Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you will be like him yourself.

Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.

Jeff Dray offered some great insights regarding rude treatment that we receive from customers. “Rudeness, we don’t have to tolerate it – From anyone!” That topic is one that my own clients ask me about constantly. In particular, many of them want to know where to “draw the line”–that is, how to determine when to stop listening to a frustrated caller and to end the call or the meeting.

In thinking about this matter, I remembered two proverbs that speak to the matter. They appear, when read side by side, to contradict each other (one says not to answer a fool, the other says in fact to go ahead and answer a fool). In fact, however, they actually harmonize with each other, because they address different contexts.

Before I continue, however, I want to make clear that I am not calling your customers “fools.” You may have your own opinion, of course. I am simply saying that the principles these proverbs teach us apply to anyone (including the fool) with whom we may be having differences.

Most of the time, I believe, we need only that first proverb. In this case, we’re dealing with a customer who, yes, is upset. However, he or she is only angry “in general” at the technology and frustrated by how it is affecting his or her job. Though it may appear that the customer is angry at YOU, he or she really isn’t. It’s just that you “drew the short straw,” and happen to be that technology person who represents what’s frustrating the customer.

In this situation, getting into arguments, getting angry in return at the customer or ending the call serve no purpose. All these things will do is make the customer even angrier, and waste everyone’s time. There’s almost nothing you can do or say in this situation. Like a fever, the customer’s frustration has to “run its course.” Once they expressed their frustration, they “become normal” or closer to normal, and at that time you can speak with them to resolve the issue. In this case, in other words, do not “answer a fool according to his folly.”

The situation changes, however, if the customer becomes personally abusive or profane. In that case, you should do as Jeff did, and indeed “answer the fool according to his folly.” That is, you must address this behavior, and make it clear that it is unacceptable to you. If you don’t, you may simply embolden that person to continue the behavior with others. If, even after you give fair warning, the customer continues the abusive language, then you can hang up.

Make sure, after doing so, that you notify your manager or supervisor, because that’s the first person your abusive customer will contact.

When dealing with upset customers, therefore, pick your battles carefully, and distinguish between “merely angry customers” and “personally abusive customers.”

Questions or comments? E-mail me at csun(at)