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Tips for De-Escalating a Call With an Irate Customer

madCustomer care can be difficult, especially when something goes wrong. Providing good customer service is one thing, but defusing a tense situation already in progress takes a lot of skills and conscious management of your own feelings. Let me walk you through an example of how I de-escalated a call with an irate customer. Afterwards, I’ll share some takeaway techniques you can use in similar situations.

Medical panic

About seven years ago, when I was a team lead, a new agent transferred a call to my line. From what she told me via chat, the agent provided the correct information and made the update to change the caller's health plan from Anthem to Managed Health Services (MHS). However, since the caller spoke to a new agent, the agent lacked confidence in her voice. Though this sounds simple, the caller was distraught because this change meant she couldn't see her doctor until the plan went into effect.

The agent sent me an instant message (IM) via Skype letting me know details about the call before transferring the call over. Usually, transferring a call to a team lead/supervisor means the caller gets a tad bit less irate - not, in this case. She started getting loud and using profanity.

I calmly stated her name and asked how I could help. Whenever she got loud, I never matched her tone. I allowed her to vent and spoke slower in a low tone, but in a tone loud enough for the caller to hear me.

She said, "I need to change my health plan, I have diabetes, and my doctor is the only one who knows me and my health conditions. I have allergies to medications, this is my family's doctor and I can't see any other doctor."

I said, "I understand that this change is important to your health, she sounds like a good doctor. Could you please help me understand when your next doctor's appointment is?"

She replied, "I have one on the 25th of June, at 2:50 pm, I must keep that appointment since I need to get a refill on my meds."

I replied, "I understand, I see that the change to MHS will be going into effect on the 15th of June, which means you can contact MHS on the 15th to let them know that you need Dr. Smith. In the meantime, you're still covered and can reach out to Anthem if something comes up. I understand that you need some medicines to last you through the end of June?"

She replied, "Yes, I do, I didn't know that, why didn't the agent inform me about all this?"

I replied, "I understand I found this out from Julie, and I'm guessing she did. I know Julie does sound new, but she is a great person, is there anything else I can help you with?"

She replied, "No, that would be all, and please tell Julie I am sorry, I'm having a rough day and when I saw this letter in the mail that my health plan changed, I got heated and Julie was the person that I got a hold of."

I ended the call by summarizing what we did, let the caller know that she could call us back if she had any questions, and wished her a great day ahead.

Tips to De-Escalate Similar Situations

Here are some tips that I train agents on and have used:

  • Never match the tone of an upset caller.
  • Never get one up over an upset caller.
  • Continue being courteous, using words such as “thank you”, “please”, “welcome”, and “may I”.
  • Find a way to apologize, either for the situation or something like that, as it defuses anger.
  • Start sentences with, "I agree...." or "I understand," as some people want to be understood.
  • Summarize key points to help the person know that you understand them.
  • Ask questions, especially the close-ended question, to let the caller know that you want to learn more about their situation. This also helps to break up a talkative caller.
  • Set expectations, such as what you can do and when you may need to get someone else involved to assist. Warm transfer the caller over in such instances.
  • Use their name to get their attention.
  • Use positive words.
  • Know the line by knowing your contact center’s policy on offensive or threatening language, and be prepared to ask for help from managers, if needed.

Manage your emotions

We are not robots, and the only way to approach an explosive situation effectively is to make sure our own emotions are in check. It is vital to not take things personally, and stay calm.

Here are some tips for how to remember to do that when you are in the middle of an unpleasant call:

  • Before responding to a caller, determine if responding to the caller, in the same manner, improves the situation or makes it worse?
  • Remember, we may not be able to change the situation, but we can choose how we react to it.
  • Know your personal limit, and find reasons to take small on-hold breaks in the call if needed, if that would help the situation.

During our training sessions, we train agents to stop, take a deep breath, think and then respond to the caller, and during training, we play a few challenging calls where the agent maintained their composure and was still able to assist the caller. We also use role-playing scenarios that help trainees build resilience.

We can't control how the caller may react, but teaching our agents about call de-escalation tactics helps the agent with call control and helps callers receive the information they need based on the situation.