Dealing with Difficult People – What can frontline staff do to make those difficult conversations with customers or service users easier to handle?
As one client said to me a few months ago, “the number of what I would call difficult calls is rising for my team because the stakes are going up for our claimants.” He was referring to the fact that with take-home pay falling and many UK households feeling the squeeze, frontline staff increasingly bear the brunt of peoples frustrations. There is logic to this argument - if money is tighter for the average person in the street then the outcome of a financial claim or dispute ruling becomes more important. It’s one thing if a decision that goes against you means no second family holiday that year, quite another if it means you will struggle to pay basic living costs. As those stakes go up for people, so will the number of calls to frontline staff where anger is an issue.
Staff in the firing line have a really difficult job to do. Often they are not making the decisions, they are communicating them and handling difficult contacts on a regular basis can be draining. According to the Mental Health Foundation more than one in ten (12%) say that they have trouble controlling their own anger so what can staff do to look after themselves and make those difficult conversations with customers or service users easier to handle?
Top Five Tips on Handling Difficult Contacts
1 Don’t label people
It’s so tempting to categorise difficult people. How often have we read articles where callers are labelled as ‘the serial complainer’ or ‘the bully’? Perhaps there is some satisfaction in boxing off a person as ‘the problem’ but by labelling people in this way we encourage staff to put their efforts into identifying what type of difficult caller they have, rather than de-escalating the contact by actively listening and building rapport. A good motto would be ‘Listen – don’t label’.
2 Allow the person to let off steam
It takes a lot of energy to be angry! Listening to everything the caller has to say before providing any kind of answer can dissipate this energy quickly, but in a busy working environment this can sometimes feel like the long way round. In truth though, jumping in too soon with solutions can re-energise the anger and extend the length of the contact as the caller may feel we are making assumptions and haven’t really listened.
3 Demonstrate you have heard what has been said.
Once you have listened, summarise the key points back before getting into solutions, explanations or justifications. When we are listening to people who are angry or upset we need to be more explicit in the way we show we have heard what was said than we would do in an ordinary conversation. For example an explicit summary might sound like this: “Ok, so you’ve contacted us because your upset about abc, your worried what will happen next and your hoping we will be able to do xyz. Is that right?”
4 React to the caller
Use empathy – demonstrate in your response that you have heard their frustrations. Eg “I can hear how angry and upset you are”
5 Focus on what can be done rather than what can’t.
Get the customer or service user to describe what problem resolution would look like to them in this specific case. Even small elements of perceived compromise can give the caller a sense of control and achievement and can help to diffuse the anger.
The golden rule – remember you are a person dealing with another person not a person dealing with a problem!
Interested in finding out more about our training courses on handling calls or having conversations with customers or service users who are angry or upset? Call us or email us today to discuss your training needs further.