The Abuse Exception | Angry, Red-Faced Customer

All Customer Service Is Subject to the Abuse Exception

President Truman once famously quipped that he wanted to meet a one-handed economist, because all of his economists advised him by saying on the one hand, on the other.

Like economics, disciplines based heavily on human interactions are also context-dependent, lending themselves to an abundance of caveats and conditions. Customer service is one of those disciplines.

The Abuse Exception | Angry, Red-Faced CustomerAs I write about customer service, I often find myself having to qualify my statements. Most of the time I am writing about what we should be doing for the customer — the attitude we should embrace as we interact with the customer. In short, the many ways we should be there to serve the customer.

But there are always limits.  Always.

Some customers are unreasonable, some customers are unsatisfiable, and some customers are downright abusive. These customers are the exception to most customer service admonitions.

The Abuse Exception

The abuse exception is simple: most customer service rules or precepts are thrown out when customers cross the line in to abuse.

What is abuse? Truly, it is in the eye of the beholder, but here are a few examples:

  • Unwavering insistence on unrealistic demands that the customer knows, or should know, are not remotely appropriate to the situation
  • Verbal harassment of the customer service rep with inappropriate language
  • Repeated threatening of adverse actions if the customer does not get what they want (i.e. Blackmail)

Of course, the gamut of abusive behavior is much wider than the above, but the list gives a sense of what is meant by the term.

It is important to note that angry and abusive are not the same. Much of the above is dependent on context for determining whether it is abuse or a momentary “losing of the cool” that can be walked back from.

To put it bluntly, if you are in customer service, your job is to take crap. Yet, there is a limit and when that line is crossed, the dynamic changes and so does your duty as a customer facing professional.

So, be awesome to your customers and do everything you can to give them what they ask for.

Just know, that advice is subject to the abuse exception.

Have you ever had an upset customer cross the line into abuse? Ever had to fire a customer?


By Adam Toporek. Adam Toporek is an internationally recognized customer service expert, keynote speaker, and workshop leader. He is the author of Be Your Customer's Hero: Real-World Tips & Techniques for the Service Front Lines (2015), as well as the founder of the popular Customers That Stick® blog and co-host of the Crack the Customer Code podcast.

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14 replies
  1. Bill Dorman
    Bill Dorman says:

    I will break the Kung Fu grip out if they become too abusive.

    Yes, I have had to deal w/ some really angry customers at time. I have found the best way to deal with them is to face it head on, don’t let it fester, and let them have their say. Another thing I really, really try to avoid is making excuses, because usually that is the last thing they want to hear at that point. If you are patient and non-confrontational, sometimes the angry customer will just talk themselves out……..

    • Adam Toporek
      Adam Toporek says:

      That’s very true Bill. I just touched on it in this post, but there is definitely a difference between angry and abusive (though someone can be both). There are a lot of ways to handle angry customers, and one of the best is, like you said, just let them talk themselves out.

      If that doesn’t work, you’ve always got the Kung Fu grip! 🙂

  2. Michelle Quillin
    Michelle Quillin says:

    I’m curious as to what precipitated this post! Adam, I take it you’ve experienced an abusive customer?

    There’s definitely a line that gets crossed when a customer goes from angry to abusive. Scott came home one evening from Best Buy with a SCARY story about a very loud and abusive customer whose anger had escalated to threatening violence against a hapless clerk who wasn’t able to satisfy whatever the customer’s demands were. The manager came over to try to neutralize the situation, to no avail. In the meantime, Scott quietly positioned himself close to the confrontation in case he was needed to physically intervene (have you seen the size of my husband?), but thankfully, the guy left on his own accord before the police arrived.

    A woman I know is a customer service representative at the grocery store where I shop. She reported on Facebook one night that a customer had gotten abusive with her, then threatened to “go home and get a .45” and come back. She was pretty shaken up, as you can imagine.

    Blog series idea for you, Adam: Conflict De-Escalation Skills and Techniques!

    • Adam Toporek
      Adam Toporek says:

      Abusive customers? One, or two, or two hundred…

      Ironic you mention Best Buy, I often use the Geek Squad as an example of how tough retail can be. That team gets nothing but people with broken computers; they get chewed up daily. Glad none of the threats in your stories went past the threatening stage. Retail can be a real challenge, and we’ve definitely had a few scary moments over the years.

      Ironically, I do have a post on how to deal with customer threats (all kinds, not just big stuff like violence or legal) in the hopper somewhere. It’s not a whole series, but I should probably dig it out and finish it! Thanks Michelle!

  3. Barrett Rossie
    Barrett Rossie says:

    Adam, this is exactly why my wife quit her job at [Nationally Famous Fashion Retailer With Famous Return Policy]. She was a former manager in a large city, and moved to our smaller city. She wanted a less stressful job, so she took a job with the same company, but limited hours as a cashier. They put her in the ladies shoes department, through which most of the store’s sales and profits flowed.

    The customers were unreasonable and abusive. They were literally stealing by buying $400 shoes, wearing them for a year, then returning them to get the refund, and new shoes.

    So the sales people were losing their commissions and the store wasn’t meeting its goals. Everyone was pressured to sell harder. Stress all around. If corporate and stor management had stood behind the employees, it would have served everyone better.

    Hey, nice profile on Spin Sucks! 🙂

    • Adam Toporek
      Adam Toporek says:

      Thanks Barrett. The profile was quite a nice Friday surprise!

      Sorry to hear about your wife’s experience. It’s really tough when a culture like that is allowed to take hold. Retail is as challenging as it gets in customer service, but most of the time abusive customers are a tiny fraction of what you have to deal with. When they are allowed to run roughshod over the team and the business, it tends to never end. That is why even the best customer service organizations draw lines and set limits.

  4. Tim Bonner
    Tim Bonner says:

    Hi Adam

    I’ve dealt with a few abusive customer service complaints in my time and they’re certainly not pleasant!

    The last one I dealt with before I left employment stands out in my mind as he just couldn’t be reasoned with.

    Even when the pension scheme were going to cover any financial loss to him plus expenses, he was determined he was going to carry on the complaint and take it to the financial ombudsman. It wasn’t even the pension scheme’s fault but another provider that the person held a separate investment with.

    With these kind of customers I think you just have to mark it down as experience, try and ride the waves, minimise any fall out and move on. No point in taking things personally.

    • Adam Toporek
      Adam Toporek says:

      Hi Tim,

      I think I know that guy. 🙂 There is a line that some customers cross not just with you or your organization but within themselves. Resolution and reconciliation are no longer possible — they want the company to pay, to be humbled but only in the way that satisfies them. You can try every customer service technique in the book — some people are just beyond recovery.

      Like you said “ride the waves” and move on. Sometimes it is the only solution.

  5. Ralph
    Ralph says:

    Hey Adam, the architecture industry is fraught with unreasonable clients. The end of projects, the close out phase, is a difficult time. Most consultants have moved on to their next shiny object and clients invariably feel left out in the cold. Not every time but often so we deal with irate (frustrated) clients on occasion in that way.

    The question for me is how did it get there in the first place? Some people are just abusive by nature but not many. To get to a point of frustration that a threat is the only course of action is astounding and giving in at that point is near impossible.

    I have had a client that was abusive unilaterally. Their attitude was to keep their consultant’s on edge at all times. It was a performance tactic (carrots and sticks) that didn’t work well. I had to endure it for 3 years (service contract) and it got progressively worse over time. I admit that I didn’t handle the abusive attitudes well and simply stuck to the contractual obligation and nothing more. There was not much we could do beyond that. We would have loved to fire them but alas could not. I personally learned a lot about customer service from that experience and can now be much more proactive when I see the tables start to turn.

    I guess what I am saying is that as consultants we need to recognize the signs and address the issues early. I know in certain business situations (i.e. retail) that may not always be possible.

    Thanks for the great post.

    • Adam Toporek
      Adam Toporek says:

      Hey Ralph,

      Thanks for the excellent comment! One thing that stands out about your story is that there are situations when you can’t fire the customer — such as a service contract. I’m curious — was one of the lessons learned to leave yourself some outs contractually for situations like this?

      Some people are just bullies, abusive by nature. To your point, they are thankfully a small minority. There is also another sliver who are abusive out of calculation, which seems like your situation. In some ways, they are worse because they can help themselves.

      I always like to think I can turn it around with a customer, but when you can’t, fulfill your basic obligations and focus on those who treat you and your team with respect.

      • Ralph
        Ralph says:

        Thanks Adam, in these types of contracts there is an out for the client via a non-performance clause. A consultant can get out as well but try and get work in the same industry again after that. Unfortunately you have to tough it out.

        Simply learning how to manage that type of relationship helps and recognizing the signs before you engage in the first place is a hugely valuable lesson learned. It has certainly helped me in my current gig.

        Hey, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I appreciate the response and opportunity to share this story.

        • Adam Toporek
          Adam Toporek says:

          Thanks for adding that Ralph.

          Recognizing the signs ahead of time is the key in so many areas of business (hiring, customer service, and so on). If we could just learn to get that right every time… well, people can dream, can’t they? 🙂


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