In any customer service role, there is a lot odd customer behavior that
has to be dealt with. Grumpy, whiny, indecisive, loud, argumentative, insensitive, demanding behaviors, to name a few, are all just part of the customer
service landscape. Most of this behavior is preventable, too much of it is (unfortunately) deserved, and almost all can be defused with the right strategies (see Winning with the Customer from Hell.)
“Don’t take it personally,” is common advice for people dealing with difficult customers. Perhaps, but that advice becomes quite difficult to follow when the customer has chosen to make it personal. A personal attack is the difference between “I think your organization is stupid!” and “I think you are stupid!” Personal attacks include comments about your intelligence, competence, physical features – and of course gender, race, religion, etc. When personal attacks begin, there indeed comes a point in an interaction where the customer no longer deserves your effort to try and turn things around.
Anyone who has been reading Winning at Work! for a while knows that I am a big proponent of giving most customers a one-time ‘mulligan’ when he (she) crosses a line. After all, we always have to accept the possibility that it might have been us who pushed the customer to this behavior. So it’s important to begin by expressing empathy and a willingness to resolve things – e.g.
“I’m truly sorry you feel that way, Mr. Smith. I’d really like to find an alternative that would work for you if I can.”
Beyond this, however, if a customer continues with personal attacks, your obligations to this customer cease. Let the customer know, as politely as you can, that the interaction is now over. e.g. “Mr. Smith, I do want to help, but clearly I cannot. Under the circumstances, I think perhaps you (I) should leave.” If the customer continues their behavior, find someone in authority – a manager, a supervisor – and have them take over. If the personal attacks take on a threatening tone, don’t hesitate to bring in security or even the police.
Hopefully, you will never find yourself in this position. But if you, do there is no shame in taking action when the customer has chosen to escalate a situation. As Kenny Rogers wrote in his song The Gambler: “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em; know when to fold ’em; know when to walk away; know when to run.”
If you frequently find yourself being personally attacked, it may be worth taking an introspective look to make sure it’s not something you are doing or saying that is triggering these situations.