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4 Options for Handling Rude Customers

Brian Cantor

Two distinct customers. Two distinct restaurant experiences. One common attitude.

Suggesting the universe conspired to make me regret saying a customer’s demeanor should not impact the quality of service he receives, two of the most obnoxious, impatient, rude customers were introduced to my world Monday.

One, at a Chipotle-esque Mexican chain in New York, could not control his sighs and eye rolls when the workers took an extra second to locate a plate for his burrito. Another, at Subway, offered an endless assortment of snide remarks when the employee failed to provide him with the desired excess of olives and jalapenos upon first request.

Knowing that the customers have every right to despise an experience—and that customer service representatives have no right to hold that anger against the customer—I knew in my heart that I had to excuse the rudeness.

But I, to a far greater extent than I do when writing about customer service from my desk, found myself at least partially sympathetic to the notion of fighting fire with fire.

If advising the employees from a customer service perspective, I would certainly talk to them about catching more flies with honey. But if speaking to them on a human level, I would probably permit them knocking these obnoxious, disrespectful individuals down a peg (or eleven).

Those concepts might seem distinct from the confines of an office—and they need to be kept distinct when serving customers—but the lines in reality are much more blurred. No matter how well they are coached and how much they try, agents will react as humans when interacting with customers. They will be able to distinguish between rude customers and pleasant ones.

The question, therefore, becomes how those distinct emotional reactions will manifest in the interactions. And if they are going to act, here are their four options for handling the disrespectful customer.

"Ain’t Nothin’ Gonna Break My Stride"

For some agents, the concept of enduring angry customers is synonymous with doing nothing about their anger. Even after spotting anger in the faces and mannerisms of their customers, these agents will go about their business as if nothing is wrong.

On the plus side, this attitude assures the agent will not lose sight of his task. Rather than devoting time and energy to an argument with the customer, he goes about his business as if the customer never rolled his eyes and stomped his feet. He completes his duty as he believes was directed.

For customer service environments based primarily on efficiency and task-based activity, this response option presents irrefutable value.

But it is not without consequences for the customer interaction. Attention-seeking humans like any other humans, many frustrated customers are hoping to elicit a reaction. If their behavior does not translate into response, they sense an even wider disconnect from the priority of the agent.

Insofar as the agent was very likely doing something wrong, persistence will also serve to exacerbate the problem and amplify the perceived lack of customer centricity. He might—or might not—be acting in accordance with his script and supervisor instruction, but if his behavior is out of touch with the demands of the customer, his truest boss, it is destructive behavior. Turning the other cheek might be the Biblical thing to do, but a turned cheek without a changing hue is worthless to a frustrated customer.

Quiet Conformity

Fearing he will reciprocate a customer’s frustration with a rude, vitriolic response of his own, an agent might be very justified in keeping quiet.

That does not mean he cannot bend to the will of the customer.

Though the concept of discussing a customer’s anger—and hopefully eradicating it—is appealing, it comes with the unavoidable, unpleasant risk of engaging in a difficult conversation. For those who would rather show then tell, there is the option of silently nixing the actions that are producing customer outrage.

The response style is not flawless. Since many customers want their anger addressed, visible conformity might not be sufficient to transform a customer’s perspective. It might not be enough to assure the customer that he was right and the agent was wrong.

The verbal confirmation of servitude and resulting ego boost associated with an expression of apology could be exactly what a customer requires to overcome his frustration.

But if one’s goal is doing right by the customer—rather than making sure he feels right—silent conformity is the play.

What if I came down to where you work and heckled you?

Who has not fantasized about putting a rude person in his place? Hell, merely watching the two customers behave the way they did made me want to accost them with an Alec Baldwin- or Christian Bale-style tirade. Imagine if their insulting demeanor were actually directed at me?

Emotion will sometimes prevail, and agents will feel that the only way to handle a rude customer—and let him know his behavior is not only unacceptable but detrimental to the process—is to verbally dress him down.

The concept might seem absurd to seasoned customer management professionals, but it is not without some merit. Agents who respond in that way will feel better about themselves, which will produce more morale around the workplace. And if an agent confronts the customer over his rudeness and explains that any inefficiency or inefficacy is due to policy and management rather than his own incompetence, it is possible he will earn the customer’s sympathy. The customer might still hesitate to trust the brand, but by relating to the specific agent, he might ultimately hesitate to take his business elsewhere.

In most cases, however, the strategy is the wrong one. Encouraging agents that they can act in accordance with something other than the customer’s whim could result in colossal short- and long-term damage. Agents who strive to satisfy their own needs, rather than the needs of the customer, make for horrible brand ambassadors.

Talk it out

It might require a conversation that commences on the unpleasant side. It might result in stalled service delivery. But if one is looking to respond in the safest, most customer-conscious manner, he should consider discussing the issue with an angry customer and adapting based on the results of that discussion.

Customers, even those whose cues are nonverbal, want to believe they are being heard. Preemptively engaging them in conversation absolutely achieves that feat. And when the conversation translates into action, the agent and business are showing—not telling—the customer they care about his satisfaction.

Numerous stimuli can produce a frustrated customer; the appearance that the business cares too much about his well-being is not one of them. Even if the customer does not expect a conversation about his anger and an accompanying alignment with needs, he is unlikely to hate a business that juxtaposes money to the rhetoric of its mouth.

Wise businesses know that silent tolerance is not the same as satisfaction. Wise agents know to address—and hopefully transform—that begrudging acceptance into undeniable delight.