Dealing with Abusive Customers

The first step is to understand where anger and abusive behavior comes from. People who get emotionally upset tend to forget the methods that are appropriate when dealing with an uncomfortable or unfavorable situation.

When people are infants, they are programmed, instinctively, with methods of getting what they need without knowing how to speak. Adults will regress to this state, in one way or another, when they are faced with a problem that upsets them emotionally or puts them in a position of helplessness. It is important to note the phrase “in one way or another”. Some people handle themselves better than others, depending on how well they can deal with things, without getting emotionally upset.

I would like to review some of the points made by Robert Bacal in his book “Defusing Hostile Customers“. I hope you find this information useful next time you deal with an abuse client.

Some Definitions


Anger refers to an internal state (feeling) experienced by the person in question. An angry
person experiences some physiological changes, some invisible and some visible. There
are some important things to note about anger, and angry people.

1. People choose their own emotional states. That is, their feelings of anger, or for that
matter, any other feelings, belongs to them. As such, those feelings are not your
responsibility. What is your responsibility, however, is to ensure that you don’t
knowingly or unknowingly do something they choose to take as anger provoking.

2. We need to accept the fact that people will be angry, at times. They have a right to be
angry when they choose. What they do not have a right to do is to take out their anger on
you, particularly when you have done nothing to contribute to it.

Angry Behavior

People express their anger in various ways. Most angry people will raise their voice or
become more animated. Mild expressions of anger are simply ways a person vents a little
steam. As with the feeling of anger, we need to be reasonable in terms of what offends us,
and allow the angry person some latitude in behavior before we deem the behavior

There is a clear reason for this. If we allow ourselves to be offended every time we
encounter angry behavior, we are going to be pretty miserable and, in turn, ineffective in
dealing with just about everyone. The problem with angry customers is not the anger in
itself but rather the hostile/abusive behavior that sometimes accompanies it.

People choose their own emotional states. That is, their feeling of anger, or for that
matter, any other feeling, belongs to them.

Hostile/Abusive Behavior

What sets apart hostile/abusive behavior from angry behavior is that hostile/abusive
behavior is intended, consciously or subconsciously to have some or all of the following
– put you off balance
– manipulate and control you
– demean you in some way
– cause you to feel guilty
– intimidate you

It is this kind of behavior that causes the greatest amount of stress for most employees.
While we may tolerate some degree of angry behavior without being concerned, we need
to be concerned about hostile/abusive behaviors. We want to stop these behaviors as
professionally as possible. If we can, at the same time, reduce the anger of the client,
that’s great. If we can’t, we need to recognize that the anger belongs to the client.

Verbal Abuse

Verbal abuse takes a great many forms, from very subtle, to very obvious. Here when we talk about verbal abuse, we refer to behaviors like the following:
– persistent swearing
– yelling
– sexist comments (both explicit and implied)
– racist comments (both explicit and implied)
– irrelevant personal remarks (e.g. about you or your personality in particular)
– personal threats (e.g. I will have you fired).
– intimidating silence
– accusations of various sorts (e.g. calling you a racist)
– comments about your competency, knowledge, dedication, etc.

These behaviors are intended to demean and control you. Don’t be trapped by these
tactics used to bait you.

Non-Verbal Abuse

However rare it is, to deal with an angry or abusive customer who is actually in the
office, it should be mentioned nonetheless. Nonverbal abuse refers to behavior that has
nothing to do with what is said, but has to do with things like body posture, facial
expressions, gestures, etc. Nonverbal abuse is intended to send a message or messages to
you, such as “I don’t like you”, or, “I am fed up”, or even “In my eyes you aren’t worth
anything”. When we talk about nonverbal abuse we refer to behaviors such as:
– standing in your personal space staring at you (long eye contact)
– throwing things
– leaning over you (using height)
– fearsome facial expressions
– loud sighing
– pointing, other offensive gestures

Sometimes, these behaviors may not be intended to intimidate or demean you, and may
be a relatively normal way of expressing anger. However, we classify them as abusive,
because they do tend to have a manipulating effect on you.
As with verbal abuse, we want to take steps to stop these behaviors used to bait us.

Do Not Be Baited

If a customer is truly attacking you, they will likely bait you immediately. A customer
may call and when they get someone start with something like “What the hell is wrong
with you. Every time I come here, you hassle me and give me the runaround If you knew
what you were doing, this wouldn’t happen. And, this is the last time you are going to do
this to me.” This type of statement is meant to bait you into being defensive and to
ultimately control you and your behavior.

If you are being baited, be sure to remove yourself from the situation and not take it as a
personal attack. Don’t allow yourself to fire back in your own defense. Instead, it is
better to commiserate with the customer, ask why they are so upset and ask them how
you can help resolve the reason they are upset.

If you do what the abusive customer expects, such as reply defensively, the attacker will
continue to attack you in order to get what they want while making you feel abused
and/or frustrated. They may also be also able to manipulate you into doing something
you aren’t supposed to do.

Keep The Problem From Getting Worse!

We should not bait a customer, even in return or retaliation of what they may have done
to us. An angry or abusive situation will escalate if a customer feels as if there are no
options or they are trapped in a bad situation. The situation can also escalate if you feel
any of these as well. If an escalation cycle during a conversation or other electronic
exchange is not interrupted it can quickly get out of hand and cause those involved to say
and do things that can ultimately damage the other party in some way. For instance, if a
customer gets angry enough they may post something negative on a public forum about
our company. This is usually the result of a customer feeling trapped in a bad situation or
as if they have no other options and unable to resolve the issue with us directly.
Customers ultimately want you to fix whatever problem it is that they have. Sometimes
this is simply not possible. What will also help in this situation is if you can offer
helpfulness to at least try and perhaps have someone else resolve the problem, give them
some choices of other ways to get around the issue and/or at the very least acknowledge
their situation and feelings about the problem at hand.

“It is very important to understand that emotional intelligence is not the opposite of intelligence, it is not the triumph of heart over head — it is the unique intersection of both.” -David Caruso