How To Handle Difficult Customers: Invaluable Tips From My Time In A Call Center

(l to r) The Screamer, Mr. Important, Kathy, and Mr. Smarty Pants

(l to r) The Screamer, Mr. Important, Kathy, and Mr. Smarty Pants

I should have written a book of short stories on the many memorable experiences I had while working in a customer service center. I have also come to the realization that I would likely have to categorize the book as fictional since there’s no way anyone would believe the stories were actually real! People are just plain crazy sometimes and, most days, even I couldn’t believe what was happening. 


So, in my time as a Customer Service Agent ... then Supervisor ... then Assistant Manager of the entire Mad House ... I learned a trick or two on how to handle irate customers. (Irate is a polite way of saying completely out of their minds.) In fact, I was presented with awards for my skills in speaking Nutso.


The customer service center I worked for was a well-known local bank. It wasn’t a terribly huge bank but, at the time, it was a rapidly growing bank ... and every single call came straight to our department. The majority of calls were pretty simple. Balance inquiries, online banking questions, home equity applications … all that fun stuff. 


As an agent, I did everything in my power to handle every call from start to finish and strived to leave every customer on a positive note. It was rare I couldn’t handle even the angriest of people on my own (which is what got me the fancy promotion that essentially equated to all of the agents transferring their escalated customers to me. Sounds fun, eh?) Well, I actually enjoyed it … I saw each angry customer as a challenge and an opportunity. The satisfaction of turning the most irate customer into someone who asks to speak to my supervisor to compliment my service … well, that right there was priceless. So how did I do it? How do I continue to use those skills in everyday life? I’m feeling generous so I’m going to let you in on my secrets.


Before we jump into all of the fun, I want to make something very clear. People can be rude, nasty, entitled, and downright hurtful. I’m going to give you some tips to handle these types but, if at the end of the day you simply aren’t making a breakthrough, it is OK to end a conversation. You are a human being and deserve to be treated with respect and kindness. I don’t care how mad someone is … they do not have a right to bash or abuse you. It’s not appropriate and you have the right to protect yourself. Got it? Ok, let’s go. 



The Screamer

The first customer we are going to talk about is The Screamer. The one who thinks they are way more important than you and feels they have the right to scream their foolish head off. Oh yeah, I know you are thinking of that special someone right now. So, here’s the secret.




Did you get that? It’s not a trick … just some good ol’ silence.


You see, someone can only scream for so long. They will eventually run out of things to say (or perhaps lose their voice). The worst thing you can ever do with The Screamer is stoop to their level. Never yell back. NEVER. This will simply escalate the situation and you will not come out smelling like roses.


The Screamer will eventually stop, I promise. They will absolutely check to make sure you are still there and listening … and there you will be, patiently waiting to make all their dreams come true. After several moments of silence, you will simply say, “OK, I understand you’re upset. I’m happy to help you with this issue. I just need to ask you a few questions first.” The key part to this is acknowledging they’re upset and that they’ve been heard. Silence followed by acknowledgement works like a charm every single time.



Mr. (or Mrs.) Important

Now let’s explore one of the ugliest customers … Mr. or Mrs. Important. The person who immediately drops the “do you know who I am?” line. This brings me back about 13 years. Way before I had any customer service experience. I was working a part-time gig that happened to be for a municipality. There was a resident who called to make a complaint about a neighbor’s dog. I don’t remember the exact details of the complaint but I do remember that, whatever it was, it didn’t warrant any action on my part. Well, this resident was not happy to hear that. And little did I know, I was speaking to Mr. Important.


He proceeded to tell me that I better do something because he plays golf with Dick. Now keep in mind, I was young at the time and I hadn’t learned the appropriate way to handle customers yet. I replied, “Who the hell is Dick? And why do I care if you golf with him?”


Long story short, Dick was the mayor of the town I was working for (and our department reported directly to him ... oops). I can laugh about it now but my manager was not laughing then. Nothing ever came of that but my point is that we all encounter these types. So how should we handle these name-dropping people of importance?


In a nutshell, you should treat them just as you would any other customer. Show them professionalism, be courteous, and help them to the best of your ability. Do NOT break policy or procedure for them. Especially if they’re name-dropping YOUR name to your employees! I personally would be furious with any of my friends or family for trying to bully one of my employees. I would especially be angry if they suggested that my employees break rules or not abide to standards that I have set. That’s insulting and downright disrespectful. Not to mention, the poor employee gets put into a situation where they might fear for their job if they don’t do a favor for this person.


Needless to say, do not start coloring outside the lines when it comes to Mr. or Mrs. Important. Adhere to your policies and values because that’s how you gain and maintain the respect of both your customers and your team! 




I saw a meme the other day that made me chuckle. It read “Do babies named Karen even exist or do they just appear one day with three kids and wanna speak to the manager?” No offense to the Karens out there ... I still love ya! However, these warrior women (who I’ll refer to as Karen) do exist. They’re the crazy mama dramas. Do not underestimate them. After all, they gave birth to a child and you are no match for what this storm is brewing.


Don’t get me wrong. I have been Karen. There have been times when I had no time for nonsense. Like the time something was wrong with my electric bill or the time my cell phone stopped working and I just didn’t have the patience or energy to deal with a customer service representative. (Top that off with my extremely high standards for customer service representatives and you have yourself an interesting situation when I’m not a happy camper.)


With all that said, I started at the bottom of the food chain in Corporate America. I’ve sat in that seat so I make it a point to not be rude to agents as I know how that feels. However, I’m not the majority. You will deal with Karen many times. (Let’s just hope it’s not when her three hungry kids are in the back seat and she’s fuming because her debit card isn’t working at McDonald’s. Trust me. I have taken that call before. It wasn’t pretty.)


My advice for handling Karen is to use the empathy card. Use it well and use it wisely. Do NOT take on an angry mama. You will not win. Empathy MUST be sincere. You must mean it (or it better be damn believable if you’re lying). Just like with The Screamer, Karen also just wants to be heard. More than anything though, she wants her problem fixed PRONTO.


In these escalated situations, the best way to bring the intensity down a couple notches is to simply use a phrase like, “It must be very frustrating that you’re experiencing X issue. I’m so sorry about that but we’re going to get this fixed for you.”


You can also add a personal touch in your response. Using my “mom at McDonald’s” scenario as an example: “As a mom, I completely understand your frustrations. My kid doesn’t like to wait for dinner either so let me get right to work so we can resolve this for you.” Sometimes just a morsel of compassion goes a very long way. 


One last thought, make sure you fix their problem right the first time. The only thing scarier than the initial interaction with Karen is if you didn’t fix her issue correctly and she calls or comes back. If this happens, just run. 



Mr. (or Mrs.) Smarty Pants

The final customer that I will touch upon is Mr. or Mrs. Smarty Pants. These are the customers that are simply not right. I know the saying goes that ‘the customer is always right” but there is an exception to the rule. It’s these guys. You will undoubtedly run into a know-it-all at least several times throughout your career in customer service. No matter what the industry, you will have that customer who 100% knows your product/service/procedures way better than you do. (Please tell me you are sensing my sarcasm.) They will be wrong, oh so wrong, but they are going to get downright nasty with you because either they refuse to recognize they are wrong or they have at some point realized they’re wrong and can’t deal.


I recall a very specific situation I dealt with while working at the bank. I had the pleasure [sarcasm] of assisting a very wealthy local business owner. He was provided with a new business debit card and was having trouble activating it. As with all customers, I offered to walk him through the process. I just asked that he be at the ATM when he called so I could watch his account as he was making the attempt to activate his card. Seems simple enough, right?


Well, this customer would repeatedly call (and not be at an ATM) and demand that I change his PIN as that was definitely the issue. Each time I would explain to him that I saw no attempts on his account supporting his theory but would change the PIN nonetheless. I would again ask him to attempt the activation while having me on the phone, which he refused to do because he was too busy. I would also try to ask him questions about the card but he would always rush off the phone (and make comments to the effect that he knew better than me). 


Well who am I to argue with Mr. Smarty Pants? This went on for over a week. Each day he would call and would become increasingly more irate. Lucky for me, he remembered my name so he would specifically ask for me. Oh joy. He insulted my intelligence on more levels than I ever knew existed. Well, after the sixth phone call with Prince Charming I finally put my foot down. I said that I was not going to change his PIN again and that he needed to read me the card number because his theory was not lining up with our system.


I can tell you that it was not his PIN at all. He was attempting to use a card issued from a different bank all together! Do you think he apologized? Nope. But there was an enormous moment of grand satisfaction in that silence after he realized he was wrong this whole time.


As much as you want to, do not gloat. You can bask in your silent “screw you” moment all day long. Once you have resolved the issue or satisfied your customer’s needs, just be glad the torture is over and move on. Still thank them for being a customer because, at the end of the day, that is where your cash money comes from.


I find that these customers enjoy being recognized for all their knowledge. They like to be fussed over a bit. Guess what? It won’t kill you to give in a little bit. After all, you MAY just learn something from them as much as it pains you to admit it. All it takes is a “Wow, thank you for that information" or "Such a great tip!”


In the case with Mr. Smarty Pants I had a giant list of naughty words for him but I let it go. I simply said “Well I am glad we were able to solve the mystery. I was certainly just as stumped as you were. Have a great day.” I vow to never visit or do business with one of his establishments because he was so horrible to me ... but that’s just my way of giving him the middle finger. 


Listen, I know this is a very short list of the many difficult customers that you encounter daily. Just sharing a few of my experiences with the hope that you’ll find them useful. My mother used to always tell me, “You may not like this person but just be glad you don’t need to take them home with you.” Spot on, Mom. Spot on.