Five reasons customers get grumpy (and one way to deal with them)

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Grumpy customers. We've all had them. No matter what you do and how hard you try to please, they won't be happy. The good news is that this kind is rare. And usually, even the frostiest of clients will thaw, once they see you're doing your best.Having said this, there will always be the one who will not be content, no matter what you do. I have formed a theory about this thankfully rare type of caller.

There are some people around who have no power over anybody. The only way they can feel good about themselves is to bully those who can't answer back. The fact that they're on the other end of a phone line makes it even easier for them.

I am amazed at the number of calls I have attended where the dispatcher has warned me about a client, only to find the person perfectly pleasant when speaking face to face. Bullies apart, I have found that everybody gets down once in a while, and it can fall to the help desk analyst to deal with them when they are not at their best.

You have to ask yourself why they're grumpy:

  • Do they have a naturally sour disposition?
  • Did the call taker antagonize them?
  • Were they frustrated by the apparently faulty product?
  • Did the call taker simply get it wrong?
  • Was it something you said?

Each of these situations would appear to have a different solution, but in reality, you deal with all of them the same way.

#1: Sour disposition

The naturally sour person, well there's nothing you can do to cheer him up. Indeed, he may even be happy in his own way. Anyway, it's your job to fix the problem, not offer counseling services. The way to please him the most is to get the job done with the minimum of fuss and leave. Just don't do anything to make him worse. Watch what you say. Even a casual remark can be seized on and used against you.

#2: Antagonized by the call taker

If the call taker rubbed the customer the wrong way, you will soon find out. Then, you just need to sort out the problem and maybe even apologize for the front line. Such apologies aren't from the heart, as they aren't usually given by the person who has caused the problem. But no matter. So long as you come out as the good guy, you have little to worry about. Again, just get on and fix the problem to the best of your ability, as always, and move on. Don't spend too long trying to mend the customer; sometimes it isn't possible. If doing your job doesn't thaw him out, nothing will.

#3: Faulty product

A faulty or unfamiliar product is frustrating, and some people handle that frustration better than others. The answer? Deal with the problem, whether it's a technical fault or user error, then take a few minutes to demonstrate the correct/easier/better way to do the job. A few minutes of quality time can pay dividends. If the product is faulty, there is your standard warranty procedure to fall back on. You didn't make it faulty. Just check that the fault exists and isn't just operator error and take it from there. Again, an apology can help, remembering it's the company that is apologizing, not you.

#4: Call taker error

It may be that the call taker misunderstood the caller. Even with the wide experience you acquire taking calls, you will inevitably get a situation where the caller's brusque mode of speech is mistaken for anger. Think about your own experiences. For instance, New Yorkers have an undeserved reputation for rudeness. It isn't necessarily so, it's just the way they sound to some people. We have the same here in England. Yorkshire folk are some of the warmest people you could meet, but on the phone, a simple greeting can sound like a declaration of war.

If the call taker simply got it wrong, there's no problem. Just do the job and get on your way. The person may sound a little hostile but be nothing of the kind. The problem with the telephone is that your mind draws pictures of the person that aren't always correct. To talk to me on the phone, you would think that I was an up-market English version of Brad Pitt. On meeting me, you would realize the cold truth. It's amazing how strong -- and how wrong -- telephone impressions can be!

#5: Misinterpreted remark

The last reason for grumpiness is the benign remark that was taken the wrong way. Many of my customers are fine; I can share a joke, and even a bit of leg-pulling with them, but some are an unknown quantity. Play it safe until you know them.

Just a bad day?

There can be many reasons why customers aren't feeling too good the day you visit. They may be hung over. They may have had a row with their life partner. They may have just read their bank statement. There are thousands of ways to ruin your day without trying too hard.

The only thing you can do is be pleasant, efficient, and quick. Too much exposure to grumpiness is contagious, and the one thing you must not do is take the grumpiness from one place and leave it at the next. Whatever you do, don't be the cause of more grumpiness. Make sure that you've done what you 're supposed to do, and your conscience will be clear.

The moral of the story is this: Deal with people in a consistent and reliable manner. Make notes of times, dates, and places so that if there is a complaint, you can give your version of what took place. Provided that you are sure of events, you will not need to worry.


Here's a final word of warning. Sometimes, the caller will want to call you directly and cut the help desk out of the loop in future dealings. This backfired on me last year. In a moment of weakness, I gave my cell number to a customer who had complained at the length of time it took to get through to the help desk. I went on holiday for two weeks, remembering to change my voicemail message to reflect this.

I enjoyed a great break, over 300 miles from my work phone, and returned refreshed and ready to face work again. When I switched the phone back on, there were 11 new messages, all from the same client. He was getting more and more irate that I hadn't returned his calls. The first thing I realized was that people don't really listen to voicemail messages. I clearly stated when I would be back at work, but he didn't appear to have grasped this.

The upshot was that when I rang him back, he was a little short with me:

"It's taken you long enough hasn't it?"

"Sorry, I was away on a boating holiday."

"Why didn't you say so?"