Telephone Skills

by Babs Moore

Difficult calls/irate customers

A major challenge, but one that is frequently faced, is the task of dealing with difficult calls, especially when the person on the other end is irate or upset. Normal face-to-face skills that would be instinctively used, such as an attentive look, a caring smile or clearly taking notes, thus instilling confidence that action will follow, are more difficult without a visual interface. However, a well-handled call can do much to sooth a difficult situation.

Listening skills

The ability to listen well is crucial and is covered in more detail in the topic Listening Skills. The caller needs to know that you are listening and taking an interest. A few telephone ‘nods’, such as ‘mmm’ and ‘yes’ and ‘I see’, will help, as long as they are not overdone. Check your understanding of the issues as the call progresses and summarise the main points back to the caller so they know you have heard and understood. If someone is very angry, it can help if you allow them to let off steam with minimum interruption for a short time.


Make absolutely sure the details (name, organisation, contact details) as to who is calling, the issue central to their problem and the corrective action that is being looked for are all noted down. If you don’t understand the issue and have no means of getting back to the caller, a satisfactory solution – one that is agreeable to both parties – is unlikely to be found.

Who is the caller is speaking to?

An irate caller may forget to ask who they are talking to and what their job function is. They will become even more irate if they have to ring back without knowing who to speak to and then have to repeat the whole story again. However difficult a caller is, make sure that they know who you are, what your job function is and what action, if any, you intend to take.

Use of body language

Use the same body language as you would use if face to face. Demonstrate concentrated concern; use hand gestures; stand up if it is necessary to feel more assertive (not aggressive) and so on. Most people can sense body language down a phone, so if you are uninterested and casual in your body language the irate person will pick up on this, which will not help the situation.

Building and maintaining rapport

Good listening skills (see above) are an essential element of building rapport. It is also important to visualise yourself in the caller’s position and to work together as ‘we’ and ‘us’, rather than ‘you’ and ‘I’, to resolve the issue. After the initial anger has subsided, you can further enhance the rapport if you carefully and subtly tailor the pace and language style of your conversation to that of the caller (see Rapport for more on this).

Check understanding

Check and re-check to make sure that you have understood the nature of the problem and the corrective action that is required. Also reach an understanding that, if the action is taken, the person will no longer be so irate/difficult. The short-term temptation may be to get off the telephone, but this is likely to be counter-productive in the longer term.

Speaking to the right person

Once the issue has been clarified, it is important to decide whether the call can be handled immediately or whether it needs to be transferred to someone else, perhaps a more senior person. If a call is to be transferred, it’s very important to tell the caller why they are being transferred and to whom; you also need to give the person to whom you are transferring the call the contact details of the caller and an outline of the problem. This avoids the caller having to repeat themselves and therefore becoming even more irate.

If the correct person is not available, the caller should be calmed down and reassured (but not patronised). You should also set a time-frame within which they can expect to be called back. Repeat your own name again, so the caller has a contact to come back to if they still have an issue.

Avoid assigning blame

An irate caller does not want to hear a sob story about how useless stores are for shipping the wrong thing yet again! This is unprofessional and does not create a good image of the company. The caller wants someone to show an interest in their problem(s) and take responsibility for solving it.

Repeated irate calls on the same subject

Inevitably, things will sometimes go wrong. Perhaps a product needs to be recalled due to poor batch quality, or deliveries will be late because something went wrong in the raw materials process, or a factory has burnt down. If it is to be expected that a person or team will be getting a lot of irate calls, then a manager must prepare the team to handle the problems. Members of the team should be provided with a fact sheet, a pre-prepared questionnaire to fill in and details as to what information can be given out, when more goods will be available and so on.

It is a lot easier to deal with irate callers if the call takers have been well prepared. At the same time, it is essential to retain the personal touch and demonstrate an interest in each caller’s particular problem. It would be highly counter-productive if callers were to feel that they were on a production line of pat answers.

Also see the topics on Difficult People, Assertiveness, Violence and Aggression and Conflict Resolution.