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How to Face a Hostile Customer using Critical Conversation Skills

Critical conversation skills can help you deal with a hostile customer,. Hostile customers often disrupt the workplace, but critical conversation skills, carefully applied, can help keep aggressive customers from infecting employees and other customers with their attitude.

Yelling customers making threats face customer service agents in almost every company on any given day. Sometimes customers break rules or cross the line from being upset and irate to being hostile to an employee or group of employees.

The following critical conversation sounds and feels like a critical conversation you’d have when an employee’s behavior is disrupting work. In this case, a customer manager or leader in the company presents the facts, examines what’s happening, and works with the customer to decide on what to do next.

Suppose an employee who works for one of your clients repeatedly ignores your e-mails and phone calls and frequently reschedules meetings at the last minute. When they do return calls or meet with you, it is often at the last minute and very rushed.

This results in you having to stay until midnight to get work done on time, or not having sufficient time to incorporate their feedback when you have to deliver documents to their boss. The options are to ignore the behavior since the customer is, well, the customer, or to confront the problem in as positive a way as possible.

As hard as it is, confronting a customer who breaks the rules is the right solution in the end, whether the customer is misrepresenting facts, not doing their job, or howling like a wolf under a full moon. How do you do it? The same way you do with any other critical conversation.

Employee: “Mr. Customer, thanks for agreeing to meet with me. We appreciate your business and want to make sure we can give you the best customer service possible. Over the past year, I feel my ability to serve you has gone down because I don’t have all the critical information I need to serve you in a timely manner.

Before our meeting with the VP, you said you reviewed the presentation and had no comments, but then in the meeting, you said that you had never seen the presentation before. This also happened in our meeting with the directors last week, and with your team the week before. I know you’re busy, and I’m hoping we can find a way to be more productive.”

Customer: “Oh, no, that was just a mistake.”

Employee: “I understand. Are you willing to work together to find a solution that helps us both be more productive?”

Customer: “Well, of course.”

With this decision to work together in place, if the same behavior happens again, the employee can go back to this agreement to work together. The key to this discussion, as with all critical conversations, is to come to the discussion with a genuine desire to make things better.

Luckily, most people are, well, human, and when kindly and honestly presented with facts, they eventually decide to at least look at ways to change the behavior causing the issue.

You’ll always have customers and employees who have no desire to change, let alone listen. But stay with it. Critical conversations in highly charged situations are rarely once-and-done discussions.

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