Handling Difficult Callers

Difficult CallersWe recognise these calls pretty quickly, don't we?  The callers with high-pitched speech, sighs, long pauses, terse answers and increasing volume.  Telling them to "take it easy" or "stay calm" will probably make it worse.  So before your call turns abusive, here are top ten tips to help you handle a difficult caller:

  1. Make sure you are ready when you take a call.  As far as possible, eliminate any distractions to listening.  Visual distractions are four times more powerful than auditory ones.  Don't wedge the phone under your chin and continue typing — this shows a lack of respect and will further inflame the caller!  To help you give your caller 100% attention, position your phone on your desk just out of arm’s reach.  That way you will have to stop what you are doing to be able to take a call.
  2. Engage your "thinking brain," not your emotional one.  This caller’s rant or behaviour isn't personal, so don't take it personally.  Focus on facts and statements, not emotions.
  3. Take on the caller's issue, not his or her rage.  As you listen, try to identify central ideas as well as specific facts.  That will help you decide what the possible solutions are.  (This isn't easy, as an upset caller is not necessarily logical!)  So focus on what the caller wants, or what he or she says has not happened.  This helps you steer the conversation toward what can now be done to remedy the situation.
  4. Take notes while the caller is talking.  This will save you asking the caller to repeat the information later on. 
  5. Acknowledge the caller's concerns and empathise to defuse the situation.  This will also build rapport with the caller.  Acknowledgements that are meaningful and specific, for example, "I can see that would hold up proceedings," will be much more effective. (“Okay” is not a sufficient acknowledgement.)
  6. Apologise for the situation as soon as you detect that the caller is upset. Remember that you are apologising for any inconvenience experienced.  You are not automatically apologising for a mistake you made.
  7. Ask questions to clarify, and make sure you have all the facts.  When you ask questions, always say “please” — it shows respect.  But be careful not to ask too many questions, or the same question more than once.  Callers will feel that they are being interrogated.
  8. Summarise the situation to get the caller’s agreement, then offer a choice of alternatives to fix the problem, for example: "Here's what we can do...."  Make sure you give at least two options for them to consider.
  9. Let the caller decide which alternative to use, so he or she feels included, valued, respected and like he or she has a say in fixing the problem.  If the caller feels that he or she has made a decision on how to move forward, rather than having been told by you how to move forward, he or she is more likely to work with you on it.
  10. Make sure you follow through on your agreement and if you can't, then let the caller know — before the deadline — or you will simply have another difficult call to handle next time!

 Des Whitehorn is the Training Principal of Zee Associates (www.zee-associates.co.uk).  She can be contacted on 01825 733621 or deswhitehorn@zee-associates.co.uk.