What do you do when a customer becomes abusive with you?

This is a Sales Question and Answer article from guest poster Dave Kahle, author and leading sales educator.

The customer is not always right

Q.  How do you recommend I handle profanity from a customer?

Q.  What do you do when a customer becomes abusive with you? Loud, screaming, and personally threatening?

A.  I thought I’d put both of these together because they speak to similar situations.

“The customer is always right” is a nice cliché, but like every cliché, it is only partially true.  Sometimes the customer is wrong, and sometimes he/she is a jerk.  Just because he/she is a customer doesn’t give them the right to be abusive to you, or to anyone, as far as that goes.

First, on the issue of profanity.  I try not to use profanity, and I am uncomfortable around people who do.  The same is true of crude, vulgar or highly sexualized conversation.  It makes me uncomfortable.  I’m not talking about the occasional suggestive joke, or the forwarded email.  I’m talking about crude and vulgar conversation.

My typical reaction to any of these kinds of comments is to:

1.  not join in or respond in kind,

2.  ignore them and move the conversation on as best I could, and

3.  not be judgmental about the customer.  After all, it was me who was uncomfortable, not him.  So, that made it my problem, not his.

I have, on at least two occasions that I can think of, had an encounter with an abusive customer.

Many of you know that at one time in my sales career I sold surgical staplers.  We used to “scrub” surgery, which meant that we were in caps, masks and gowns and part of the sterile team.  That allowed us to be very close to the application of our instruments, and help assure that they were used appropriately.

I was working with a surgeon who was a former college football player (a lineman).  He was a big and intimidating guy.  At some point in the middle of an extremely long and complicated surgery, he misused the stapler.  That caused complications which, at the least, meant that the surgery was going to be quite a bit longer, and, at the most, that the patient’s life would be impacted.

The surgeon blamed me.  Loudly, crudely, and with profanity.  All sense of finesse and good people skills left me, and I replied in kind.  For the next five minutes or so, we screamed at each other, pacing up and down across the table with the patient between us.  In retrospect, I didn’t handle it well.  My natural reactions took over and overwhelmed my good intentions.

After the surgery, by the way, we apologized to each other, made nice, and he became a great customer.

I don’t think that was the model of how to respond to an abusive customer.  Here’s my advice.  If a customer becomes abusive with you, tell him/her that you are uncomfortable with his behavior, and leave.  Almost anything else that you do will either exasperate the situation, or be a detriment to your position and reputation.

For example, if you trade insults for insults, you’ll only drive the customer to more aggressive behavior.  It could escalate into something ugly.  If you back down and cower, you’ll be forever seen as weak and spineless.

Maintain your dignity, tell him/her how you feel, and then leave.  I suspect that more times than not, the customer will regret his/her actions, and be more accommodating to you in the future.

About the author:

Dave Kahle is one of the world’s leading sales authorities. He’s written twelve books, presented in 47 states and ten countries, and has helped enrich tens of thousands of sales people and transform hundreds of sales organizations. Sign up for his free weekly Ezine, His book, How to Sell Anything to Anyone Anytime, has been recognized by three international entities as “one of the five best English language business books.” Check out his latest book, The Heart of a Christian Sales Person.”

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