All customers at one time or another can fall into bad moods, get cranky, highly irritable or even fly off the handle a bit. Your frontline 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. They can be evil, malicious and manipulative. Customers from hell (CFH) belittle, demand, and threaten to get physical, throw tantrums, or spew profanities. They promise to sue, harass your front line with rage, and scream like a spoiled child.

WATCH: FPG’s exciting service recovery webinar on how to turn around a sticky situation

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. So, here are three tactics for dousing their 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 CFH’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.

Customers from hell are fortunately rare. We more often encounter their lookalike — the customer who has been through hell. These poor souls have been challenged by life and are just taking it out on you. They are not evil, they are just frustrated. They mean no ill-will, they just need to release the pressure a bit. Hear them out, show great patience, let them vent, and treat them with respect and TLC. But, if your irritant is the menacing kind and you have exhausted our three approaches, it may be time to “make them available to the industry.” Wish them well and firmly invite them to get served by someone else!


Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker and the author of several national best-selling books. He helped design the FPG Service Unleashed Training Program which includes a program on service recovery. His newest book is Kaleidoscope: Delivering Innovative Service That Sparkles.

Jamey Lutz is an accomplished performance excellence and improvement strategist at FPG. He has over 20 years of experience in highly acclaimed organizations such as: The Ritz-Carlton Company, Wells Fargo Bank, Wachovia Corporation, HomeBanc Mortgage Corporation and RDV Sports.

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