Do You Let Customers And Clients Verbally Abuse You?
How to define your “red line” and develop a response system
I was twenty-three and terrified of losing my job. I was working at the front desk of a hotel, a famous one. We were busy. The lines were long, and people were impatient.
A guest walks up to the counter and calls me an asshole. Instead of defending myself, I ignored it, pretended I didn’t hear it. I asked, “can I help you?”
He then pulled the power move. He threatened my livelihood. “How would you like it if I called your GM and told him what an asshole you were? My company spends over $100,000 a year here.”
He then mumbled some other insults I don’t remember. I ignored him until he finally mentioned the reason for his visit.
To this day, that incident kills me. I work myself up into a frenzy just thinking about it. Why didn’t I stand up for myself? I was young. His threat to complain to the GM felt real. I convinced myself that I took it like a man and protected my job.
But there’s a bright side
The memory and shame of that incident reanimate in my mind every time I find myself on the receiving end of that type of behavior.
I regret my actions that day at the front desk. I wish I would have stood up for myself. But in another sense, I feel lucky for the experience. It set the stage for how I would respond to such events in the future.
It also made me sensitive to when others dish out abuse and expect their status as a valued customer to shield them from the consequences of offensive behavior.
Do you have that friend who’s rude to their servers? They think they’re the customer, it gives them the right to let off a little steam.
The muffin incident
I was at a group brunch in New York City. A former friend of mine ordered a muffin, cut in half and toasted with each open side buttered. The cook hadn’t toasted according to her specifications, or something ridiculous like that. She exploded at the server. It was the kind of verbal tirade that triggered the “wanna get away” thought from those old Snickers commercials.
At the end of her fury, she turned to us and asked, “wasn’t I right?”
Someone pointed out that her response was disproportionate to the transgression of a carelessly toasted muffin. We never went out for brunch with her again.
Why customers and clients lash out
Business interactions sometimes bring out the worst in people. Most folks hold to a minimum level of dignity, but the outliers exist, and you need a system to deal with them.
Verbal abuse happens in business interactions because a power dynamic exists. One person has power, or perceived power, and uses it to inflict their wrath to get what they want. It happens over and over. Male or female. Young or old. Smart or dumb.
In the corporate and retail world, clients often exercise a perverse power over their business contacts. The client always has leverage over the business in some form.
“If you don’t like the way I’m speaking to you, then I’ll take my business elsewhere.”
“How would you like it if I went to your boss and complained that you treated your customers like shit.”
“I just got the client feedback survey. I know my scores affect your bonus, so…”
“Oh, you don’t like the way I’m speaking to you, wait until you hear what I have to say when I trash your business on social media.”
Customers know their leverage. If their business accounts for a sliver of your revenue, they know they can hurt you by damaging your reputation. If you’re an Account Executive, they know they can threaten low survey scores which affects your compensation. That kind of leverage can influence you to act submissively when a client gets abusive.
Everyone has a right to be angry
Of course, we’re all human. When things go wrong we get angry, raise our voices, and lash out at the person on the other end of the phone.
Even though a problem may not be your fault, your client still blames you because you’re their contact or you happen to be a convenient punching bag. It’s like an idiot restaurant patron who blamed his server for undercooking his eggs. He knew his server wasn’t the one who cooked his eggs, but she was the only one he could blame, so he directed his anger at her.
But there’s a limit to how much you can and should take.
There’s no red line that works for everyone. We each have our tolerance for verbal tirades. If you crumble to pieces at the slightest increase in decibels, you probably shouldn’t deal with customers.
On the other end of the spectrum, there was me, twenty-four years ago. I let that guy walk all over me and just took it. Do that enough, and it’ll destroy your mental fortitude.
I allow clients to express their displeasure, but I draw the line when it gets personal. It doesn’t happen often. I’m lucky that most folks I deal with are professional. But even nice people occasionally lose their shit.
What do you do when someone crosses the line?
If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a verbal lashing, you might have gotten flustered, tongue-tied and lost composure. It’s a typical response, especially when the attack comes unexpectedly.
It’s best to have a plan of action, a system for preventing and dealing with these situations.
Stifle their fury
Someone rarely calls you up out of the blue and attacks. There’s usually an escalation that leads to a blow-up.
If there’s a problem, and it’s your fault (or your company’s), acknowledge the problem and empathize with their plight. Broken software, late deliveries, and other issues can impact another person’s business, affect their bonuses, and hurt their standing within their company.
If you don’t know the impact, ask about the consequences. Your counterpart might realize they’re overreacting or that it’s not even your problem. If they paint you a realistic and dire picture caused by you or your company, then empathize and act with a sense of urgency.
By recognizing the problem, showing you’re on top of it, and empathizing with them, you can prevent a situation from spiraling out of control.
Draw your red line
Know your breaking point. You don’t want to be in the middle of a situation and wonder if the other person has gone too far. Things will escalate further while you mull over the situation.
My red line is when an attack gets personal. The client can yell and scream all they want about our product, service or business. But if they cross that line and turn it into a personal attack, I step in and put an end to it.
Fight the temptation to play their game
It’s tempting to fire back with an equally vicious response. But that approach escalates the animosity and can permanently damage the professional relationship.
I have found that a stern but respectful approach works best. I speak in a calm, soft voice.
“I understand you’re upset that there was a problem with whatever. I’d be just as angry as you, but you cannot talk to me like that. You know that’s going too far.”
Most of the time, the other person will apologize, and you’ll both move on; this is especially true if there’s a longstanding relationship.
Dealing with the one percent
De-escalation and responding to insults in a stern and respectful manner handle ninety-nine percent of these situations.
Occasionally, someone will respond with a threat.
“If you don’t like it, I’ll complain to your boss.”
“If you don’t like it, I’ll take my business elsewhere.”
“I’m going to complain to my boss, who will complain to your boss.”
In those rare instances, I’ll invite them to do so. If someone dishes out verbal abuse, I’m confident those above me would back me up. If they don’t, so be it.
That might not be the best approach in every situation. If you’re a freelancer, you might be super sensitive to losing a client.
You might decide to back down and take their abuse to save your job or keep your abuser as a paying client.
That incident from twenty-four years ago still bothers me. Making that decision to accept your customer’s abuse sticks with you long after the incident. If you deal with them regularly, your acquiescence gives them tacit approval to do it again.