Handling Irate Customers in the Financial Services Industry


“How dare you call my employer to confirm my job status!”

“The mortgage broker said my house was worth more than you think!”

“My credit rating shouldn’t change because I quit my job and started my own business!”

Do these customer complaints sound familiar? My clients in the financial services industry are faced with these comments all the time.

Money is an ego-filled issue for many people. They do not want to admit that their finances—or financial knowledge—is not up to speed. In addition, people get defensive when confronted with complexity. Fluctuating home values, income-to-loan ratios and financial stress tests are examples of complexity to many customers. Now combine these two feelings: ego and complexity. That makes handling irate customers in the financial services industry a different kind of challenge.

As a leader, what can you do to support your team? Here are eight tips to help your team handle irate customers:

1. Equip ALL customer-facing staff with the skills they need to handle irate clients

Notice that I said, “customer-facing.” That means everyone who interacts with customers. Some financial companies do a great job training their branch and contact center teams. However, they forget to train Mortgage Officers, Loan Officers and Underwriters on how to deal with irate clients. People in those roles also speak with clients. In many cases, these employees need to ask intrusive follow-up questions and/or decline loans. So, they actually need more customer training than your average contact center representative.

How do you position “customer service training” for staff who do NOT think of themselves as being in the customer service industry? “I studied to get my license. I am not a customer service rep!” is a common reaction. Another objection is, “Doesn’t everybody know this (about customer service)?” Here is the reality: You can be a very nice person and still not understand phone, email and live-chat customer service techniques. Thankfully, it is a skill that can be learned. But, your staff has to be open to it.

Many leaders position customer service courses from the perspective of the company and its customers. “This training will help the company retain more customers.” Or, “This course will ensure that our customers receive better service.” However, there is a third benefit. In addition to helping the company and its customers, training will help make your employees’ jobs easier. “This course will give you the skills you need to defuse angry customers, so they stop yelling at you. It will provide key phrases to help people calm down, so you can work with them to resolve their issues. You will learn techniques to reduce escalations, so you won’t have to keep filling out escalation forms and having your manager bothering you for more details.” In other words, explain how a customer service course can help make a Mortgage Officer, Loan Officer or Underwriters’ job easier and less stressful.

2. Help your team recognize that money can be an ego issue for many customers

Customers find certain questions regarding their financial position intrusive and offensive. Even a simple question such as, “Where did you get the $11,000 deposit on March 1st?” can invite an angry customer response. Avoid insulting your customer’s ego by giving the reason why you are asking, before actually saying the question. For instance, “We are required by law to ask about the source of any deposits over $10,000. I see there was one on March 1st. If you don’t mind my asking, where did it come from?” Give the reason why you are asking first so that the conversation moves from being a personal interrogation to being a standard question. This helps your client not to feel singled out or belittled.

Another technique to save your customer’s ego is letting them know that many people have the same question. A phrase such as, “Many people have asked…” or “It’s common to wonder about…” helps your customer to realize that they are not alone in needing an explanation. That makes it easier for them to ask questions. It also allows them the emotional space they need to ask so-called “dumb questions.”

3. Help your team improve their customers’ knowledge level

Even though your team handles financial issues every day, it might be the first time a customer has thought about a mortgage or loan. These customers need your team’s help to understand various financial products. Coach your team to match the complexity of their explanations with the knowledge level of their clients. If a customer is sophisticated, they can be more complex. If their customer is inexperienced, they should use simpler terms to guide their customer’s understanding. In addition, customers may not have kept up with the market or interest rates. So, when a staff member tells them their monthly mortgage payments will actually go up upon renewal, that customer may not understand the impact of higher interest rates. When people do not understand WHY something is happening, they become upset. Their world no longer makes sense and they become angry about it. So, you want coach your team to proactively explain how the rate was determined and how things may have changed since the last time that customer got a mortgage. The key is empathy, patience and education.

4. Watch out for customer “phone roulette”

This is when a customer keeps calling the queue. They hope that they will eventually get someone who will do what they want, even if it is against policy. Can you track these “frequent fliers”? Can you alert your staff to maintain consistency even when pressured by this client? Or, should you direct this client to only contact a manager? “Frequent fliers” can damage morale because they are so disruptive. So, help your team cope with someone playing “phone roulette.”

Here is another consideration: Do you need to “fire” your customer? Some companies have banned highly disruptive or abusive callers to protect their employees. Companies have different policies regarding this so check with your legal team to determine how you want to handle these situations.

5. Help your employees deal with aggressive independent brokers

“Why do I need customer service training? I don’t talk to customers. I talk to brokers!” Brokers are common in the mortgage and insurance industries. Most of them are hard-working, loyal and provide excellent customer service to their clients. They can be a valuable sales arm for your company. But, sometimes independent brokers can be pushier and more challenging than customers. So, train and coach your staff on what to do when these issues occur. The same skills you use with irate customers also apply to brokers. Patience, active listening, empathy and negotiation skills can help your team to deal with upset brokers.

6. Have a Voice of the Customer (VOC) program and actually use it to make improvements

One of the biggest customer complaints is a feeling of not being heard. What is the process for forwarding customer comments and suggestions in your contact center? How are those comments compiled and forwarded to the appropriate department? What mechanisms and accountability are in place to ensure that other departments actually use the information to improve? Work with your sales, marketing, fulfillment, billing and executive teams to proactively reduce the issues that cause customers to become upset.

7. Leverage team huddles to coach and encourage your staff

It takes five positive experiences to cancel out one negative one, according to a recent Harvard Business Review article. But when you are in customer service, almost every customer interaction is a “negative” one. Providing positive feedback and recognition is a key contact center leadership role. Recognize your team members when they have great calls. Reward your team for meeting or exceeding key performance indicators. Counterbalance the emotional pounding your team gets with encouragement and support.

8. Help individual team members bounce back from irate customers

Don’t let CSRs take their last call out on the next caller. Learn to spot when your employees are dealing with a challenging customer interaction. That includes noticing when someone is on a long call, since that may indicate a contentious conversation. It means observing body language such as sloped shoulders, gritted teeth or clenched fists over the keyboard. When you notice a CSR exhibiting these signs, give them support while they with the customer. You can make eye contact, smile and nod encouragingly. You can send them an instant message of encouragement. If your phone system allows, you can listen in on the call and then text suggested answers to your employee.

After the call, let your team member vent. Listen to them with empathy. Help them calm down. Give them perspective about how handling irate customers is a part of customer service. Let them know that everyone in a contact center encounters these types of situations, even if they did everything correctly. Coach them on what they did right and provide ideas to help them with future irate customers.

Irate customers happen in every industry. However, the financial service industry’s combination of money—an ego issue for most people—and complexity drives more intense customer issues. Use the techniques listed here to support your contact center representatives, loan officers, mortgage officers and underwriters so that they have the training and coaching to do a better job and feel better about their role.