Firestarters (or things that wind up your customers)

Categories: Winnthinks

“I’m a Firestarter…twisted Firestarter (whoooooooo!) HEY! HEY! HEY!”

Firestarters. It’s the name I give to those gestures, sounds and phrases that can turn a perfectly reasonable customer conversation into a raging torrent of accusations, or a slamming down of the phone, or the steely glare of non-cooperation.

Surely there is no employee who sets out to deliberately wind up their customer, but in my work over the years I’ve heard and seen far too many interactions where the problem has been almost entirely of the employee’s making. Helping your customer service teams NOT to do the following would definitely be in your (and their) best interests. Here, then, are Ten Top Firestarters to look out for…

  • 1. Not listening with full attention, so you miss key information. Ever had that experience when you give someone your name, then a couple of minutes later they’re asking you what your name is again? What if they ask you a third time…how does that make you feel? I rest my case.
  • 2. Sighing and/or eye-rolling while a customer is explaining something to you. Include in this group breaking eye contact to look over the customer’s shoulder, presumably at something more interesting. The telephone equivalent is, of course, that noisy gush of air from the nostrils that so eloquently says ‘I’m bored now’, in the style of a passing jet plane.
  • 3. Interrupting a customer’s flow, even if it’s to say “yes, I know what the answer to this is”. Accept that customers need to say what they need to say, even if you don’t believe you need to hear it.
  • 4. Over-using the customer’s name. This is particularly prevalent in poorly executed sales calls. “So, Mrs Winn, could I tell you Mrs Winn about our new product Mrs Winn…” Can you guess the answer to that one yet?
  • 5. People on checkouts that won’t look at you, even though they are about to take your money. It is rarer than it used to be, but still happened to me recently in a well known office supplies superstore. It’s bad enough that we’re increasingly directed towards self-service machines (am I alone in finding it sad that ‘progress’ seems increasingly to equate to operating in isolation?) but when I go to an attended till I do want to interact properly with a human being, please.
  • 6. Repeating the same sentence over and over in the hope that what you’re saying will miraculously become understandable and/or acceptable to them on the twentieth repetition. It won’t.
  • 7. Saying ‘no’ without giving a good reason. This is compounded by additionally failing to offer an alternative solution. ‘Computer says no’. Tell them what you CAN do, not what you cannot.
  • 8. Passing the blame and trying to make excuses. “Yes, well it’s our Accounts department you see, they’ve had a lot of people off sick this week so they’re really behind. We’re getting all sorts of complaints about it!” Nope. I don’t want to hear that, it isn’t my problem. I just want to know what you are going to do to sort out my enquiry. Be prepared to take some ownership.
  • 9. Reading out terms and conditions really quickly. It’s a frequent failing of those who work for mobile phone companies, insurance companies and others where they must get evidence, in a recorded call, that they told you all the small print. The fact is, my brain just cannot process the torrent of words you’re firing at me quickly enough, so please, don’t get prickly with me when I ask you to clarify something.
  • 10. Standing in a huddle with your fellow assistants, with body language that overwhelmingly says ‘Do Not Disturb’. Often coupled with the ability to vanish into thin air the minute a customer needs your help. Getting suddenly interested when you think you might be able to sell me some gadget insurance if you carry my self-selected purchase to the checkout desk doesn’t count, I’m afraid.

So there we have it, just ten of so many familiar Firestarters that will guarantee a customer who is grumpy rather than gracious. Come on, tell me what your notable Firestarters are – I’ll compile them into a future blog for us all to fume at!


  1. Telephone calls that ask to speak to a person that has died! This happened to me twice in one day recently! One of the sales assistants, when I told her that the person they had asked for had died, said, “Oh so your’e the home owner then?” and proceeded to try to sell to me. You can imagine my response can’t you!

  2. Oh Susan, that is one of the worst. Honest mistakes will happen, particularly when a sales rep is autodialling you or working from an older data list, but they should immediately apologise, update the record there and then and close the call appropriately. To attempt to transfer the sales pitch to someone else, well…no. Just, no.

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