When chatters attack: dealing with abusive customers

Not all customers are pleasant when asking for support. Sometimes, anger and frustration can taint communications, and escalate from reasonable distress to downright abuse. For customer service teams, these abusive customers render the workplace uncomfortable and demoralising.

Worse, there’s no support channel free from abusive customers. They’ll shout down the phone, swear in live chat sessions, or even be inappropriate over email. So, support teams need to know how to handle hostile interactions. The first instinct when someone starts to insult or attack you is to retaliate or defend yourself. But fighting fire with fire only fuels the flames.

Fortunately, live chat software comes with tools to help mitigate customer abuse. So, when chatters attack, here’s what you need to do to deal with the situation smoothly.

 

Identifying abusive customers

Angry, upset or challenging customers are not inherently abusive. Before delving into how to deal with abusive customers, then, it’s important to identify exactly what differentiates an abusive customer from an angry (but reasonable) one.

Abuse goes beyond anger, frustration or annoyance. It’s often directly threatening or insulting to the agents dealing with it. Swearing, personally charged attacks, threats and ongoing harassment are the signifiers for abuse. Any hate speech — racism, sexism, homophobia etc. — is also abusive behaviour.

So, if the customer constantly swears at you, threatens or insults you personally, harasses you with unwanted advances or conducts any form of hate speech, they are being abusive.

 

Consider the channel

When it comes to live chat sessions, sometimes the perceived anonymity of the internet fuels abuse. Customers are willing to say things that they never would in a face to face interaction. So, be sure to personalise.

Always start the chat message with the customer’s name, and make use of any available data from their order history or previous sessions. You can do this with pre-chat surveys, your customer chat history, and stored chat transcripts.

By personalising your messages, you take away some of the anonymity of the internet and make the conversation more human. Sometimes, this can be enough to deter a normally pleasant person from being abusive.

 

First instance

Personalisation isn’t always enough. So, when dealing with abusive customers, try not to take it personally. Stay calm and remain polite back (no matter how hard that might be). Take a few breaths before you message back if you need. Remember — you’re the one caught in the firing line, but you aren’t the one at fault and you aren’t the one to blame.

If you need to take a moment to calm down or block the chat, even temporarily, you can do so using user blacklisting. You can also blacklist certain words — such as those relating to abuse — to block them from your chat sessions.

If you think you are unable to handle the chat, you can ask a teammate or supervisor to step in with internal chat messages and chat transfers. In cases of harassment, this can help to deter abusive messages as the customer is no longer talking to the agent they sought.

Agents can also use supervisor intervention, allowing a supervisor to discreetly ‘listen in’ to a chat, ‘whisper’ helpful messages to the agent, and take over if needed. This helps put out fires before they blast beyond control.

 

The three-strike rule

When you chat with an abusive customer, follow the three-strike rule.

  1. 1. Ask the customer to stop the abusive language:

‘I appreciate how frustrating this must be, [customer name]. I am here to help you and will do the best I can to resolve this issue, but I am unable to do so if you continue to swear.’

Alongside the personalisation of using the customer’s name, empathy statements are useful for calming customers. The first strike is where you give the customer a chance to recognise their emotions and calm down, and should be phrased as a polite request, rather than a warning.

  1. 2. Issue a warning

‘I’m sorry you’re so upset, [customer name]. I am happy to help resolve this issue, but if you continue to use this language, I will have to end the chat.’

If abusive customers ignore your polite request to stop the abusive messages, it’s time to be more assertive and issue a warning. Make the consequences of continuing the abuse clear, and tell them to stop. Remember to keep it polite and personal — a warning is not an opportunity to attack the customer back.

  1. 3. Disconnect the chat

‘While we wish to do what we can to support you, we do not tolerate abusive messages to the team, so I am ending this chat session. Please contact customer support at another time, and we will do our best to help you.’

If even after the warning, the customer continues to be abusive, it’s time to end the chat. However, you should not simply disconnect the chat session and move on. You first need to advise the customer that you’re doing so, remind them of why, and invite them to chat later when they have calmed down.

 

Dealing with repetitive abuse: useful tools

After a customer has been abusive more than once, you could use rule-based routing to mark their IP address and route all their future chats to a supervisor or specially trained team member. This way, you can protect your live chat agents from a repetitively abusive customer.

Or, for even stronger action, you could ban the user entirely. User blacklisting is the best tool to use when dealing with systematically abusive customers. It can be used to block abusive customers from starting chats, sending inappropriate pre-chat surveys, and from using profanity in-chat. Because it uses the IP address of your customer, it also prevents them from connecting with chat agents using a different name.

If, after every other option is exhausted, the customer continues to abuse your team — no matter what channel they’re using, it might be time to consider firing them as a customer. Allowing abusive customers to continue to assault your team sets the precedent that abusive behaviour is acceptable. Abusive customers hurt your team morale, and do little to help your business.

 

The last resort

When chatters attack, it’s imperative that agents know how to handle the situation, and that they have the support of their supervisors — and the company — behind them. Sometimes, customers lose control for a moment, and abuse is quickly stamped out.

But when it isn’t, there are plenty of live chat tools to help teams manage abusive customers. Why not explore these features and everything else live chat has to offer with a free trial of WhosOn?

 

Useful links

WhosOn free trial

A live chat session: the perfect place to calm a storm in a teacup

Seven empathy statements to use in your chat sessions