How to cope with cussing customers over the phone

January 21, 2014 1
How to cope with cussing customers over the phone

It appears that self-storage managers, owners and operators put up with their fair share of four-letter words over the phone. And we’re not talking about words like “unit” or “feet.”

A recent study by Seattle-based mobile advertising company Marchex Inc. ranked 20 service industries based on the rate of expletive-filled customer calls that they handle.

The top industry? Satellite TV, with one of every 82 calls laced with customer profanity. In seventh place: Storage, with one of every 192 customers spewing swear words over the phone.

Customers will react to your tone and demeanor.
— Patrick McKernan, president, American Mobile Glass of New Jersey Inc.

“Consumers expect great service and easy-to-understand pricing from national and local businesses, and they aren’t afraid to voice their displeasure when they don’t receive it,” John Busby, senior vice president of the Marchex Institute, said in a news release.

The study found that a considerable amount of cursing actually happens while customers are on hold.

“This should be a clear signal to businesses that long hold times leave a negative—and lasting—impression,” Busby said.

Now that you know the storage industry rates highly for cussing customers, you may be wondering what to do the next time you confront a cursing caller. Here are eight tips from the pros.

on the phone

1. Don’t Hang Up Right Away.
“Let the customer finish. Give them an opportunity to calm down. Let them know you are there to help. Use the techniques that your company trained you on to deal with this situation,” said customer service expert Shep Hyken, chief amazement officer at Shepard Presentations LLC in St. Louis. “If all else fails, ask the customer to call back when he or she is willing to be reasonable.”

Ending the call is an extreme measure that should be avoided, said Stephanie Willis, a member of the Amazing Customer Experience (ACE) Team at online self-storage marketplace SpareFoot. Why? The cussing customer likely will call back and be more aggravated than before.

Taylor Zarsky, an event and ticket specialist at Red Carpet Experiences in Austin, TX, said she’s never resorted to hanging up on a fuming customer.

“But one time I did ask a customer if he kissed his mother with that mouth,” Zarsky said. “Guilting typically works in a pinch.”

doing yoga

2. Remain Calm.
“Customers will react to your tone and demeanor. If you 
get defensive or use words like ‘can’t,’ ‘no’ or ‘won’t,’ chances are the
 customer is going to become completely irrational and may even begin to 
cuss at you,” said Patrick McKernan, president 
of American Mobile Glass of New Jersey Inc., which repairs and replaces glass for cars, homes and businesses.

“Too often,” he said, “I’ve seen customer service representatives 
overreact and let the customer get them in a frenzy.”

Withhold judgment about the cursing customer, and don’t take the 
barrage personally, said industrial psychologist Janine Sergay, president of The Sergay Group Ltd., an organizational development training firm in Long Grove, IL.

open arms

3. Be Empathetic.
Tron Jordheim, director of operations at call-center services company PhoneSmart in Columbia, MO, said his customer service agents typically adopt a caring tone during the first round of cussing.

“We let the caller know that we are there to help with their problem or situation and that we want to help. This usually calms the person down enough for the cussing to stop,” Jordheim said.

Albert Hood, a member of SpareFoot’s ACE Team, said he generally lets a cursing customer vent.

“I try to interrupt positively when I can after that, and then figure out a way to change the tone and direction that the conversation is going,” Hood said. “I finally offer the solutions that I can, and try to be honest about what I can do and where I may be able to send them to resolve their dilemma.”

be firm

4. Be Firm.
Sometimes a customer takes out his or her frustration on a customer service agent by launching a “very aggressive and very offensive” tirade, Jordheim said.

If that’s the case, the agents at Jordheim’s call center respond with something like this: “I am trying to help you with the issue. I am glad to help you. But I cannot help you if you continue to speak to me this way.”

If the verbal abuse continues, Jordheim’s agents will say something like this: “I cannot help you if you speak to me this way. I am going to end the call if you continue to speak this way. Let me get a little more information from you and then I can help you.”

If that doesn’t do the trick, Jordheim’s agents tell the customer that the call is being ended.


5. Weigh the Situation.
Jenelle Cottriel, a member of SpareFoot’s ACE Team, said her reaction to a cursing customer depends on the circumstances. If the caller merely is using colorful language, she lets it slide.

“But if it’s meant in offense, I ask them to stop. If that doesn’t work, I start speaking quietly and slowly,” Cottriel said. “Angry customers are looking for more fuel for their anger, and so they do want to listen. If you’re harder to hear, they have to listen harder and longer. And in that pattern, fiery, curse-filled anger is much more difficult to maintain.”

grabbing the reins

6. Grab the Reins.
“For someone to curse at a customer service rep, they generally feel like they’re being screwed over in some tremendous way, or have potentially gone through multiple channels already and feel extremely frustrated,” SpareFoot’s Willis said. “At that point, it’s about taking ownership of the problem and committing to solving it. Hopefully by telling them confidently that you will do your best to resolve the issue, they can relax.”

Offering a discount or a refund, if appropriate, could help defuse the situation, according to Janet Attard, CEO of, a website geared toward small businesses.

call volume

7. Match the Caller’s Volume.
“When their voice rises, raise your voice, but keep your intensity just below theirs. The customer just wants to know you ‘get’ them,” said Traci Brown, an expert in body language and persuasion. “After just a little time, you can lower your voice slowly and they’ll lower their intensity right with you and settle down. Then you can have a meaningful conversation and resolve their issues.”

customer service training

8. Emphasize Training.
How to deal with irate people should be included in training for customer service professionals who spend much of their time on the phone.

“Don’t screw up in the first place. If you’re a customer service-centric 
organization and constantly work to deliver an awesome experience, your 
chances of being cussed out by a customer are next to zero,” said Austin Brandt, co-founder and customer support lead at Chasm Health LLC, an Indianapolis company that helps consumers obtain their medical records.

McKernan said that at American Mobile Glass, customer service agents jot down details about all over-the-phone complaints. Then, during a weekly meeting, the customer service team reviews those situations.

“Why did it happen? What could be done to prevent something like this from
happening again in the future?” McKernan said.

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  • Diana Hall

    !@#$%^&*! Great:) Seriously, great advice! Works well and we don’t have too much of that and after being American Classic Self Storage Managers for twenty three years, we have heard it all!

    Thanks and keep up the good work!