Handling Difficult Call Center Callers: The Art of Thick-Skin


Yes, the customer experience is ‘all important.’ But even pros will tell you it can sometimes be a challenge.

Practically everyone in business has encountered an angry, hostile customer.

Difficult, angry callers at an inbound call center are nothing new. On the contrary: they’ve been around as long as the phrase “this call may be monitored for quality assurance purposes.”

And likely much longer.

Difficult Callers Contribute to High Turnover.
Call center agents are unanimous in their verdict – difficult callers are stressful and nerve-racking. 

How nerve-racking?

So much so that it can be enough to keep an agent up at night. It also contributes to the high turnover common to call centers.

Help Wanted: Thick-Skin Mandatory.
Call center agents are called the ‘front line’ because they represent the forward customer-facing portion of the company. They are in front of the customer. But when callers turn unreasonable and direct their wrath at the person on the other end of the line, ‘the front line’ brings inevitable war comparisons.

“Wow, that was intense!” is a commonly-heard phrase in call centers. Sometimes it involves lots of headshaking. Other times, tears.

And let’s face it: it is intense. No one wants to face a barrage of accusations and threats, and it demands discipline…not to hang up, not to offer the snarky response, and sometimes not to cry.  This is thick-skin territory, indeed.

The Customer is Always Right – Even if Their Words (or Volume) Are Not. 
So how do you handle the recalcitrant, angry caller? The difficult one?

First, it’s important to remember that the caller is extremely frustrated and is lashing out. Like it or not, that front line agent is the face of the Company. In the customer’s eyes, that can make the agent the source of their problem, challenge, issue or whatever is troubling them.

Second – the basics. They always bear repeating:

  1. Listen more than talk. Choose a tone to match the customer’s emotional state.
  2. Don’t be a robot – be empathetic. Whatever the issue, it’s a major source of frustration for the customer. Be understanding and compassionate, and remember: the customer likely feels they are investing a lot of time into this – another source of frustration.
  3. Stay polite and friendly, and always seek to be helpful.
  4. Keep your anger under control, and don’t ever hang up on a customer – though different call centres have different policies on when this may be acceptable (there’s usually a pretty clear line between difficult, upset callers and those who launch into sexist, racist or threatening tirades).
  5. Don’t let your frustration grow. Try explaining your position to them in a different way, or keep looking for a reasonable solution that meets the customer’s needs.  Remember, it isn’t personal…
  6. Except when it may actually be personal. In some cases, passing the caller to another representative using a different approach can help diffuse the situation. In some cases, a new approach – combined with the feeling that they have progressed through the system to another agent – will improve cooperation.

What strategies have you used to successfully handle a difficult customer or caller?