All Customer Service Is Subject to the Abuse Exception

October 11, 2012

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 Customer

As 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?

16 thoughts on “All Customer Service Is Subject to the Abuse Exception”

  1. 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……..

    1. 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. 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!

    1. 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. 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! 🙂

    1. 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. 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.

    1. 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. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

        1. 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? 🙂

  6. I was looking up ‘what is an abusive customer’ because yesterday I was called abusive although I did not get angry, did not call anyone names, or threaten anyone. In fact, I was quite jovial and was actually trying to diffuse a situation involving the angry customer in front of me. I was waiting in line at the customer service desk of a large conglomerate department store to pick up some money from Western Union. The line was long as it was when i joined it – at least fifteen people. There was only one customer service rep at the second cash and one on and off at the first cash. I made a point to ask the girl at the first cash if her WU was up before I joined the line because last time I waited quite a while only to find out it was down. She confirmed it was working. After about ten minutes of waiting and only three people served, the lady in front of me commented on how the customer service guy on cash two was really slow and how there are at least six people behind the counter just chatting. I kind of joked that he looked like the bionic man in slow motion. Which he did. He really was moving slowly, if you can imagine. I didn’t say it loudly enough for him to hear, it was only loud enough for the lady in front of me and apparently the lady behind me. After that, the lady behind us started reprimanding us for making fun of him. I pointed out to her that one has to admit that he is unusually slow in his movements. She got even more irate and started yelling ‘What if someone made fun of you at your job?’ and ‘What if someone accused you of being slow.?’ She started dropping the f bomb and kept going on and on until finally her own daughter told her to calm down. I got to the front, but the girl at cash one told me her WU wasn’t working and that I’d have to go to the ‘slow man’. Remember, about thirty minutes before she had just told me her WU was working. At the same time, the irate lady behind me was complaining about me to them. So that’s how they got their information – not from hearing me, but from what she told them. Then, when I tried to defend myself by saying ‘You gotta admit he is rather slow’. They all got angry at me and said I was being offensive and gave me back my passport and WU form and that they weren’t serving me and told me to leave. While I was going, supervisor yelled out ‘Take your passport somewhere else’. So, I went over to the optometrist who seemed the most educated and fair person there, explained the situation as best that I could and asked for a store manager. She brought me back to the same customer service desk and asked them to contact the manager so I could talk to them. Well, once she left, they called an assistant manager and without letting me speak to her, told her only their side of the story. Which was that I was being verbally abusive to the customer service rep along with some other ‘creative’ details. She hung up and I never did let me speak with the assistant manager on the other end about my complaint. What bothers me is that the lady in front of me was much more angry and the lady behind me was much more abusive and that the story this woman just told to the assistant manager was completely false and based on the exaggerations of the lady behind me. I barely talked to customer service rep, save saying we had been waiting a while and, even though there were six customer reps behind the counter, it still took almost a half an hour for me to get to the counter. But again, I was polite and didn’t use profanity like the other two ladies involved, nor was I angry. I just happened to get the brunt of their anger. At one point there was eight of them scolding me. It was incredible. I was humiliated and, by that time, upset because I wasted at least thirty minutes in line, then got turned away only because I was pointing out that their service wasn’t up to par. What’s wrong with that?
    Here’s the thing, I rarely ever complain. I am not sure why all this happened. Why didn’t they just say, ‘I’m sorry you had to wait so long’. Right now, I feel like crying thinking back to how humiliated I felt. I’ve never had another customer berate me like that, then the customer service join in. Did she work there also and she was defending him? Was I completely out of line? Excuse the pun.
    It occurred to me to write head office. But, given the reputation of the company, I doubt I’d get an apology.
    Any suggestions on how to voice my complaints about the time in line and the way my initial complaint was handled?

  7. No, our job shouldn’t entail being forced to take crap. All customer service jobs qualify as human rights abuse. Nobody should have to put up with the ridiculous crap that customer service reps deal with on a daily basis.

    I don’t care if they’re angry and I don’t care if their anger is legitimate. It should be a CRIME to be angry with a customer service rep. It’s not their fault your crap is broken/got lost/whatever. I shouldn’t have to sacrifice my mental health for a bunch of stupid angry Karens who can’t keep themselves under control.

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