IT Policies

Talking Shop: Know how to deal with abusive callers

Techniques for dealing with abusive callers to the help desk

Abusive callers are, unfortunately, part of the job when working a help desk. The good news is that you do not need to put up with them. If you follow the steps outlined here, you’ll be able either to make these callers behave in a civilized fashion, or send them on their unpleasant way.

What is an abusive caller?
Do not confuse abusive callers with angry callers. It is quite possible for a caller to be furious without losing their cool and becoming abusive. You can help angry people and, with the right treatment, turn them into happy ones.

Callers are abusive if they speak to you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable or if they make comments of a derogatory nature. You define the level of abuse by how it makes you feel personally. However, don’t take the caller’s abuse to heart, even if the attacks become personal in nature. You are doing your best to help (at least you should be). If your efforts are not good enough for the caller, remember the hundreds of people who were happy with your work. Abusive callers are more than likely upset about a totally unrelated matter, and are abusive to you because they lack the maturity and objectivity to separate this annoyance from the matter in hand.

What constitutes phone abuse?
Phone abuse can be categorized as any derogatory verbal exchange that is aimed at you personally, or that makes you feel uncomfortable. This can be anything from comments aimed at your religion, race, or gender, to rudeness, shouting, or even taking other calls while speaking to you. Nobody should ring you up and then put you on hold. This just demonstrates bad manners and is always the caller's problem, not yours. If somebody calls me, then starts to talk to somebody else, I usually hang up.

Is the customer always right?
Everybody has the right to some respect. Customers are not always right, no matter what their problems may be. If they start to hurl personal abuse at you, then they are definitely not in the right, and you have the right to no longer talk to them.

Support from your company
It’s important that you familiarize yourself with your company's policy on abusive callers. If that policy says that you have to sit there and take it, then frankly it's time to find a new and better employer.

What can I do when abuse occurs?
When a caller is ranting and hurling abuse, nobody is getting anything out of the exchange. Stop trying to help the caller and start taking charge of the call. You can tell abusive callers that you are not comfortable with the way they are behaving and ask them to stop. Explain why you do not feel comfortable. Remember, you aren't a machine and do not deserve to be treated as one. You have feelings, just as the caller does, and the caller should respect them, no matter what the issue is.

Above all, stay calm. Don't rise to the bait or snap back. That's what they want. They want you to lose control and start a shouting match. Nothing would make them happier than for you to fly into a rage so that they can take the moral high ground and make a complaint against you. Sometimes letting them think that the call is being recorded is useful, particularly if the caller is internal. Keeping calm can also defuse the situation, may result in an apology, and is your best chance of getting back on track.

Let the caller know that either the abuse stops or the call does
Should the abuse continue, calmly inform the caller that you will not put up with it and will terminate the call if it continues. This will either calm the caller down (if he really wants your help) or make him worse, in which case you can end the call. Be firm about it. Make it clear that the ball is in their court—if they want support, you are happy to provide it, but the call must proceed in a polite and professional way.

Terminate the call
If the abuse continues after your warning, simply hang up. Don't repeat your threat endlessly and definitely do not argue. You have stated your position clearly.
Help desk worker: "I will hang up if you continue to talk to me in this way."Caller: "You #@#@ well won't! You'll do as I say, you #@***#@!"Click!
Inform your manager or supervisor
If you have to end a call, the caller may call in later to complain. This is nothing for you to worry about. As long as your supervisor knows about the incident, he or she will support you. Anybody who has worked on a help desk knows the score. Supervisors should be informed so that they can deal with the complaint when it comes in. I have known a complaint to arrive, and then after a few minutes the supervisor hung up on the caller as well! When this individual got through to the managing director of the company, expecting some kind of freebie for his trouble, he was told that he was no longer welcome to use our service.

Finally some good news
Luckily, abusive callers are the exception and not the rule. In fifteen years and many thousands of phone calls, I have prematurely ended less than five as a result of abuse. I have also never been disciplined for the way I speak to a caller or for hanging up on them if the situation demanded it. Ninety-nine percent of the people I speak with are very pleasant. They just need help. Even though abusive callers are thankfully not a common occurrence, when you are prepared to deal with a bad call experience, it is much easier for you, and not the caller, to be the one in control of the situation.
How do you deal with an abusive caller? Have you ever been able to get through to an abusive caller and actually have the call end on a positive note? We want to know. Just post a comment below or send us an e-mail.
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