5 Things Never to Do When You Complain to Customer Service

customer service representatives
Customer service representatives field complaints. | Guillermo Legaria/AFP/Getty Images

Most people don’t call a customer service hotline because they’re happy. If you’ve picked up the phone and dialed a 1-800 number, chances are you want to complain about something. But bringing a bad attitude into the call isn’t likely to get you the results you want. That’s according to a study by researchers at the University of British Columbia.
The angrier or more aggressive you get during a customer service call, the greater the chance you’ll receive poor service in return, according to the paper, which was published in Journal of Applied Psychology. That’s not exactly surprising — most of us would predict rudeness begets rudeness.
But the researchers wanted to know what exactly customers were doing to antagonize customer service reps. To find out, they used transcripts and computerized text analysis to review over 100,000 words spoken in more than 400 calls to a Canadian customer service center. The goal was to identify how workers responded to what customers said during a conversation.
“We know that customer service quality suffers when customers are rude or aggressive to employees,” said David Walker, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor in the faculty of management at the UBC’s Okanagan campus. “But our research is one of the first to pinpoint the specific words service employees hear from customers that can undermine the quality of customer service.”
Specifically, there were several customer moves that triggered a negative response from workers, especially when they occurred in combination. Do these things the next time you complain to customer service, and you might hurt your chances of getting your issue speedily resolved.

1. Use aggressive language

bad language sign
Positive words get better results. | Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

The more aggressive your language when talking to customer service, the less likely your problem will be resolved satisfactorily, the UBC study found. Most people probably know that, but apparently it doesn’t stop people from getting sassy with innocent call-center workers. Roughly three-quarters of the calls researchers studied contained aggressive language – words such as angry, complain, hassle, and nightmare.
No matter how frustrated you are, you tend to receive better results if you use positive language. When people used positive words, such as “great” and “fine,” during a call, the customer service response improved.

2. Attack them personally

businessman making a fist
The rep isn’t to blame for your bad service or faulty product. | iStock.com

The customer service rep isn’t to blame for the faulty product you received, and you both know it. Taking out your frustration on them personally won’t help you get your complaint resolved faster. The researchers found when a caller used aggressive language along with second-person pronouns, such as “you” and “your,” customer service got markedly worse.
Saying things, such as, “Your product is garbage,” puts the customer service rep on the defensive. Reframing those comments by saying, “This product is garbage,” yields better results.

3. Interrupt

woman making a phone call
Interruptions bring out negative responses. | Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

Your mother told you it was rude to interrupt people, and she was right. Cutting off the customer service representative violates normal conversational rules and makes them less likely to want to help you. Nonetheless, the majority of calls analyzed in the study contained customer interruptions.
“[W]hen they interrupt the person they are talking to, we found that the employee’s negative reaction is much stronger,” study co-author Danielle van Jaarsveld said.
Even if you’re pressed for time and want to get your issue resolved as quickly as possible, hear out the customer service rep. They might be trying to explain something important to you.

4. Threaten

businessman shouting on the phone with gesture on the car
Threatening a customer service rep probably won’t get you the results you want. | iStock.com/Tomwang112

“I’m going to sue you guys!” Threatening to call a lawyer might feel good when you say it, but chances are it’s not going to endear you to the customer service rep on the other end of the line. Although the UBC study didn’t look at how call center employees specifically responded to threats (as opposed to just aggressive language), those manning the phones say it’s not an effective way to get what you want.
Customer services reps venting their frustration in the Tales from Call Centers forum on Reddit made it clear threats to get attorneys involved didn’t make them any more likely to help you. Bringing up lawyers might get you a referral to the company’s legal department, but it won’t get your problem resolved any faster. The same goes for threatening to call the Better Business Bureau or go to the media.
Worse are the customers who become extremely abusive or resort to threats of physical violence. If you can’t communicate like a sane adult, they might drop your call. And keep in mind that companies are likely keeping track of calls and might have noted your bad behavior.

5. Be unprepared

credit card and bill
Have your account number and other important information on hand before you call customer service. | iStock.com

You know the customer service rep is going to ask for your account number when you call, so make sure you have it on hand before you pick up the phone. The simple step of preparation makes life easier for you and the person who is trying to resolve your problem. Once you’re on the phone, briefly explain your problem and what you want the company to do about it. Then, give the customer service rep time to respond, C. William Crutcher, the president of the National Customer Service Association, told the New York Times.
During the conversation, take note of the customer service rep’s name. Also, write down any tracking or case numbers they give you. You might need that information if you have to call customer service again.
Being polite matters …

The power of politeness

young woman talks on a smartphone
A positive conversation can bring about positive results. | iStock.com/RyanJLane

The above tips — which mostly involve treating customer service reps with basic respect — sound simple enough. But following them can be a challenge for callers who are already extremely frustrated by the time someone picks up their call.
When Consumer Reports surveyed people about their experiences with customer service, more than 60% said they were highly annoyed by complicated phone menu systems, long hold times, poorly functioning voice recognition systems, and hard-to-find contact numbers. By the time they got to a real person, their patience were exhausted.
Rude service also annoyed 75% of survey respondents. But the results of the UBC study are a reminder that impolite or uncooperative service reps might simply be responding to rudeness on the part of customers. Customer service calls are a two-way street. When callers pay attention to how they address the person who picks up the phone, they’ll likely get better service.
“If customers change their language so that it’s less about the employee and more about the product or problem in question, they can improve the quality of the customer service they get,” Walker said. “Employees can handle a lot, but when aggressive language and interruptions happen together — combined with minimal positive language from the customer — employees get to a point where customer service quality suffers. Customers need to remember that they’re dealing with human beings.”
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