceptable, along with “I understand your frustration”. I guess there are lots and lots of consumer behavior studies behind this reasoning, but I never really understood why “I’m sorry” was worse than “I apologize”.

    1. Bea*

      They usually loop this in because by saying you’re sorry, you are accepting blame for something. However I still say it but have never been told not to, it’s just more “I’m sorry you’re upset, let’s see if we can do anything for you.”

    2. Former Retail Manager*

      I received similar training in my many years as a retail manager, although most of it was geared toward accidents/falls because “I’m sorry” is essentially an admission of fault. Accidents/falls aside, I disregarded the training and played it by ear based on my assessment of the customer in front of me and responded with what I felt was appropriate considering the customer’s level of frustration/anger. My gut was rarely wrong. I realize that is substantially easier to do in person versus on the phone.

      I don’t think that most people getting an “I’m sorry” believe the problem to be your fault. It’s more of “I’m sorry that you’ve been inconvenienced, made upset, disappointed with the product, etc. ” and it seemed to make people calm down ever so slightly. I always followed that up immediately with a proposed solution and tried to get them out of their anger mode and into solution mode, which is what most people really want anyway.

      1. Lily in NYC*

        Right – I understand that but it never made sense to me that the word apologize was ok but sorry wasn’t.

    3. Agathe_M*

      My gut instinct says that “I apologize” is a little more formal and a little more distant. Also, it’s a verb, whereas the sorry in “I’m sorry” is adjectival. Back-of-the-envelope psycholinguistics: having someone *do something about* your problem may be more validating than hearing them describe how they feel.

      Additionally, “I apologize” carries (faint) undertones of “on behalf of my org”. “I’m sorry” could carry the same, but often is just a personal emotion (otherwise you’d go for “we’re sorry”).

  30. LQ*

    OP you mentioned that you’re in government. If something is the law, that’s just the way the law is. You can’t change the law. The caller can’t change the law. Your boss can’t change the law. (Some small caveats there but..basically true.) If someone is just angry about what the law itself is and wants to sue over that, they can. That’s what the court system is for, to throw out their lawsuit. But if you are confident in knowing what those things are I totally get where your boss is coming from. And chances are good that the people using these threats have had it work elsewhere to get what they want.

    You could be writing in from our call center. One of the things we talk about a lot is shutting people down rather than passing those calls onto a manager. If someone wants to jump the line talking to a manager won’t help. Talking to a director won’t help. Talking to the commissioner won’t help. That’s just the way it is. Because they, and everyone else*, aren’t customers they are citizens. They have a set of rights that comes with being a citizen and that means that you need to follow those for everyone. You can’t give someone a discount because it took too long. You can’t decide that this person needs more time for something that legally has to happen in 30 days.

    You can (and should!) still give good customer service and do all those things, but if it’s not just about pleasing the customer, it’s about doing what is legally mandated for all of the citizens, not just the one yelling about lawsuits.

    It can sometimes help to remember that you have a lawyer in that case. (We have an entire floor full of them just for such matters.)

    1. TootsNYC*

      also remember that you are actually working for OTHER citizens, by enforcing the laws their representatives put in place.

      1. LQ*

        Yes! Your comment above about the other people waiting has been one of my favorite ways to keep myself and others from dwelling too much on some stuff. You are serving all citizens, not just the one on the phone, they are all always your customers.

    2. Lynca*

      One of the things I find helps when dealing with angry people and the government is explaining how the process works. A lot of times they genuinely don’t know why X takes this long or why we have to do a specific thing for Y.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Our systems are so encumbered and it takes a jawdropping amount of work to do the simplest things.

  31. Akcipitrokulo*

    One thing that might help – your boss knows the business, knows what is and isn’t OK, knows how the business will react and knows YOUR competence.

    And believes that you ARE competent to make these decisions.

    It’s OK to believe him :)

  32. Bea*

    I had to teach myself this years ago because my boss was a grouch who I kept away from customers unless things went upside down and sideways.

    It’s all about the “sorry you’re mad” and staying as chill and as helpful as possible. If someone wants to threaten a lawsuit, you need to have a script ready for it and you’ll grow into the confidence over time.

    I remember being held hostage on a line for over an hour a decade ago with some massively hormonal lady who was mad she could smell something on the furniture she had bought. I had no clue what was happening because for all we knew it had been coated in sludge in the transit process and we still don’t have scratch and sniff abilities for these situations, sigh.

    It’s also about hardening yourself and knowing many of these bullies are upset at something completely out of our control and you kill them with kindness. Sometimes they just need to vent as well. I’ve talked a lot if of angry clients down from the swooping screaming attack they start with.

  33. nnn*

    It might be useful to have a conversation with your manager about what exactly you are authorized to do – not just if you can offer customers anything to assuage them, but whether you can say “I’m terribly sorry you feel that way, but our policy is firm. Perhaps you’d be happier with another llama groomer.”

    Also, sometimes (depending on context and personalities), when adjusting to a new level of responsibility or a manager with different preferences, it can be useful to explicitly state “I’m going to err on the side of…” So in this case, you could say something like “Based on our earlier conversation, I’m going to err on the side of handling customers as I see fit without checking with you first. Let me know if at any point you’d like me to do anything differently, and I’ll adjust accordingly” This has the useful dual function of you explicitly taking on responsibility your manager wants you to take on, while at the same time handing your manager responsibility for coaching you if you don’t meet their expectations (as opposed to you automatically promising to meet their expectations singlehandedly), presented in a way that makes you sound adaptable and willing to please.

  34. RES ADMIN*

    I’ve had a lot of practice in that type of thing–only in that job, I was mandated to “be nice”. And I was doing it all day every day (with some of the most unreasonable people on the planet).

    So, what worked for me:
    Stay calm. If they get loud, I speak softer. If they start speaking fast, I speak more slowly.
    Agree with the person on whatever you can legitimately agree with. “I agree, that seems really frustrating!”
    Always, always pleasant and scripts similar to the ones given. Try to follow “I can’t” with something you can do.
    Ask question about why they perceive it as a problem (where applicable)–it makes them feel like they are beign heard and helps you get deeper into fixing the problem.
    Threats to sue, get you fired, etc. “Well, certainly, if you feel that is appropriate.” Just acknowledge their statement and move on.
    If you need “manager” authority, then offer to discuss with your manager and call back. My boss learned not to ask questions if I walked into his office and said “ok, tell me ‘No'”–he’d just say it. I’d call back after a suitable period of time and tell them “Manager said ‘No” so your options are still Y or Z”. Sometimes it just makes people feel better to think it has been escalated.
    If all else fails, hang up while you are mid-sentence. That break generally gives the person a chance to calm down–and no one seems to believe you would hang up on yourself so “oops! we must have been cut off is as far as you need to go.

    You can do this. Just remind yourself, it really isn’t personal and be thankful that while these people have to live with themselves, you don’t!

    1. TootsNYC*

      “Stay calm. If they get loud, I speak softer. If they start speaking fast, I speak more slowly.”

      This is really interesting and powerful.

      I know that parents are often told that when their children aren’t listening, it’s tempting–but ineffective–to speak more loudly. Whisper.

      And comics have said, “when you’re bombing, it’s tempting–but ineffective–to speed up, get more frenetic. Slow down.”

  35. Justin*

    A few years back, I worked at a senior center frequented by very grandiose senior citizens.

    One lady said she would sue me (and called my viability as an educator into question) because I wouldn’t give her lunch when we were literally out of food and she arrived late. (I can’t even.) She made a big show of writing down my name, saying she couldn’t believe I called myself a professional, etc. But people like this, they just want to intimidate you. I literally never saw that woman again.

    It’s scary, to think you might be liable. But the chances are vanishingly small.

    Good luck to you.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Sometimes you can see the absurdity right in the moment. And you will know, OP, they haven’t got a legal leg to stand on.

  36. J.B.*

    I responded in a thread above – if you work for a local government and your boss occasionally swears he should not be your model! A good old boy might get away with it. Someone younger (and especially someone female) won’t. Look for local government organizations or if applicable utility organizations in your state. They likely offer some customer service training that would give you specifics you can apply.

    Also see if there are any very competent admins who have been there forever. See if they will help you or can give suggestions.

  37. hbc*

    “I know for a fact that I don’t respond aggressively back because I AM afraid of making the wrong call … even though I’m 99.9% sure that I’m correct.”

    So you’ll be wrong one time in a thousand? Your boss is telling you that he would rather have that 1 mistake than him fielding the 999 tough calls that you would have gotten right. And even with the big assumption that he’d get all of these 100% correct, it’s still probably better for the company to have one (technically) avoidable frivolous crackpot lawsuit than have a manager take hundreds of time-wasting phone calls.

    Plus, I think you’re thinking of this in terms that are far too black and white. You didn’t necessarily do anything wrong if you can’t stop someone from suing your company. Sometimes you can only stop someone from doing that if you have a million dollars to offer or a time machine to undo whatever happened. Sometimes A, B, and C are all good choices in dealing with a customer, and it’s just luck that B will sometimes soothe the savage customer but rile another guy who is using the same words. So even if the call ends up non-ideal for you/the company, it doesn’t mean you were wrong in how you handled it.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      You know, it’s a good exercise to figure out what we will do IF we make a mistake. OP, you can call the person back. Tell them, “After I hung up with you, something nudged me to dig a bit deeper. I found that I had given you the incorrect information and I now have the correct info in front of me.”

      People are amazing. Many times people will just be wowed that you called back and told them the correct info.

    2. TootsNYC*

      also, if you’re wrong, what will happen? How bad is that, really?

      Is someone going to die? Probably not
      Will someone be mad? They’ll get over it (that, or they’ll die mad–how likely is that?).

      Probably someone will have to apologize. Which isn’t the end of the world.
      Oh, yes, the customer (citizen) will be inconvenienced, but that isn’t the end of the world anyway.

      Knowledge is powerful, and when you know more, you have more power.

    3. Lil Fidget*

      I have two modes at work depending on who I’m working for – one where I take one step at a time before checking in, and I keep getting progressive approval, and a second mode where I proceed with my own best judgement and believe that I have the final authority for as long as I possibly can. I don’t hand a problem over to my superiors until I’ve reached the end of my abilities. You can only do this with bosses who want you do this – mine are very busy so they’d rather I be wrong than bother them. It sounds like OP’s boss is asking for them to operate in that second mode and see how it works out. It’s a little scarier and harder, but it’s also more fun!

  38. Student*

    You may need to get more informed on how lawsuits work. In this context, you are not personally going to get sued – your company will get sued. If that happens, there are things at issue that you may not realize/understand:

    (1) Whether or not you have the “final say” will have no bearing on whether you get sucked into the lawsuit. You can get called as a witness and questioned even if you’re “just the messenger”

    (2) Dealing with the lawsuit would be part of your job if it happened due ot following company policy. Your job ought to cover your expenses and time.

    (3) The lawsuit would probably be settled or tossed out long before you even hear about it. Most of these kinds of suits don’t go to court.

    (4) If you are doing something illegal, even if it is part of your job as directed by your manager, being “just the messenger” does not protect you from legal consequences at all. Odds are good someone will go after the company rather than you, personally, for a civil lawsuit for practical reasons (more money to be had) – but that doesn’t clear you from criminal liability issues.

  39. Goya de la Mancha*

    I wonder if some of the hesitation on OP’s part is to do with not feeling like Higher ups would back her if she did behave the way they suggested and the customer became irate enough to follow through with their threats?

    This is my issue in current job. I have no problems handling unhappy people and dealing them bad news, I have no problems if they want to swear at me and berate me because I’m following policy. However, I do know that if I do not involve my manager at some point, I will be the one who is reprimanded by Corporate – because “the customer is always right”. Even though manager will tell customer exact same words that just came out of my mouth, it will be on me that it wasn’t handled “properly”.

  40. EmilyG*

    I used to have problems being assertive (well, I probably still do in some contexts) and one way I got over it was just to pretend to be a certain friend of mine (who is SUPER-assertive). Somehow it was easier to imagine what she would do than to start by imagining how I should handle it. It was a fake-it-til-you-make-it stepping stone, if you will.

    1. TootsNYC*

      Nice trick!

      Also, our OP could imagine that she is being firm on behalf of someone else; I know I’ll go to bat much more assertively if I’m protecting or advocating for someone other than me.

  41. grasshopper*

    “Hey, man, sorry you’re mad but I’m just the messenger.”

    That attitude can actually exacerbate customer frustration and escalate the situation. Customers don’t want to hear that their problem isn’t a problem for you. They want you to take ownership of the situation and either solve it or explain why it can’t be solved.

    You might want to look at active listening techniques. Active listening is very useful in dealing with difficult customers.

    1. fposte*

      I would agree on the “just the messenger” thing; I find it frustrating when employees don’t realize that when they’re the contact point they *are* the company/organization/government.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Actually if OP thinks of herself as more than just the messenger she actually might find it easier to deal with folks and have less problems.

  42. Caledonia*

    I would suggest if your organisation can send you on any relevant training. Maybe resilience training, complaints handling etc.

    1. CheeryO*

      Good point – I took an assertive communication course that was really useful for these kinds of situations.

  43. voyager1*

    Hi LW,
    I want to address JUST the first part of your letter first. You absolutely need to loop your manager when you get a customer who does what you said with the “all the right words.” Just a quick email. He shouldn’t complain about that he should know the difference between a heads up vs a need help with situation

    I am a little concerned your company allows customers to verbally harass and cuss at CSRs though. Every bank and FI I have worked at the company’s allowed CSRs to terminate calls for that.

    1. RES ADMIN*

      She said she works for a state entity. That is different. The parties are pretty much stuck working together, no matter what. All anyone can really do is try to diffuse the situation and move forward as best as possible towards some sort of resolution.

      I know I didn’t have any alternative but to find a way to make things work. My boss certainly did not want me to escalate anything to him unless absolutely necessary–and generally he’d tell them they needed to work with me on it. And, actually, after talking to him once or twice, they were generally MUCH happier working with me.

  44. AvidReader31*

    I work in the government and tend to get my fair share of angry, inappropriate phone calls – as when people are angry, they feel that they should be able to speak to you any way they want. Early in my career, I tended to allow people to speak to me aggressively because I was concerned I would lose my job or it would negatively affect my boss. Nowadays, with years of experience, I refuse to allow people to swear or scream at me. I will let people vent, but when it becomes abusive, I swiftly interrupt and state “Sir/Ma’am, I am happy to help you, but I will not allow you to continue to verbally abuse and swear at me. If you continue to do so, I am hanging up the phone and this call is over.” Surprisingly, this tends to deescalates the situation 9 out of 10 times. When it doesn’t, I hang up the phone. I also have caller ID and do not pick up the call again (all with the approval of my supervisors). The OP may want to talk to her supervisor about being able to put into play this type of language, because no one deserves to be verbally abused at their job on a daily basis.

  45. Mrs. Fenris*

    I deal with a LOT of emotional, angry, and occasionally abusive people. My quick tutorial:

    1. Listen to them until they stop talking. A lot of people really just want to be heard. Really listen-put yourself in their shoes as much as you can.

    2. Empathize. Give them a sincere “oh man, I know this is frustrating.”

    3. Don’t take it personally, because it’s not personal.

    4. Don’t ever say “it’s policy.” That won’t help. I do have to tell people sometimes that the law requires X or my insurance won’t allow Y, but something about the word “policy” makes people crazy.

    5. I rarely send complaints up the chain, even if I’m not the final
    authority. That just passes the problem to somebody else.

    6. If people yell about “lawsuit”, as others have said, they’re usually blowing hot air. Actually, over time I’ve learned to be a little more worried about the polite, ice cold types.

    7. On the other hand, if an actual attorney starts yelling and invoking the “I’m a lawyer and I’m going to do X, I have a couple of times threatened right back to report them to the state bar. The bar doesn’t love it when their members act like bullies. But then I remind them that unlike their business relationships, mine are not supposed to be adversarial, so now let’s get back to solving the problem.

    8. ONE time, and one time only, I did call the cops and had a client thrown out.

    1. Mrs. Fenris*

      By the way, I can only remember one time that somebody who started yelling “lawsuit” actually did it. To my huge amusement, I got a message from a locally well-known ambulance chaser, one of those guys that advertises on daytime TV. I called them back and got an associate lawyer who sounded completely baffled about what he was supposed to do. I got him calmed down and resisted the urge to ask him whether he’d gotten payment up front. I had a feeling this guy want any more likely to pay his lawyer than he was to pay me.

  46. Argh!*

    See if you can go to training titled something like “Dealing with difficult people.” There are a few principles that tend to work, like Alison’s suggestions to acknowledge the other person’s experience and offer to do what you can do. In a good training session you may have the opportunity to do some role playing. That could help you keep your head the next time someone wants to escalate.

  47. Phoenix Programmer*

    As a previous call center manager I am giving the manager the side eye here. Well managed programs give CSRs the tools to handle this. Training should include role playing, and frequent reviews of specific events with feedback to improve. How to descalate abusive customers is new hire training 101 so I am shocked you haven’t been given tools for dealing with cusssers and threateners. The manger saying “you rely on me too much” without actionable feedback is pretty lame.

    1. Call centre worker*

      It’s possible that the centre does provide such training to new starters but that it’s not a skill that comes naturally to the OP. The OP doesn’t really say what training they had or how much experience they have.

      I don’t think the manager’s feedback is particularly un-actionable as it sounds like he’s basically telling them that they have his permission to be firmer. Although he is in a way saying “you rely on me too much” he’s also saying “and you don’t need to, because you know what you’re doing”.

  48. GreenDoor*

    Ugh the belligerent callers! I used to work with them a lot. Here’s my tips:
    1. Keep it in perspective. People who toss out “lawyer” “police” “media” are feeling powerless and they using those kinds of words because, hey, cops, lawyers, and media people are in positions of power and influence. But stop and evaluate the specific call. Are the cops really going to come out….would the press really do a story on…would someone really pay attorney’s fees to sue over a broken teapot? If the answer is no, don’t sweat the threat! I would respond very pleasantly with, “Well, if you think consulting an attorney makes sense, you might wish to do that. In the meantime, as I said, I can do X but not Y. How would you like me to proceed?

    2. Escalate if the caller is really being abusive – using excessively foul language, using racial or other crude language, physically threatening you or others, etc.

    3. Escalate if the customer is one of your top customers.

    4. Escalate if the customer actually IS a person of influence that really could harm your organization.

    1. Observer*

      On #2, I’d say it’s not necessary – the OP indicates that the boss has empowered her to shut that down. Just DO that. “I’m going to have to end the conversation”. Then END IT.

  49. Call centre worker*

    I deal with escalated calls in my job, and if I took one where the agent had offered to put the caller through to a manager when they didn’t request it themselves, in most cases I would be giving similar feedback to the OP’s manager (in fact, usually if we know the agent offered we would push back and encourage/coach/help the agent to resolve the call themselves).

    OP, I don’t know if you’re actually saying this to callers, but in my experience it never helps to tell them that your manager will just tell them the same thing you told them!

    It might help to put yourself in your manager’s shoes when dealing with a difficult call and think “if I were to transfer this call to my manager, what would he do?” I think that for a lot of escalated calls that I deal with, the agent does actually know what a manager would do but has got stuck in an adversarial position with the customer (for example, in my line of work, an agent might decide a valid but minor complaint isn’t worthy of a gift voucher when the customer thinks it is, and instead of giving a £10 voucher will spend £30 of agent and manager time because they haven’t realised they need to change tack). Helping the agent to realise that they do know how to resolve calls like that can help them to actually do it the next time!

    If you aren’t sure what your manager would do, then maybe you can ask to listen in the next time he takes a call like that?

  50. Wendy Ann*

    Serious question, OP. Do you agree with the policies etc that they expect you to defend to the complainers? I once worked in customer service for a company that completely legal, but morally bankrupt policies/T&C for their services and products. I hated dealing with the complaints because I was mostly on the customer’s side but couldn’t do anything to help them because “policy”. It was like, if someone else told them no, I could avoid the horrible person I felt like on the inside when I had to say no to their request.

  51. Lorange*

    One thing I’ve observed that is helpful when someone is swearing at you or calling you names, is to calmly say, “I’d like to help you with , but I could do without the swearing/language.” You have the right to speak up for yourself as well.

  52. This Daydreamer*

    Wow. Loads of great advice here on handling difficult calls. I don’t feel like I’ve got more advice to you in that line.

    But I do feel like someone should tell you that, while it’s going to be hard learning to be more assertive, it will be a skill you love having.

    And I found that the most soul-killing aspect of my old retail job was knowing for a fact that I had to follow all of the rules, no matter how upset the customer got, and I would then be undermined when the customer went to a manager and I would get in trouble because the customer was unhappy. It was always my fault that the customer didn’t like being told that I absolutely had to follow the rules (yes, I would be fired for deviating) and the customer would often return to me after the manager gave them the world and smugly tell me that I was clearly incompetent. And then the manager would remind me that my job was to make the customer happy and also follow all company rules. Gah. I get a tension headache just thinking about it. So anyway, be glad that your boss wants you to feel empowered. It’s a lot better than having doormat as an unofficial job title.

  53. NYC Weez*

    The best advice I ever was given was from a boss who said that most times, people get irate because they don’t feel listened to. She suggested that I ask a “What will make this better for you?” type of question instead of launching into all the “no”s that they are already mad about.

    You may find that the person wants a resolution that’s actually easy for you to handle. Or you may find that they are completely unreasonable and have a ridiculous ask. But even with the latter, by asking, you’ve signaled to them that you want to work with them to solve their problem AND you know exactly what they are hoping to get. So you can then guide the conversation a bit more.

  54. Beatrice*

    I’ve been mentoring someone in our customer support team lately – she handles a bunch of escalated calls, and I designed the operations processes we use to support them, and trained her to understand those processes, so she knows what we’re able to do and what we’re not. She deals with some really difficult people, and some of them are mean, and she was taking it all *way* too personally. Here’s some stuff I taught her:

    -You need your own objective barometer of what’s a good job and what isn’t, when you’re dealing with unreasonable people. Your measure for doing a good job can’t be making everyone happy. If we normally ship orders in 30 days and you’re able to make a shipment in 5 days for an unhappy customer, that might be a good job, even if the customer wanted it shipped todaaaaaay.
    -You need to be able to objectively look at the factors leading to the disappointment and weigh them appropriately. In general, if people fail to own their own stuff and that causes problems with your stuff, don’t let the results make you feel like you’re failing personally. If your boss is upset that you’re taking 2 days off, but it’s just that your team isn’t staffed appropriately (is never staffed appropriately) and there is no plan to cover time off for you, so it doesn’t matter that you gave reasonable warning – that’s a management problem, not a you problem.
    -Don’t let other people’s emotional reactions to a situation impact you. Managing other people’s emotions is not your job. People don’t have to like you! They have to do their jobs, they have to treat you with respect, but whether they like you or not isn’t something you should worry about. People are allowed to be mad at things! Do your best, and if they’re still mad, they’ll either get over it or die mad. Picture someone cartoonishly taking a grudge over a chocolate coffee pot to their grave, and realize that a) no one is going to do that, and b), if they do, they’re too ridiculous to worry about.

  55. Noah*

    I am currently on hold with Comcast because the CSR is saying they can’t do something I know they can do… so keep escalating because your supervisor is just trying not to do his job.

  56. SophieK*


    I’m the co worker who is willing to be handed the difficult calls. Who sticks her neck out and is willing to make a mistake and get in trouble. Who is assigned the difficult clients. Who can take a customer from screaming at me to hugging me a few minutes later. And who, at my last job, earned the nickname “the sh!t shoveler.”

    Know what? I’m sick to death of taking on all the stress and not getting paid any extra for it. I’m tired of course workers who won’t STEP UP because they are scared and anxious. It’s not an excuse. I have an anxiety disorder too and I do my job.

    To see all your excuses written out is kind of disturbing. In years past (I’m 47) you would not have been coached and coddled. Or even written up. You would be fired, as you are essentially telling your boss that you are not willing or able to do your job.

    Find your backbone, tell your boss you appreciate him, and take some stress off your co workers plates!

    1. I heart Paul Buchman*

      This is really harsh. I’m sorry that you have had such negative experiences but it isn’t fair to project your situation onto the letter writer who has written in asking for help.
      Some people are better suited than others at dealing with difficult clients. One occupational hazard that I have seen is that after years of dealing with difficult clients you lose your ability to empathise.

  57. Wintermute*

    I used to be the intermediary department that took escalated calls, and at times I did callbacks on behalf of my manager of “escalated escalations” (people that asked to speak to a manager, and then asked to speak to the MANAGER’S manager), so I think I have both a few resources and a few tips.

    First of all, be confident in your policy. It contains the answers and, if your company is well-run, the policies were crafted with the full participation of your legal team, potentially a regulatory affairs department, and other experts that were there just to determine whether or not the policy gave rise to legal liabilities. Legal threats are usually just bluster, and if you are following policy, you are doing what the company wants of you, there’s no need to escalate that unless you feel the claim is *well-founded*. If there was an actual ethics issue or someone “on your side” behaved dishonestly, well that might involve looping in your boss but in a well-run business that will be rare in the extreme.

    If you have a good understanding of the limits and parameters of your role, and it sounds like you do based on your boss’ feedback, then you know what is or isn’t in your realm of possibility. You will never be far off, and in a reasonable workplace you can never be faulted, as long as you keep in mind one principle: “can I justify this? If I was asked, what would I say?” If it sounds reasonable, something like “well he’s a long-time customer that brings us high revenue and credits now will keep a loyal customer buying”, or “I think he has a legitimate complaint and we can head off bad publicity now by taking care of his issue,” that’s not likely to end you up in trouble, if it’s something you’d be embarassed to tell your boss, like “well he was yelling a lot and I didn’t want to be on the phone anymore so I just gave him a credit to shut him up”, that’s not so great.

    What most customers really want from you is to be heard. They want a simple, un-hedged, no-evasion, unabashed, “I hear you, I understand your feelings and your feelings are valid.” This is different from validating their ISSUE, this is saying they are feeling what they are feeling and that is okay. This starts with good listening, rephrasing the issue, and, if appropriate, interjecting how you understand. Lets say they don’t understand bill pro-ration at all, they were expecting a bill for 90 bucks a month they got a bill for 135 because they signed up for service on the 14th– THE most common billing call any monthly-billing service that pro-rates (cable, internet, cellular service, rentals, etc) gets, without a doubt. You’re not saying that they’re RIGHT about being overcharged, you’re saying that their feeling is valid. “Oh no, I know that it’s always a problem when a bill comes in higher than you expected, the same thing just happened to me at my mechanic and I had to scramble to come up with some money to pay it so I understand that it can create an uncomfortable situation.” Then you state what you’re going to do, “Lets take a look at how that happened and make sure that nothing went wrong.” Then you can go over the bill and explain how it got there.

    The key is that you don’t make excuses or try to talk them out of their feelings, and you truly empathize if you can. Remember, there is a difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy means you can imagine how you would feel in their shoes and how that would make you act, sympathy means you feel sorrow for them. I don’t feel sorrow for someone that runs up bills they can’t pay, but I do understand that they are feeling embarrassed, ashamed, maybe scared of the impacts, and from a place of empathy can come a genuine personal connection that smooths over the difficult conversation.

    Make sure you understand what they really want. Restate your understanding of the situation when you are starting your response, sometimes you find your understanding of their real pain point is entirely different than their actual issue. It might not be the price itself that upsets them, it’s that they feel you’re not standing by your promises, either implied (in advertising) or explicit (made by a salesman, etc). It might not be the lack of warranty coverage itself, it might be the inconvenience of the situation is adding a lot of stress to an upcoming stressful time (it’s not that their service isn’t working right now, it’s that it’s the holidays and they have guests staying over and the guests are giving them a hard time about their TV service and it’s making them feel insecure about their home, etc, etc). That might tint the options you offer. If they’re upset that a salesman didn’t keep their word a small discount isn’t going to get the result you want, if the price isn’t the issue. They want the deal they were promised, or an explanation, someone like that may be happier if you can just reverse the transaction and let them pick another product that they WILL get the advertised price on because then they’re getting what they feel they’re owed. If it’s the inconvenience and they just want the problem to go away and their life to be simpler then they might be open to a solution that costs some money, as opposed to someone that’s upset that you’re not providing the quality they feel they’re already paying for.

    And lastly, don’t be afraid to tell someone that is asking flat out “I’m sorry but this policy is not one we can be flexible on, you can talk to my manager, but they will not be able to give you a different answer”, especially if it’s about a legal issue like federally-mandated privacy policies or other regulatory issues. You know it won’t change, don’t imply that it will by offering to escalate them. Never promise another department can do anything unless you KNOW it, or you are creating a big problem for them (I dealt with other department setting the expectation I would definitely make an exception I simply couldn’t justify too often, I didn’t appreciate being sabotaged and the customers didn’t appreciate their time being wasted). That’s what you’re doing right now, you’re creating this appearance that “well *I* would but I’m a lowly peon without any ability to help you so let me get you to someone that will do that for you…” even though you don’t mean to undermine yourself or set your boss up for hard conversations.

    Books I would recommend include: Be Our Guest, Customer Satisfaction is Worthless (customer loyalty is priceless), and Emotional Intelligence 2.0, as well as Phrases for Effective Customer Service (the entire Phrases For… series is gold IMHO)

  58. I heart Paul Buchman*

    Sorry I haven’t read all the comments so hope this is helpful…
    I used to work in a government department where we often wanted to speak with clients who didn’t want to talk to us. In that situation ‘if you carry on I will end the call’ isn’t an option. I had a few techniques that worked well YMMV…
    *I always said ‘they’ when I referenced a difficult decision as in ‘I get why you want X but when they wrote the rules they said that only Y is allowed’. This reinforces that you didn’t make the rules but also that they are rules and not your opinions.
    *I always offered to show people the rules that were being applied against them – I would print out the page of the Act and show them the bit that applied. Often people don’t understand but they want to know that you know your stuff and that you aren’t making stuff up.
    *I used the broken record technique when I had to – basically reframe the same sentence over and over.
    *I listened fully to what people had to say without interrupting. I acted like a counsellor and hhhmd and nodded and really tried to listen to where they were coming from, people who were dealing with my department often had good reason to be angry.
    *If people swore and yelled I just let it wash over me. They aren’t yelling at me they are yelling at their awful situation and their powerlessness in it. I would affirm the feelings behind the angry words but I would also ask them to calm down “Mate, I get how angry you are but there are kids here so can we calm it down” or on the phone “Mate, I get that you are angry but I’m trying to help – can you just give me a minute to have a look at the file”. Asking someone to explain a detail will often get them to stop yelling if they aren’t too over the top “Hang on, where did you say you lodged that?”.
    *Taking notes helps people know you are taking them seriously and is a good way to slow them down and calm the situation.
    *Think about your dress, manner and voice, a good rule of thumb is one step over your clients but no more. There is nothing that will get someone riled up more than having someone lording it over them (in their mind). If you are dealing with disadvantaged communities think about your language and how you present decisions – if people don’t understand they will often react with anger.

    1. Wintermute*

      As far as #1 goes– that probably works really well in your line of work but in private business the exact opposite is the case, they don’t want you to scapegoat or blame the company because it builds badwill against the company. Most people have bad will against the government, complaining about the government is practically the national passtime in some circles, but in business customers that develop bad will towards the company stop doing business with you– so you need to own the decision and take the blame at the front line.

      Apple’s policy on it is pretty typical if on the extreme end: Never accept the company or its products are to blame under any circumstance, or it is a disciplinary matter.

  59. LiptonTeaForMe*

    I have worked in call centers all my life and the telecommunications jobs were the absolute pits of hell. You were trained, here are the rules, this is what you can and can’t do and then an escalation to whomever would give customers the moon. After awhile, why talk to me? We trained our customers to not listen to the front line. And then there were the reviews of calls, customer was told no I can’t do whatever for you and because I didn’t sugarcoat the “no”, it is still my fault.
    I am now a federal employee and tax law backs up what I can and can’t do and some people still seem to think that talking to a supervisor will get them what they want.

    1. Wintermute*

      When I worked escalations we were VERY aware of this, and we worked hard not to train our customers badly. If it was a matter of credit limits, the customer would be put on hold, the associate would call me, I would apply the credit-back and the frontline would take credit. In addition it was strongly encouraged that unless it was a matter where the frontline was just flat-out wrong, not to offer more than they did.

      Once when I was working escalations temporarily, I was in a row with people that were frontline, I saw both a beautiful example of management supporting the frontline, and the most successful man I’d ever met.

      I say he was the most successful man I ever met because of his meteoric rise, he got charged something, it was his fault but we offered to reverse the charge (it was some text messaging joke-of-the-day thing) to the tune of 4.99. He demanded we pay for his time on the phone with us. Our flat policy is there but for the grace of God go we, because once you start compensating people for just having to do business, it sets a bad precedent. He claimed to be a successful carpenter, earning 30 dollars an hour, and demanded 60 bucks for the two hours that this half-hour call took in his mind.

      So the guy sitting behind me says no can do, he demands an escalation. I get the call. I go over it, listen to him, empathize, apologize, offer him… five bucks. He goes ballistic, aren’t I supposed to be a manager, he was told I could credit him more (I heard the conversation entirely, he wasn’t), he’s a very successful lawyer and he bills 100 bucks an hour and he will SUE if we don’t pay him the 200 dollars this situation cost him in time.

      Inspiring man, getting through 3 years of law school and passing the bar exam in 5 minutes on hold.

      So he demands my manager. I almost never had to escalate further, but this one there was no stopping this man. so off to by boss he goes. And we can hear him shouting all the way at the end of the row. And my boss offers him… five bucks. And he goes absolutely guanopsychotic, shouting and screaming, and threatening that he owns a law firm and his time is worth five hundred dollars an hour and he will deign to settle for only five hundred dollars for an hour of his time. Last I heard he was demanding the number for our CEO then he quit, not even taking his five bucks.

      The man was truly an inspiration, in the course of two hours on the phone he managed to quit his successful woodworking career, pass law school, pass the bar, have a successful law career, found his own law partnership and become a big law lawyer earning 500 dollars a billable hour.

  60. Rox*

    Hello! I know I’m commenting several days late, and I’m not sure if you’ll be following this post anymore, but if you are I wanted to throw this out there. I also work in customer service taking incoming phone calls, specifically in what you can equate to an “escalations” department (it’s a bit more complicated than that, since our company doesn’t have a standard call center structure and I have an unusual amount of empowerment and decision-making ability for my position…but try convincing our customers of that when we tell them no!).

    Alison gives great advice here, but another thing I could add that would go a long way is this: be confident in your knowledge. Here is how I often have to thing about it, and explain it, to customers – if you know an answer, and are confident that it will not change if the person is passed to someone else, the kindest thing you can do for your customer and your coworkers is to put an end to it then and there by being confident in the answer you give and, if possible, not even alluding to the possibility of escalation. You don’t have to be aggressive about this, either! You can empathize with the customer, try to give them more information, or whatever strategy works best for the situation, your customer, and your own personal communication style.

    Another thing that helps when a customer is in a situation where the answer won’t change but they are insisting on speaking to your boss/a manager/the CEO/God/whatever, it can be helpful to frame it in a way that suggests that you understand what they want and don’t want to waste their time with an escalation only to have them receive the same answer. Something like, “I certainly understand where you’re coming from, and I can arrange for you to speak with someone else if you would like. However, out of respect for your time, I do want you to be aware that this particular policy isn’t a flexible one, and I cannot guarantee that the answer will change” or replace the last part with “the answer is very unlikely to change.” Sometimes, depending on the customer, you can be even more frank than that, but you kind of just have to feel out the tone and the situation to make that call. This may not prevent escalations entirely, but it can contribute to making the impression that yes, you are confident in your answer – it’s a trick to being “assertive” if you are someone like me who doesn’t have an assertive bone in their body.

    All of this ultimately contributes to creating a different mindset for yourself, one where you only consider recommending that the customer speak to someone else if you truly decide it’s necessary.

    (*Caveat – Don’t give the customer the impression that you’re trying to block them from speaking with someone else, since that will likely aggravate the situation, and of course make sure that you work with your boss on whatever strategies you develop and of course stay in line with company policies. Though that’s another piece of advice – ask your boss a ton of questions and solicit feedback on ideas and decisions! Reaffirming knowledge and collecting specific information has played a huge role in how empowered I feel day to day.)

    Anyway, I hope this helps a little. Best of luck!

  61. Zahra*

    Late here too. I’ve worked in call centers as well and if ever I raised my voice, everyone would turn and look at me. Still, I didn’t get that many escalated calls. Here’s what was working for me:

    – No interruptions, on either side (you don’t interrupt them, they don’t interrupt you). Take notes if you want to address points once they’re done.
    – Rephrase their issue.
    – Empathize with their feelings wherever you can make it sound genuine (it doesn’t mean you feel the way they do, but you understand that it sucks, for example)
    – Rules are rules (and the law is the law). If there is some flexibility and if you can get creative with the solutions, try that
    – You are the messenger. Don’t be afraid to remind them that attacking you personally is going for the wrong target.
    – Abusive language is not accepted. If a caller starts swearing (angry swearing or swearing at you, some people use swears as punctuation or as a substitute for “like”, “hum”, etc. I don’t hold it against them), they get a warning and 3 warnings (or less, depending on the severity) results in a “Abusive language is not acceptable. I will have to end our conversation now.” No mention of “Call back when you’ve calmed down.” they might find it infantilizing and be even more angry.
    – “I pay your salary!”, the answer of “You pay me to follow the rules/the law” is pretty good.
    – “I want to talk to your manager”!: “I can transfer you, but the law is the law for everyone. He won’t be able to go against the law anymore than I do. I can certainly ask him and get back to you.” And if you know your boss’s answer, just put the client on hold for whatever time it would take you to check and get back to them with the answer. No need to check with your boss if you already know the answer and the client feels like the higher authority has been consulted anyway.

    Stay calm. Vent to your colleagues after the call. When you have pleasant callers, if you have the time, take a few more minutes with them. Talk about the weather, something you have in common, something tangential to their call (they’re calling about their neighbors, talk about neighbors in general or neighborhoods, for example). Having pleasant interactions helps counterbalance the bad ones and will improve your morale.

  62. critter*

    I work in a call center, so I run into this all the time. My favorite phrase I’ve found is “Sorry I can’t be of more help.” It’s a polite way of saying “I’ve done all I can, you’re not getting anything else out of me.” I used to try to be more evasive and explain too much, only to have the caller demand, “So you’re saying you can’t help me?!?” So having ME actually use the words “I can’t help” upfront kind of takes the wind out of their sails.

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