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Managing Difficult Calls

Sally picks up the telephone to make the call she’s been dreading all day. ‘Could I speak to Mr Smith?’ A blast of fury comes down the telephone and Sally’s heart sinks. Her palms start to sweat and her mind goes blank.
Sounds familiar? From time to time, we may all have to receive and manage difficult calls. No organisation or person can get it right all the time. The key to managing these calls is to understand that the person on the other end of the line is usually in the grip of a strong emotion, most often anger. If we can remain calm and steady and put our own emotional response to one side, we are already halfway to resolving the problem.

Whether you work in a customer service environment or not, your company depends upon its customers. In the business world, the majority of the time, it’s not personal. You just happened to be the person on the other end of the line.

Learning how to manage difficult calls is good for your business, your employees and your own peace of mind. Potential complaints might by avoided by the way a call is handled. If you can turn around a dissatisfied customer and win back their trust, their word-of-mouth recommendation could prove invaluable to your business, driving up satisfaction, leading to more loyalty. Even if you don’t work directly in a customer service environment, you’ll already know how important it is to grab hold of that chance to turn a challenge into an opportunity to improve the relationship with your clients.

Having some tools under your belt, and understanding its not just what you say, but how you say it, can make all the difference between dreading the ring and answering with confidence.

What is difficult about a difficult call?

Difficulty, of course, is a sometimes a matter of personal perception; what challenges me, may not be difficult for you. However, an angry caller presents most of us with a challenge. We are hardwired to either move away from situations of conflict or stand and fight, and neither of these responses will help in our scenario. One of the challenges of the telephone is loss of visual information. Face-to-face we pick up a great deal about how another is feeling that we can use to guide us. It’s much easier to be furious down the telephone at someone
than it is in person. So, lets look at how you might best handle an angry caller.

First things first. As soon as you realise you are dealing with someone furious, try not to react or get drawn into defensive arguments. Sometimes this is easier said than done when the other person may be in the mood for a fight. The caller may have been rehearsing their call and thinking for some time about what they are going to say. So give yourself the opportunity to get up to speed. One of the quickest ways of doing this is to empathise. Get into their shoes; see the problem from their point of view. You may not agree with
their complaint, and you may not be able to give them what they want, but starting to understand why they are so angry gives you good quality information about how you are going to help, and some thinking time to monitor your own reaction. If the other person is really expressing their anger, an obvious

and sometimes easily overlooked tip is to pull the receiver a little way from your ear – less volume, less stimulation! If you use a headset, consider slipping one ear receiver off, or turning the volume down. Then count up to ten, breathing in deeply as you do, and then count back down, exhaling. One of the reasons this has such a quick effect, is that when we are stimulated by another’s’ anger, we release stress hormones
– adrenaline and cortisol – and they act very quikly in the bloodstream to ‘get us going’ – breathing in and out like this helps the effects of those abate. It might just give us enough time to remember the golden rule. Don’t retaliate. If the other person is very angry, let them be. At this stage it’s advisable not to interrupt, even though it may not be your fault, even though you may think they are wrong. Interrupting will inevitably make matters worse. Allow the other to talk it out, and respond only by letting them know that you are listening. Eventually, without further fuel, the fire will die down. Once you feel a pause, then it’s time to put your skills into action:

From reactive to proactive

1. Say sorry

Even if it has nothing to do personally with you. In this moment, you are the company. Sum up what you
have heard in as clear a way as possible. ‘I can understand that you were frustrated at having waited
in all day for a call that was promised, I would be too. I’m sorry that you had that experience. I will find out why that happened, and let you know the reason. In the meantime, I’d like to understand better what it is you need now....’

2. Do you know what they want need next? And most importantly, can you deliver it?

Use checking-in questions to make sure you have correctly understood the purpose of their call.

Only promise what you know you can deliver. If you don’t know, say so. If you have to check with someone else, say so. This is the route to rebuilding the trust with the client.

3. Set out with the person on the telephone a plan

of what you are going to do to rectify the problem and check-in to see if they agree to it. Ask what they need in order to feel that their problem will have been resolved.

4. Take action and follow it up

If you can personally promise to follow it up (and be sure that you can), then do. Making the ‘faceless’ organisation human goes a long way to ensuring that the person feels really heard, and therefore doesn’t need to keep stoking the fire. If it isn’t possible for you to follow up, then manage their expectations by letting them know as best you can what will happen next, with a realistic timeframe.

5. Thank the person

for allowing you the chance to put things right. If you have been sincere in wanting to help, by this point in the call, they will have calmed down, and may even be in a position to apologise for their tirade. Accept their apology. They may well be feeling embarrassed about having flown off the handle. Handled in this way, you will have turned around their expectations of the company. By managing your reaction and remaining calm, you can decide to become part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

Take regular breaks if you use the telephone regularly, particularly after a difficult call when you may have had to put more effort into thinking. Decompress by speaking with a colleague if you can.

Other kinds of difficult calls

When somebody we love cries our usual instinct is to want to reach out and comfort them. For some of us, a stranger’s tears can make us feel uncomfortable, perhaps reminding us of our own vulnerability and may bring up feelings about ‘not coping’ or feeling ‘weak’. If you answer the call to someone in distress, sometimes it’s helpful to remember that they are in touch with strong emotion at that point, and it will pass. Stay with them if you feel able to, by offering comforting words ‘it sounds as though it’s taken a lot to make this call, perhaps you need a moment or two?’ ‘Stay on the ‘phone with me and take your time. There’s no need to rush’ Perhaps think of a time when you were fighting back tears. It’s worth noting here, that sometimes tears are a way of avoiding becoming angry. The person may sound distressed, but underneath be fuming.

Callers who are unclear or confused, or perhaps have come through to the wrong department, may need help teasing out what it is they are calling about. Perhaps they have a long story to tell, or haven’t quite got the chronology of events correct. You may need to pull together what they are calling about like a jigsaw piece. Here a pen and paper are invaluable. Jot down words and phrases you don’t quite understand and ask for clarification. You can repeat back to the caller in a way that helps them make sense of what they are saying too. Confusion is often linked to anxiety, so your ability to help the person clarify what the need to say may also help them calm down.

Keep calm

Callers in a panic

It is surprisingly easy to get pulled into wanting to act quickly in the face of another’s panic. So what to do? If you have ever had to dial 999, think about how the person on the other end of the ‘phone responded? You were met with a calm, clear and confident tone. The person taking the call is in control and needs information to direct you to the right source of support. Remember, it is your ability to stay calm that will give confidence to the person panicking that somebody is listening and is able to think about what needs to happen. Just as the angry caller needed to hear an apology to de-escalate, the caller in a panic needs reassurance that something will be done. They need action. Keep your instructions very simple and clear, and get the caller to repeat back to you anything you are not sure they have taken in. Once the caller realises they are with someone able to think clearly, it will help them return to their own thinking state.

When a call tips over into abusive

Finding out what we are doing wrong as a company makes the difference between a business doing well, and a business doing great. However, there is never an excuse for abusive behaviour over the telephone. There is a difference between offering to listen to and help someone who is in the grip of a strong emotion, and being subjected to abuse. The tipping point is that it gets personal. Remember, you do have the right to let the other person know that you cannot continue with a call if they are going to use abusive, discriminatory or use foul language. In this case let the other person know that unless they immediately stop behaving that way, you will have to end the call. Make it clear that it is the behaviour you wont put up with, not the caller personally.

Finally, make sure your desk and chair are comfortable and you are not straining to hear or hold the ‘phone. And avoid picking up the phone if you are hungry, thirsty, need the loo or feel unwell. You never what kind of call you might take!

Need to talk someone in confidence? Call Police Care UK on 0300 012 0030

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