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17 October 2005  
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Home - Technology Life - Article


The skill of handling irate customers

Handling irate customers is an integral part of the customer service industry. Vinutha V writes about the effective processes that call centres have adopted.

Imagine, you have been sent a wrong telephone bill or your important parcel has not reached you or your money is not credited to your account even after specified days …such examples can be endless. Usually, a company (client organisation) appoints service providers (call centres) to communicate with its customers. It is the task of customer support personnel or agents to assist the end-customers. When the latter is upset because of certain processes, they report the grievance to call centre agents to get the issues resolved. The helplessness of the end-customer is converted into anger, which they show on the agents taking their call. In the customer services industry, handling irate customers is not an easy task, it requires resilience, patience and a lot of mental strength on the part of agents. For most of these youngsters who are straight out of college, the pressure takes its obvious toll and further adds to the escalating attrition rate in the industry.

Irate customers more for ‘inbound calls’

Tackling irate customers is part of the deal for call centres. If the situations are analysed correctly, higher number of instances of customers getting agitated occur when the backend process has failed to address their grievances. When it comes to outbound calls, the instances of customers getting irritated are very less, as it deals more with introducing new products or services. At the most, the end-customer can ask an agent to call back later. The problem area is in the inbound call process where agents have to bear the brunt of customers’ outburst. Invariably, it is the inbound calls in the areas of telecom billing process, logistics and tech support that see maximum number of irate callers and handling them is a challenging task.

Telephone doctor

In this context, managing irate customers assumes a lot of importance. S Nagarajan, Founder and Chief Operating Officer of 24/7 Customer says, “For a customer service organisation, handling irate customers is a special focus. The key to good customer support training is to understand if the end- customer’s ire is reasonable or not. This can be achieved through a training, which comprises probing skills, assessment skills and empathy skills. In many companies the number of complaints received is tracked on an ongoing basis, analysed and the action is taken to correct process level issues or train individual agents, if necessary.”

Chetan Khosla, Principal Consultant, QAI India adds, “Primarily, call centres should handle irate customers at two levels—the processes followed on the call and the processes that exist post the call. Most companies include it in the customer service training programmes. These programmes could be customised or generic off-the- shelf ones. One of the popular training programmes is called the Telephone Doctor.” The process is named so because of the way in which a doctor handles a patient.

At the outset, agents need to understand that end-customers are irate not because of the agents but because of some process that have not worked out. Next comes the acknowledging, empathising and assuring that things will be corrected. Apologies on behalf of the company should never be neglected.

It is also important to familiarise the agents with the kind of issues that make a customer irate. A well-prepared and trained agent is the best bet to ensure that an irate customer is mollified and gets converted to a satisfied customer. Some companies are known to develop Irate Customer—Dos and Don’ts lists readily available to the agent. These lists tell the agent as what is likely to make a customer angry.

On the call

Understanding customers’ woes without altering an agent’s temperament or not becoming emotional would help in resolving problems faster. It is important, therefore, to recognise the issues, which is usually done by:

  • Sensitising the agents to understand when a customer is complaining
  • Recording the complaint to analyse and take preventive and corrective action on the process.

In extreme cases, there might be times when the customer refuses to be pacified. In such situations it is helpful if the agent has a clear, dependable process to escalate the matter. The escalation could be to his supervisor or another support staff (trainer, subject matter expert and technical lead), who may have more experience in handling the matter.

Jai Krishnan, Delivery Head-Support, Sybase says, “Dealing with irate customers is a very important phase. They should be given enough time to present their case. At the end of the call, agents should make the customers feel that the call is making them to do away with their problems.”

Follow-ups—a must

An irate customer call is important as it gives insights into where the processes are weak or have failed. The post call recording of the incident should be accurate. It is imperative that the approach taken here is not of blaming the agent who took the irate customer call but to correct process deficiencies. This is a must and all the agents interacting with customers should be aware of the role that they play in strengthening the existing processes.

Information recorded on such calls must be analysed on an ongoing basis—weekly or monthly depending on the frequency of complaints, and corrective actions must be prompt. It is also important to close loop the process and provide inputs to the training function so that they can incorporate insights into their training programmes.

Client organisation’s role

“In some other organisations that we have seen, the end-customer survey is managed by the client organisation and they are privy to the feedback received from the end-customers. The service provider ensures that such customers are contacted, the issue is understood in greater detail by a person who has been specifically trained for the purpose and is resolved to the satisfaction of the customer,” adds Khosla of QAI.

Soothing irate customers is not eventual in the process of handling them. Both service providers and client organisations can work together to make situations better. “Analysis of problems should be done on a weekly basis. Specific cases should be taken as examples and evaluated with proper strategies. The outcome should be implemented in the training modules and process as well,” adds Krishnan of Sybase.

Call centres should handle irate customers at two levels—the processes followed on the call and that exist post the call
Chetan Khosla
Principal Consultant
QAI India
The key to good customer support training is to understand if the end-customer’s ire is reasonable or not
S Nagarajan
Founder & COO
24/7 Customer

Depressed agents need special care

Call centre employees are constantly being monitored. While each and every action of these executives is monitored, their conversation with customers also gets recorded. And not to forget they have a specific AHT (average handling time) that they have to stick to.

The AHT ranges from three to four minutes to several hours, depending on the type of the work handled by a call centre. Exceeding that time calls for an explanation, and affects their incentives as well as performance reports. The fact is that the amount of stress faced by call centre executives is having its toll. On one side lies the pressure of maintaining strict quality standards, while on the other are irate customers hurling abuses. They are vulnerable anyway, and an irate call really knocks off their confidence. They don’t want to take another call for an hour or two and their performance is impacted. Therapists try to help the staff realise that the abuse is not personal and to put things in perspective. Krishnan opines that irate calls can impact directly or indirectly on employees exiting the company. He further says, “Many a time, agents may feel that the whole process may deteriorate because of them. This stage is highly critical for both the employees and the service provider. Agents should feel that the company stands by their side. With the help of mentors or counsellors, they should be equipped to handle irate customers better without affecting their emotional levels.”

At all times, it should be re-emphasised that it is a customer service business and it takes skill and empathy to handle irate people. Call centres need to constantly upgrade their skills in handling tricky situations. Khosla points out, “In case an agent is regularly getting upset over irate customers, there are two recourses available. Further training on customer handling or recognising that the agent does not have the aptitude for customer service and therefore shifting him to a more appropriate task involving lesser direct customer interaction.”



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