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Ask the Expert: Handling irate callers


Christine Knott explains how Transactional Analysis, a way of understanding the roles that people easily slip into, can help train call centre workers to deal with irate customers.

I am due to deliver a session around Handling Difficult Customers (over the phone) who are usually upset, annoyed and angry about quite emotive matters. I was wondering whether anyone had some ideas for activities/exercises to highlight key issues and are thought provoking but also light-hearted as the subject matter is delicate.
Thank you
Michelle Nickless

Christine Knott, MD of specialist training company Beyond The Box replies:

Transactional Analysis (TA) focuses on the interaction between two or more people. By understanding how we communicate, Eric Bearne, the founder of TA, discovered that changing the interaction was a way of solving emotional issues that could hinder a positive outcome of a conversation.

Bearne, a psychoanalytic-trained psychiatrist, believed in making a commitment to 'curing' his patients rather than just understanding them. TA describes how people are structured psychologically. It uses a simple parent-adult-child model to do this which indicates that at any given time, a person manifests their personality through a mixture of behaviours which fall into one of the three categories: parent, adult, child, known as ego states.

Parent ego state: Represents the occasions when during conversations we respond in a manner that copies the behaviours and actions of parental or influential figures from our lifetime. Can you recall instances when you hear yourself thinking 'I sound just like my mother/father/teacher'? You are reflecting and copying their behaviour.

For example, during a conversation a person may display anger by shouting at someone because they learnt from an early age that when the parent shouts the child takes notice.

Adult ego state: Represents the occasions when during conversations we draw on our lifetime of experiences as an adult to guide us objectively to a positive outcome. When we are in our adult state we see, hear and respond to people as they really are, and have an understanding of why they are reacting as they do, rather than accepting at face value the way they choose to communicate.

For example, during a telephone call, if an organisation were to be criticised, the ideal response should be calm and logical, to reduce or remove the emotion from the discussion in order to resolve issues in a logical and factual manner. Call centre workers should adopt this state - having learnt that shouting, sulking, answering back or other emotional states will detract from, and extend the time when a resolution is reached.

Child ego state: Represents the occasions when during conversations we revert to behaving, feeling and thinking similarly to how we did in childhood.

For example, during a conversation a person who receives criticism may react as they did in their childhood when they were reprimanded. This reaction may take on an emotional form - crying, sulking, answering back or perhaps feeling ashamed or angry.

When we adopt an ego state it is generally through an immediate and unconscious action - an action that is based on how we responded to a similar situation during our early formative years.

Example: an angry customer calls your organisation with a complaint. The customer has adopted the Parental state, learning from an early age that when his parents shouted at him, he took notice and felt bad and did all he could to make amends. By mimicking what he learnt and shouting at you he is banking on you taking notice of him, feeling bad and making amends, probably by way of an apology, refund, replacement or compensation.

You have also had childhood learning and your childhood learning may have taken one of the following routes:

1)you responded to someone shouting at you, by shouting back

2)you responded to someone shouting at you in the same way as your caller did as a child by feeling bad and doing all you could to make amends

3)you responded to someone shouting at you in an adult manner, by remaining calm, and using facts and logic to achieve a harmonious outcome for everyone.

If you respond with route one you will surprise your customer - he wasn't expecting that sort of response, his past learning has taught him that you would take notice, feel bad and make amends. His next response is to try again, this time shouting even louder and continuing to do so until he gets the response he was looking for and expected. When he doesn't, he may ask for a manager so he can try with someone else. Eventually if he continues to get the 'route 1' response, he 'burns out' and either ends the call defeated or hangs up in frustration.

If you respond with route two your customer will get the reaction he expected and he has moved to a position of control. He will retain his Parent ego state until he has achieved the outcome that he wanted from the call.

By responding with routes one or two it is possible that the outcome may not be suitable to your organisation. The customer may not have the correct facts, he may be 'trying it on', or he may have good reason to be angry. Whatever his justification, whilst you are both operating in adult ego states - as in route one - or adult and child states - as in route two - you are not in a position to negotiate and bring the conversation to a positive conclusion for all parties. The result is either an outcome where the customer is happy but your organisation is working at a loss, or an outcome which leads to a dissatisfied and even angrier customer which could potentially damage the reputation of your organisation.

If you respond with route three you will be drawing on all your experiences of handling a parental ego state and reaching a resolution that is fair and just. You may have to negotiate to achieve a suitable outcome for both parties but negotiation can only take place when both callers are acting from their adult ego states.

No doubt the training and guidance you have received for dealing with difficult customers is based on maintaining an adult state.

Initially it is suggested that you:
1) Listen to your callers' issues and apologise, whether it's your fault or not. It may not come easily to you but an apology is the first step to resolving the issue in an adult state. "I'm sorry you feel this way…"

2) Sit tight until they have finished complaining. Prior to making the call your customer will no doubt have practiced what they intended to say and no amount of interrupting will stop them from saying it! To react in either of these ways will prolong the point of resolution.

3) Once your customer realises you are not going to respond in the way he anticipated he will start to move from parent state to adult state, when his logic to the current situation is realised. He will have nothing left to say and has no need to repeat anything because you have demonstrated that you have listened to him, and taken on board his reasons for being angry and upset.

4) Once you are sure he has finished his 'script' you can address any points that need clarification. Communicating in adult state will require you to ask questions so that you can fully understand all the facts.

5) Once you are in possession of all the facts you are in a position to resolve the situation.

Entering the conversation in adult state and maintaining it will have a positive effect on your caller. Initially they may adopt a parent state but if you choose not to respond in parent or even child mode you will encourage him to move to adult state too.

To demonstrate and embed the learning's and demonstrate understanding of Eric Bearne's transactional analysis try the following exercise.

1.Prepare a pack of cards for each group of three or more in your session

2.Each pack of cards to include:

  • Three state cards; one printed adult, one printed parent and the third printed child

  • Six cards each printed with a typical customer complaint
  • 3.Hand a set of cards to each group

    4.Explain the task:

  • One person selects one of the customer complaint cards and one of the state cards

  • They relay the customer complaint to the next person (or the rest of the group) in the style of the state printed on the card they selected

  • Example: relay the complaint of a direct debit being taken from their account twice in one month causing bank charges, in a 'child state'
  • 5.The second person responds adopting any state they choose

    6.A third person, or other members of the group, will act as observers and give feedback at the end of the session. Their feedback must include:

  • The state person one adopted to relay their complaining, was it adult, parent or child?

  • The state person two adopted to respond, was it adult parent or child?

  • Feedback on how the states adopted by person two affected the outcome, and what could have been done differently to ensure a positive result to the complaint
  • 7.Keep the sessions light hearted and fun whilst ensuring that the learning from your course is displayed and understood

    8.Repeat the exercise ensuring everyone plays the role of observer in order to consider how best to resolve complaints

    To speak to Christine or to find out more about Beyond The Box call 0845 270 6520 or go to

    Several trainers contributed online to the discussion started by Michaell's original question, which became a Trainer's tip. To read the tip click here


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