How to Help Coworkers Who Take Rude Customers Personally
I often hear the question, “How can I support my team members that struggle with rude and abusive customers?”
Everyone reacts differently to a challenging situation and has their own coping skills. However what’s more important than how an individual deals with difficult customers directly is why they continue to struggle when dealing with these types of customer situations.
Every customer-facing professional will process their customer’s anger or frustration in different ways. Some are able to brush it off while others may take the upset customer’s words personally. When this happens, a team member’s frustration towards these rude customers becomes internalized (ie: projected inward), which leads to poor performance due to lack of focus and a decline in productivity as well as morale.
In order to create an environment where every team member thrives, we need to develop individual coping skills so that they can de-personalize difficult messages that are delivered by customers that they may interact with on a daily basis.
In this article, I’d like to share strategies you can use to provide support and empower your colleagues during challenging customer situations.
Do Your Colleagues Struggle with Rude Customers?
In the same way, an organization should expect their employees to be professional on the job at all times regardless of their moods, employers and colleagues should provide support for their employees by understanding that they too will have challenging moments outside the office just like everyone else. The difference is how we deal with them while working together.
Let’s start by taking a look at what you, as a coworker, can do to help your team members feel supported and not taken advantage of when dealing with difficult customers.
1. Communicate empathy and understanding towards the team member’s feelings
If you see that a colleague is upset due to difficult customer interaction, be supportive and understanding towards them by communicating empathy about their feelings. Be non-judgmental in your responses to them. You can say the following to acknowledge their feelings:
“That sounds like it was really challenging. How are you feeling about that right now?”
“I imagine you’re feeling frustrated and upset because of what happened.”
“I know it can be really difficult when rude customers behave this way. You’re not alone in feeling this way.”
These kinds of empathy phrases will make your colleagues feel heard and understood without having to face judgment or criticism.
2. Create space for them to share their thoughts and feelings
Allow your colleagues to share their thoughts without giving advice, making assumptions, or jumping in before they’ve had a chance to process what happened. It’s best to let your colleague take the lead and offer their own ideas on how they want to handle the situation without you inserting your beliefs when they may not even be ready to think about solutions yet because of how overwhelmed they might feel at this moment.
If you jump in too quickly into problem-solving mode, this can actually make the team member feel pressured or criticized, which will only lead them to feel more frustrated and upset instead of creating positive work. By letting the team members speak first without judgment, you allow them to have more control over the situation and feel empowered.
Let them know that they are not alone in their experiences and encourage them to talk about it more if they want. Or, you let them take some time off from work, so they have time for self-care until they feel ready to come back.
3. Help them identify their emotions and remind them that it’s normal to feel this way.
When a colleague comes to you feeling upset and overwhelmed, help them identify the thoughts and feelings that are contributing to their emotions. If it’s at all possible, remind them that their feelings are 100% normal.
When we experience difficult encounters with rude customers/clients, our first instinct may be to say “don’t take it personally” or go into problem-solving mode trying to find solutions on how this can be prevented from happening again.
But often, the team members who come to us looking for solutions have not yet had time to process what happened because they were too busy trying to solve the issue at work instead of taking time off or going away for self-care. When we jump in too quickly by offering advice or unloading our own beliefs about why things went, we’re taking away the control and power our team members have over their own experiences.
Remind your coworkers that they do not have to apologize for feeling this way or be ashamed of these feelings. In fact, it is when we allow ourselves to feel these emotions without judgment that we can find relief from them faster because they’re acknowledged and validated instead of brushed under the rug.
4. Remember your colleague is not their emotions.
Remind them their feelings don’t define who they are but simply act as a natural response towards what happened.
You could say:
“I know this is upsetting, but these are just difficult customer interactions; they don’t determine your self-worth.”
“Don’t let a difficult situation at work define your self-worth. You’re a great team member, and I know the incredible effort you put into your work.”
When we experience difficult situations where we have no control over what’s happening, it’s easy to feel affected by it because our brains aren’t thinking rationally at that moment. Our thoughts interpret the event as of right or wrong, personal or impersonal, intentional or unintentional when in reality, the customer has nothing to do with how we feel.
By reminding your team members that they are not their emotions and that they don’t define who they are as a person, you’re helping them to detach from the experience instead of taking in any judgment or negativity.
5. Remind them that these moments are opportunities for self-growth and growth within the organization.
If time allows, point out the valuable lessons they can take from this situation.
For example, challenging interactions teach us to communicate with clients more clearly and improve our conflict resolution skills. Since we can’t avoid all negative situations, we can look at them as opportunities for growth and personal development, building more resilience, and achieving success in our careers.
6. Help them brainstorm alternative strategies
Encourage your colleagues to brainstorm other ways of thinking that can help in managing these types of situations.
“What strategies can you use the next time a customer is acting this way towards you?”
“What would be some alternative ways of responding that could work better for you the next time something like this happens?
Let your colleague take the lead when it comes to brainstorming potential solutions. You can offer your input as well, but always keep in mind what I mentioned earlier about not jumping too quickly into problem-solving mode because that will only make them feel more pressure and frustration.
They need to feel supported and empowered throughout this process, so they don’t feel hopeless or powerless, which will cause them to feel more overwhelmed, leading to burnout.
If they’re stuck or ask for advice, you can offer tips that you have found helpful in similar situations based on your own experiences.
7. Motivate them by reminding them of their value and strengths as a person
If the team member struggles to come up with ideas on how to deal with these kinds of customer issues without getting angry/upset, remind them of their strengths and areas of expertise that they contribute to the team/company. Tell them how much you depend on them to do their job well because it’s critical for your customers or clients.
You can say:
“I value your perspective on things. You have a lot of useful knowledge that’s been really helpful for our clients. I know you can come up with some great ideas on how to handle difficult customer interactions.”
“Our customers depend on us to do the best we can; it’s important you know that we are all here for you, and your experience is valuable in getting things done.”
If they’re struggling with looking at the bigger picture, remind them of the positive impacts they bring to their team members and the company.
8. Encourage your team members to take care of themselves during difficult moments at work
As mentioned before, difficult customer interactions may re-trigger past experiences, which could lead team members back into old emotional patterns and habits. You don’t want that to happen.
Suggest they do something relaxing or distracting like going for a walk, grabbing a coffee, etc., when they’re feeling upset or overwhelmed by difficult customer interactions. This will help them regulate their emotions as well as re-focus on what’s important, which is doing the best job possible and providing their team members with the necessary support whenever needed.
This can be as simple as saying, “It’s ok to step away from my desk for a few minutes. Just let me know when you come back that you’re ok.” Or “If you need to leave early today, no problem, I’ll handle things here at the office until you get back.”
The important thing is letting them know they can take some time out if needed without being penalized for doing so.
9. If you have more seniority/power in the organization, advocate on behalf of your team members
When you recognize that your colleague wasn’t prepared for a specific customer interaction because there was inadequate training or support provided beforehand, don’t hesitate to point this out towards management so they can do something about it!
How Do You Process Negative Customer Interactions?
Most challenging customer interactions don’t usually involve explicit or direct abuse but instead come across as short, demanding, or critical towards a customer-facing professional.
Sometimes even just making demands such as “I need to speak to your manager” or “I want to speak to someone who knows what they’re talking about.” One may take this type of situation extremely personally and feel like the customer is saying, “You can’t help me. You are incompetent. I don’t believe anything you say.”
If you find yourself struggling not to take these types of situations personally, here are some possible reasons why:
- Feeling like there’s something wrong with you because the customer is difficult.
- Fearing the customer will be angry at you instead of the organization/product/service causing them problems in the first place.
- Believing it reflects poorly on your character or work performance when you encounter a challenging customer.
- Feeling pressure to fix the situation no matter how difficult it is because of organization policies and/or company culture.
It’s important to remember that when you are dealing with rude customers who are being abusive or critical towards you, it has nothing to do with your character, competence, intelligence, or likability as a person. As humans, we all have our off days.
How Do Rude Customers Affect Your Well-Being?
I realize that these suggestions can be challenging to follow through with, especially when the customer is rude or abusive. Still, it’s important to consider how this type of behavior impacts your well-being and work satisfaction. Once you do that, you can take action to improve how you approach negative situations at work.
If you’re finding yourself struggling not to take negative customers personally, ask yourself, “Why?”
- What underlying fears do I have about my abilities and character as a person?
- Do others really think poorly of me when customers are being difficult?
- Am I afraid of upsetting the customer more than they already are in their current state?
- Does my organization expect me to fix every problem no matter how difficult the customer is?
Answering these questions will help you realize that customers’ negative reactions towards you are probably not about you at all!
If you find that the previous list of questions brings up some emotions, it might be helpful to seek support from a colleague or friend who is empathetic and non-judgmental. Sharing your personal struggles with someone outside of work may help defuse these feelings, so they don’t impact your everyday experience at work.
When dealing with rude customers who are being difficult or critical, if you want to try something different than simply trying harder, one way is to ask yourself, “Why do I continue to struggle?” Once you identify why you can work on developing different strategies or ways of thinking that can help improve your ability to successfully manage challenging customer interactions and create a healthier relationship at work.
I hope the strategies in this article can help you handle difficult customer interactions and support your colleagues when they are under stress. If the team member feels hopeless, it is important they know that their opinions are valued, and they will be supported in any way possible. It’s also important to note that these types of situations may have a negative impact on your colleague – so if they need time away from work for themselves, let them take it!
Make sure you’re not jumping into problem-solving mode when someone doesn’t know how to deal with an unpleasant situation. If all else fails, ask management what kind of training/support could be provided going forward, so no one has to go through something like that again.