Dealing With Customers from Hell

Customers at one time or another can all fall into bad moods, get cranky, highly irritable or even fly off the handle a bit. Your front-line folks may catch them on the heels of their car’s transmission breaking down, a job loss, a bank loan denial or simply amid the cumulative effect of having kept multiple work-and-family plates spinning in the air all day.

But out there looms a whole different species of customer, one whose irritating, irrational or irksome antics aren’t usually a function of situation but rather of DNA–those we call…customers from hell. Customers from hell belittle, demand, and threaten to get physical, throw tantrums, or spew profanities. “Gladys” is the label for the CFH used by Marilyn Suttle and Lori Jo Vest, authors of the best-selling book Who’s Your Gladys?

The customer from hell requires a particularly well-fortified recovery response; CFH’ers are specially trained to probe for and exploit weaknesses in your service recovery flanks.  Here are three tacticsfor dousing the flames:

See No Evil, Hear No Evil.

Customers from hell can only reach their true offensive potential when service providers act as enablers. These customers count on being able to goad your people into joining their game, because if the CSR loses control, the CFH wins.  But if the temper tantrums persist, ignoring them sends a strong message:  “Rage, cuss and go ballistic all you want. I am not intimidated nor will I join in the escalation. ” Demonstrating that level of calm and unflappability gives you the upper hand, and quickly draws down the CFH’s oxygen supply.  Be like Teflon® to the customer’s sticky anger or upset, and let the rage wash over you.

Surface the Tension.

Surfacing the tension is a tactic to gently remind customers lost in the middle of a rant that you, too, are a living, feeling person who’s simply trying to do his or her best. Try this question: “Have I personally done something to upset you? I’d like to help. Please give me a chance.”  This will help draw the customer from hell’s attention back to the problem, not to you, the person who’s become the embodiment of it.  It’s the rare customer — yes, even that ranting CFH with a bare-thread connection to rational or civil behavior—who won’t, even if grudgingly, give you a chance.

Build Contractual Trust.

There also will come times—few and far between we hope—when customers from hell actually threaten you verbally or physically, even start to push or shove when their “service rage” caroms out of control in face-to-face recovery situations.  Here’s where you need to draw a line in the sand.  Most customers will comply with your requests to “please stop this behavior and I’ll help you, continue and I won’t.” But if they don’t it’s imperative you follow through. You may have to give the customer a moment to realize you’re dead serious. “I” statements are important in these threatening situations. They communicate that you need the customer to stop a certain behavior like pushing, grabbing or swearing, because while others might let that behavior slide, you simply can’t accept it.

Want more insight and instruction?  Order your copy of Who’s Your Gladys?  and get some fantastic free gifts this week by visiting



About Chip&John

Chip R. Bell and John R. Patterson are customer loyalty consultants and the authors of several best-selling books. Their newest book is "Wired and Dangerous: How Your Customers Have Changed and What to do About it."
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One Response to Dealing With Customers from Hell

  1. Pingback: Customer Service Blog Tour –Service-Minded Support | Who's Your Gladys? | Expert Customer Service Tips and Advice

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