Communicating via the telephone isn’t usually problematic, but when the phone is used in customer service, issues can (and do, on occasion) arise. You might hear these issues called by many names – rude customers, abusive callers, etc. – but underlying them all could be a simple lack of empathy on the receptionist’s part.

Without empathy, normal customer service interactions can quickly turn nasty, peppered with name-calling, yelling, threats, and more. If the customer on the other end of the line doesn’t see the person answering the phone as a “real” person with feelings, but rather as a faceless representation of the company they’re currently upset with, it’s easier for them to devalue the person by talking down to them, raising their voice, or hurling direct insults.

The dark side of customer service

Profile view of a furious businessman yelling to a phone while seating in front of his desk in an office

That’s a well-known, growing problem in the customer service industry. Callers are real people with real feelings – and so are receptionists, answering service attendants, and call center representatives. Those who answer the phone as part of their job can likely tell you stories you wouldn’t believe about callers being aggressive and rude.

Perhaps worst of all, reps are expected to remain calm during these scenarios and are sometimes encouraged to do what the customer asks, no matter how ridiculous or abusive their behavior becomes.

In fact, Psychology Today wrote an eye-opening article titled “The Last Bullying Frontier: Call Center Representatives Take a Beating” that details the abuse and language phone operators sometimes have to deal with on the job. A quick excerpt from the article shows the effect this bullying behavior can have:

“‘People burst into tears here all the time,” a woman at one call-center said. “I was cursed at, called stupid, slow, moron, retard and idiot so many times a day-I cried myself to sleep every night.’ Why didn’t she quit? She was a single mother and she needed the job.”Psychology Today

To call someone an idiot or moron without ever having met or spoken to them before is obviously unwarranted behavior. It shows a total lack of respect and empathy for the other person. That’s why humanizing phone communication with empathy starts with mutual respect.

The customer is always right?

In America, we often hear the saying “The customer is always right.” That’s a good general rule, as most customers are polite, caring individuals that make reasonable requests of the companies they do business with. But a general rule can’t be applied to every single scenario, and sometimes, the customer isn’t right. Sometimes, the customer is rude, wrong, or even abusive.

But why do some customers act so poorly in a scenario where so many others manage to get through without so much as an unkind word?

Because some lack empathy and just don’t see the person answering the phone as another human being worthy of respect. Instead, they see them as a mere representation of the company who’s wronged them and who isn’t allowed to “fight back” or defend themselves – in other words, they’re an easy target.

Rarely do we see individuals starting fights with or screaming expletives at customer service agents in public (though it’s certainly happened before). It’s much harder to be downright rude to an employee who is standing before you than to an employee who’s “just a voice on the phone.”

Humanizing phone communication

As a society, we need to fix this problem. We need to stop giving “free passes” to the small minority of customers who go beyond rude and into abusive territory – if we wouldn’t tolerate it at home, in school, or in public, we can’t tolerate it on the phone. We need to ensure that the friendly, professional folks answering phones around the country can go into work without worrying about what names they’ll be called that day.

Establishing better phone communication and improving customer service interactions can be as simple as setting clear boundaries for customers and showing more empathy and mutual respect. Setting clear boundaries might involve creating a policy that states an employee should disconnect from a caller that issues an insult, is warned once, and doesn’t stop the behavior.

You can lead the change, even if you’ve always been a model customer yourself.

Next time you call customer service, make it an exercise to treat the representative just as you’d want to be treated. Remember that the employees who answer the phone are not usually the ones responsible for the issue you’re having with the company. Respect that representatives are limited by company policies and are likely doing everything they can to help you. Remember the phrase “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” if you believe rudeness is the only way to get the outcome you want. And if you’re really struggling to interact peacefully with a representative and feel yourself getting angry, you could ask to be transferred to someone else.

More empathetic and respectful phone interactions create happier employees that stick around longer, get more done, and enjoy their jobs more. Isn’t it time to change the way we talk to receptionists and customer service reps?