Guide to Handling Difficult Callers
Anyone who has worked in sales or support – or indeed any customer-facing role – will tell you that not all callers are a bed of roses. Even the nicest customers and prospects can turn sour if something doesn’t go to plan.
Difficult sales and support calls can become a disaster if not handled correctly. So how do you make sure your customer-facing teams are best equipped to turn callers’ frowns upside down?
Let’s explore some steps to help your sales and support teams provide excellent customer experience, even when things go awry.
8 (+2) Steps to Providing Excellent Customer Experience in Difficult B2B Sales and Support Calls
Step 0. Pre-Call Damage Control: Complaint Handling Training
Before a new salesperson or support team member puts their headset on for the first time, you should provide at least basic training around how you like your calls to be handled.
It may even help to give your customer-facing staff a “style guide” of sorts to help them understand the customer experience you’re trying to provide, and therefore how they need to act on the phone. This can include how to answer a call, proper ways to refer to branded products, kinds of language that are off-limits, and so on. Going into a customer-facing role with the right attitude is essential, so make sure your team know precisely what “the right attitude” is.
This training should also include how to handle difficult, irate, and even upset callers; intertwining generic B2B customer service knowhow and your company’s own brand style. Any such training should be a regular, ongoing process, never just a one-off.
It’s also essential that your call handlers are empowered to give a certain level of authority and to provide offers and discounts – both to remedy difficult after-sales situations and encourage new business. If your team have to get the green light from a manager every time they need to negotiate a discount, a partial refund, or offer a small freebie, this is only going to lengthen an already emotionally tiresome process.
Step 0.5. Avoid Distractions – Whatever That Means to You
As a call-handler, providing a great customer experience over the phone requires your full focus – especially if the caller is unhappy or upset. However, achieving optimal focus is a very subjective thing. You have to work with your own natural in-built attention levels (yet within the limitations of your workspace) to make your environment a positive working space for you.
Here are some examples of how to maximise focus in your working space. These may not be viable for everyone, but hopefully they’ll get you thinking around the limitations of your own environment:
- If you find the audible buzz of the office distracting, you could give some inexpensive noise cancelling headphones (with mic, of course) a try.
- If visuals distract you, aim to face yourself away from busy walkways and minimise distractions on your PC screen(s). If you use a browser-based CRM, then F11 is your friend!
- Sometimes, mental noise is the most distracting. Thankfully, there are lots of fun things you can do to prime yourself for deep concentration.
Creating a comfortable, focused space doesn’t just benefit you though. When you recognise and work with your own limitations, you are better able to give every call the attention it deserves.
Step 1. Get the Whole Scoop
When you first pick up the phone to an irate caller, it’s likely that they will have some things to say. Carefully listen to them recount their whole experience – not only does this give you important context for their call, but it might be a good opportunity for them to let off a bit of tense energy.
So begin the call, find out who they are, and then just let them tell you their issue in their own words. Having a CRM can really help you here – it enables you to see their interaction and order history; to see what conversations they’ve had with other team members in the past; and potentially any ongoing support tickets too. It all helps you help them further.
Once they start talking, don’t interrupt unless you really have to. Leave questions and clarifications until there is a natural gap in the conversation. We naturally like to be heard – so much so that the most effective B2B sales reps statistically listen more than they talk.
Active listening can be difficult to do over the phone, but there are still things you can do to prove that you’re actively paying attention. Use non-repetitive verbal reinforcement (like “I understand”, “I follow”, or “OK”) and actively take notes so you don’t forget parts of the narrative. When there is a natural lull in the conversation, ask questions and repeat paraphrased summaries to cement your understanding, like “So I’m hearing…”, “So I understand…”, and “… is that correct?”
If you’re a B2B salesperson and you constantly hear the same sales objections over price, time, and change, check out our recent guide: The 3 Most Common Sales Objections.
Step 2. Validate The Caller’s Feelings and Apologise if Necessary
If you’ve ever told an angry caller to just “calm down,” then you know how it generally has the opposite effect! Similarly, instructions like “don’t worry” and “cheer up” may be proffered sincerely, but they can amplify the caller’s feelings even more, making the conversation even more challenging and awkward.
Chances are that we’ve all been that angry customer, that worried caller, that upset service user at some point in the past – it happens. If you were to switch places with the person on the line, chances are you’d feel similarly. Showing that you understand their frustration or disappointment can help to defuse a volatile situation.
So listen intently, acknowledge their problem, and recognise how the situation is making life difficult for them. If an apology is due, apologise sincerely without leaving the blame at anyone’s door – never point fingers at an individual or department.
As you start to soothe the caller’s feelings, you can start to set them emotionality aside in order to focus on solutions.
Step 3. Never Fight Fire With Fire
When someone gets angry, some people’s natural reaction is to snap back or get defensive and shirty. But getting angry or upset back at a caller is only going to make a bad situation worse.
It takes some practice, but try staying calm with a healthy level of detachment from the call. Demanding callers are usually upset at the situation, the company, the consequences – not you. In short: don’t take it personally.
We know that B2B support and sales roles can be hard work. Any one caller may be just one out of 50+ per day for you, but bear in mind that this problem is messing up their whole day (or week, or month, or year) enough to get upset. Their call presents just another challenge to overcome in your working day, not someone to get mad at.
Step 4. Don’t Leave Room for Assumptions
If there are any gaps in your understanding of the issue – either in the information the caller has given you or in your CRM record history – always seek clarification. Trying to solve a problem with incomplete information could be disastrous, leaving the caller all the more frustrated with the situation.
Clarification is especially important if you need to refer the issue to a colleague as they may further confuse matters with their own assumptions or interpretations. So ensure that all of the important points are made crystal clear.
Step 5. Don’t Overuse the Hold Button
This tip can really come at any point within a conversation with a difficult caller: don’t rush to put them on hold and never leave them there too long. If they’ve already had to battle through a robotic auto-attendant and had to wait on the line in order to speak to someone, chances are they won’t be too happy at the prospect of waiting further!
If speaking to a person is the end goal, keeping them from that in any way is only going to make them more irate.
Step 6. Solution Time!
Now it’s time to get to the bottom of the issue. Once you’ve established what is going/went wrong, you can start to make it right. If you feel it would soothe the caller, try and diplomatically explain what went wrong in broad terms without placing blame at anyone’s door. Aim to share understanding of the issue rather than giving them someone else to shout at!
Then discuss with the caller what they would like to see in terms of resolution and/or further support. Feelings of anger and frustration in business often stem from feelings of helplessness and disappointment. So by letting them state their expectations, you give them back a bit of power and agency over the situation.
Even if their suggestions are totally out of the question, you will get an impression of what is important to them and how you might be able to meet them halfway. Do they want all of their money back? Giving them a partial refund or offering something for free may be on the table. Do they want a different product instead? You may be able to recommend a solution that has the same functionality for a reduced price.
As stated above in Step 0, all call handling staff should be given the authority to negotiate within certain parameters. Try to work within these limitations to provide the best possible outcome for your caller.
Step 7. Multiple Choice
Once you’ve established how the caller would like to proceed, give them a choice of 2 or 3 possible solutions. This keeps them in the driving seat, but helps to manage their expectations a little. Rather than being dictated to about how to proceed, they can decide which course of action suits them best.
End by thanking the customer for their time and for giving you an opportunity to put things right. They could just have easily jumped ship to another provider, so be sure to exercise gratitude.
Step 8. State Next Steps Clearly and Follow Up
Now you’ve agreed to a course of action, leave the call with a clear statement of what is going to happen next. Never promise anything that you aren’t 100% sure will take place – broken promises only lead to more angry phone calls!
Once the call is concluded, confirm your conversation and agreed plan of action by email. Sending an email confirmation gives the interaction an official paper trail so the caller doesn’t just have to take you at your word.
After you have enacted their solution and everything seems to have gone to plan, give the individual a brief follow up call after the dust has settled to make sure everything went to plan their side too. Set up a task in your CRM so you don’t forget!
When it comes to providing great customer service, good interpersonal skills are important, but the right tools are essential. Try the simple CRM system that is designed for growing B2B sales and support teams: Really Simple Systems.