Prepare How to Best Handle Abusive Callers
By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD
People today, it seems, are more demanding and less tolerant than they once were. They want immediate answers and have little patience to wait. And this unfortunate trend may be even more pronounced when speaking to someone over the telephone. This is the reality of angry callers that our medical call centers must deal with.
Here are some strategies to address this troubling issue:
Tips For Management
Determining an appropriate response to angry callers starts with call center leadership. Implement these ideas for your call center or organization to support your frontline people when they encounter a difficult phone call:
Have a Plan
Develop a written strategy for how agents should best respond to and deal with angry callers. This goes beyond well-sounding platitudes and should offer practical, actionable steps. This includes recommendations for how agents should react to volatile callers and the options you recommend for them to deal with the aftermath.
Communicate the Plan
Share your strategy with your staff. Teach it during their initial training, reinforce it in ongoing instruction, and make it readily available to all parties: your frontline staff, your supervisors, and your managers.
Support Your Staff
Let your staff know that you care how they are treated. The off-repeated adage that “the customer is always right” isn’t always true. Sometimes callers are wrong, unreasonable, or mean. Let your agents know that you have their back.
In most instances, when an agent hangs up from one phone call, there’s another one waiting in queue. The goal, in normal situations, is for the agent to immediately go to the next call. But after an extremely difficult interaction, they may not be at their best to assist the next caller right away.
Give them options to take in extreme cases. Else they risk turning one bad call into a string of bad calls. One idea is allowing them to take themselves out of rotation for a moment to regain their composure. Extreme cases may warrant taking an early break. Just place appropriate guidelines on when these steps are applicable.
Tips For Agents
I hope your call center has provided instruction and tools to help you deal with angry callers who won’t calm down. Always follow their policy.
But if you’re in a position without the needed direction, here are some ideas you can use to better cope with abusive callers. Exercise care, however, to use these sparingly, especially as you move down the list.
Also, your organization may have given you variations on these techniques, so follow their processes. And don’t be alarmed if your call center prohibits one or more of these options, particularly the last one. Know that they have a good reason for doing so. Respect it and follow their wishes.
Lower Your Voice
It’s in our nature to raise our voice in response to someone who raises theirs. This just escalates the situation. Instead do the opposite. Talk more softly. They’re apt to do the same. And even if they don’t, it will calm you.
Sometimes a five-second respite at the conclusion of a phone call can help. Close your eyes, inhale slowly, exhale slowly, and quiet your emotions. Do a shoulder roll to release tension.
When a caller escalates out of control, place them on hold under the guise of needing to check something. Maybe you actually do, and you’ll be able to accomplish it more effectively if they aren’t venting their anger in the process. But even if you don’t need to check something, use this time to refocus yourself. Hopefully, they’ll calm down a bit as well. Just make sure you politely and patiently explain to them that you will place them on hold before pressing that button.
Pass Off the Call
Do you have a supervisor or manager who can help you deal with difficult callers? Sometimes your coworker sitting next to you can serve as an ad hoc “supervisor” to take a difficult caller that you’re not connecting with. Of course, be willing to do the same when they have a difficult conversation of their own.
Know That It’s Not Personal
Most angry callers are mad at your organization, and they take it out on you as its representative. Know that their frustration isn’t personally directed at you. This understanding puts a buffer between their emotions and your self-esteem. Though this is easier to say than to do, acknowledging that their anger isn’t personal may help you take an emotional step back from a volatile situation.
But Sometimes It Is Personal
Sometimes, however, an angry caller becomes abusive and attacks you personally. They may call you a name, question your intelligence, or worse. These direct attacks sting. It becomes personal. You can’t separate yourself from their emotion because they just verbally assaulted you.
If this occurs and none of the above options help, you’re justified in telling the caller that their behavior is inappropriate. Explain that you want to help, but until they calm down you won’t be able to. If they persist, warn them that you’ll need to disconnect their call. If they don’t soften their demeanor, hang up on them.
Though you can do little to change how abusive callers treat you, you do have control over how you respond. Follow these ideas to help you successfully move forward.
Read more in Peter Lyle DeHaan’s Healthcare Call Center Essentials, available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book.