What makes customers behave badly?

Categories: Winnthinks

In a previous life I spent six and a half years as a complaint handler on behalf of an investment company. People get very emotional about their money, and rightly so, and during the course of what must have been thousands of calls, letters and visitors I reckon I encountered pretty much all the different behaviours a disgruntled customer can throw at you.

So when I moved into the world of learning and development, it was natural that complaint handling and dealing with difficult behaviour should become one of the areas I am asked to train out the most often. And one of the questions I always ask in training is this: What makes people behave ‘badly’?

As many of you will know, people behave in a difficult manner specifically to achieve something.* Sometimes the behaviour can be highly deliberate, like the ones who won’t answer your questions but maintain a stony silence, or who use a dangerously calm voice to deliver snide sarcasm in a patronising tone. Other times, people lose control, flying off the handle into a tirade of abuse – or tears, which I always found the most difficult to deal with. (Mark you, even hysterics can be stage-managed, and I had evidence of that several times when listening back to recorded phone calls).

Whenever you are on the receiving end of such behaviour, it is difficult to take it as anything other than personal. But don’t flatter yourself! It’s just people, either consciously or subconsciously, using the behaviour which they think is most likely to get them the outcome they want. Chances are it’s the same tactic they’ve been using since they were a small child, just in its grown-up version.

Many years ago, someone wise told me that ‘bad’ behaviour can always be put down to one or more of just four drivers. Over the years, I have come to agree with this theory – what do you think?

The four drivers are:

  • Fear
  • Frustration
  • Humiliation
  • Injustice

Let’s consider a commonplace scenario, say, a customer who has been standing in a Post Office queue for forty minutes in her lunch break, only to be told she doesn’t have the right documents. Which of the above four drivers is going to kick in? Frustration, certainly. Maybe she’s feeling a little bit humiliated because she didn’t read the form properly before she came out, so it’s really her fault and she knows it. Which leads to fear of being thought stupid by the Post Office assistant and other people in the queue, perhaps? You see how it works. Had the Post Office assistant treated the previous customer more favourably, you could then, of course, throw that sense of injustice into the mix as well.

There’s a completely idiotic statement which says: ‘The customer is always right.’ NO! The customer is very definitely NOT always right – but the customer is always the customer, and how we address the customer’s fear, frustration, dread of being humiliated and sense of injustice is the key to successful complaint handling and getting back some control when emotions are running high.

*Unless they are not in control of their own behaviour, e.g. they are incapacitated by drink or drugs or suffer from a mental condition which is untreated or uncontrollable.


  1. Hi Rebecca
    Thanks for your newsletter – as always interesting and informative. I think there is a fifth driver – opportunism. There are people who will use the complaints system as a mechanism to get reductions or upgrades or whatever they can based on very little or no grounds. Maybe you have some words of wisdom as to how to deal with that category?

  2. Great newsletter as always. I look forward to you cheering me up every time I receive one of your newsletters. But they are always based on truth whether we like it or not. Well done Rebecca!

  3. Hi Rob,

    That is a great observation! You are completely right, there are definitely ‘professional complainers’ out there, I used to deal with them from time to time and indeed, one was featured on ‘The Complainers’ this week. Such people know that companies will often give them something for nothing, just to make them go away. The truth is that it can cost a company more to fight its corner, even when it’s in the right. That stinks, doesn’t it?

    I think you may have just inspired the next blog – thank you! But as a quick answer here I’d say that if the individual did have a nugget of a genuine grievance, the brilliant phrase “I can’t do that for you because…but what I can do for you is…” worked for me most of the time. For example, “Mr Jones, I can’t give you a million pounds compensation because that’s disproportionate to what actually occurred. But what I can do is apologise most sincerely for the trouble you’ve been put to, and I’ll send you a cheque for £15.00 to cover the full cost of your letters and calls.” If it’s said respectfully and assertively, most people will understand that’s as much as they’re going to get. Genuine complainants are usually more interested in the apology anyway.

    If the individual is clearly just on the make, with highly spurious grounds for complaint, and I was very sure that our company had done nothing wrong (or already offered an appropriate solution), I would thank them for raising their concerns, etc. but clearly and respectfully state that having looked into the matter I was very certain that no error had been made (or that the offer on the table was entirely reasonable), giving my reasons and the evidence. I would also be careful to always give the other person options about what they can do next; to back people into a corner with only one exit is a sure fire way to inflame the situation. Delivering the message can be a challenge, depending on how theatrical the other person decided to be – but it’s the being calm, consistent and unfailingly professional that keeps you on the moral high ground!

    If it got to the point where the customer started threatening going to the regulators, the press etc, I used to simply call their bluff. I’d agree that they have every right to do those things, confirm that we would cooperate fully with any investigation, and then ask the complainant to get paper and pen so they could correctly note down my full name (which I spelled out to them), and the time and date of our conversation, which (if a phone call) had been recorded. I think only a handful ever went to the Ombudsman, and none of those were upheld.

    Customer service (and complaint handling in particular) is a real fine art. It can go so wrong, or so brilliantly. Organisations are constantly having to make decisions about where they give the benefit of the doubt and weighing up the truth of what’s being said to them. I’d say to every company – if you can get the software in to record all your calls, it’s a lifesaver!

    Any other thoughts you’d add to that, Rob?

  4. Thank you Susan! I always appreciate feedback 🙂

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