Irate Caller
Illustration by JMA

Dealing with irate callers can wear down even the most motivated agent. That can result in burnout or turnover. Since the cost to hire and train a replacement is high, it is better to help your existing staff cope better with angry callers with training, coaching, policies and practices.

Provide Training

There are courses, or lessons, for just about every skill in life. From piano lessons, to cooking lessons to driving lessons, there are classes devoted to even the most mundane items. Yet, we assume people skills are innate. If we hire people who seem nice, talkative and have a good phone voice, they will do fine handling upset customers. But, having a positive attitude is only part of handling an irate call. Agents need to learn techniques for diffusing angry customers, negotiating solutions and creating client loyalty. Make dealing with irate callers a core part of your new-hire training program, and offer this training to your existing agents, too. Don’t throw your agents “under the bus” by declaring that they should already know how to deal with upset callers as a “natural people skill.”

Provide Coaching

Training can only do so much. Coaching is crucial to reinforce any new skill. There are three forms of coaching for irate call handling skills:

Coach knowledge: Provide your agents with a range of solutions to help solve their irate caller’s key problems. Often, customers become upset because the agent does not know HOW to solve their issue.

Coach skills: Show your agents how to use their vocal tone, pace and volume to help customers calm down. Teach agents how to actively listen. Train them in using empathy statements and validation statements to help customers feel heard and understood.

Coach attitude: Emphasize with your agents, encourage them, reinforce their ability to take charge and handle challenging calls.

Empower Agents to Create Solutions and Negotiate Credits

Many managers are afraid to empower their staff to give refunds or credits. The fear is that agents will give out money like candy. That may be true, if agents are not trained on when to offer credits and how to negotiate the refund amount. But often, when you empower agents to give credits or refunds, they tend to be even more cautious than their managers. Of course, you also need to establish proper boundaries for credits and refunds, such as, “You cannot credit back more than 10% of the customer’s annual fees without manager approval.” Most importantly, train agents on problem-solving skills, so they do not need to offer money to make their customer happy. In those cases where a credit is appropriate, train agents on how to negotiate the right amount to make the customer happy, while still helping the business succeed.

Build in Safeguards

One of my friends worked in a contact center that did not allow agents to hang up on clients. Ever! Even if the callers were abusive, swearing or threatening to physically come down to their office and beat up the agent, the agent was not allowed to end the call. Needless to say, agents began suffering burnout, depression and some even went on long-term disability due to emotional stress. Even the agents who stayed became cynical and surly to customers. Eventually, several agents filed a class action lawsuit against the company for creating a hostile work environment.

Bearing that in mind, creating policies to protect your agents against customer abuse makes sense. For example, you could allow your agents to hang up if a customer continues swearing at them after being given one warning against profanity. More importantly, create workplace policies regarding how to deal with customers who threaten violence or suicide, and train your staff to implement them. There is an old saying: The way you treat your frontline staff is how they end up treating your customers. So, your agents will take a friendly approach to your customers, if you create a safe, friendly working environment.