I am writing this post to hopefully pass on some advice on how to deal with conflict on the telephone. I was giving a conflict resolution training course in London last week, so this is still very fresh in my mind.

When people on the telephone call you and come across all angry and frustrated, it isn’t always because they are actually cross. Sometimes these are just mis-read signals by people and you need to be careful in making assumptions quickly, especially when using the telephone.

For instance, if the call is to the NHS, the caller might be frightened as they are trying to get some important test results to determine whether they have cancer or not. So it may be that they are simply on edge and frightened, not angry. However, the person on the other end of the telephone (NHS) might pick up the wrong signals.

The caller that has got the problem, knows that they have a problem, but the person on the other end of the telephone doesn’t understand it. If this happens (and it often does) it means there is very little rapport, if none at all, and the caller might start to come in with one or two different types of aggression depending on their state.

I have identified two types of aggression as either:

  1. a: aggressive – they are venting anger but they are prepared to negotiate
  2. A: Aggressive and not prepared to negotiate at all

As with many things I talk about in conflict resolution, this is all about building rapport because you have to build trust with the caller first before resolving anything.

Building Rapport – a: aggressive

On the telephone rapport is based on 84% tonality. In other words your attitude comes across in the tone of your voice. People are going to make their minds up quickly mainly based on your voice tonality. Your voice tonality is made up your volume, speed, pitch and your Timbre (the quality).

So if you start to match the voice tonality of the person on the other end, you are more likely to build some rapport with them. The easiest way to do this is to match the tempo/speed of their voice. Don’t match their aggression, just the speed! By doing this you are sub-consciously saying “I am like you. You can trust me because I am like you”. This is because the person we trust the most in the world is ourselves.

Just by doing this they will be far likelier to be receptive to your questioning or problem solving skills because they now have some level of trust in you. They are much more likely to take on your advice and take their time rather than simply ranting down the line at you.

If you can sort their problem you should do it quickly and SMART.

  • S – Specific (Get to the route of the problem)
  • M – Measureable (I will get back to you by 2pm this afternoon – did I get back to you)
  • A – Alternatives (Giving the person different alternatives – refund, deduct money next month etc)
  • R – Realistic (we will reimburse you etc)
  • T – Time (I will get back to you by XXX – If you get back to them they will trust you because most people don’t get back)

Taking action with A: Aggression (not prepared to listen)

This is the most difficult person to deal with, you need some kind of pattern interruption by coming in at a slightly different angle. Now to do this you need to have their name and phone number before you do anything.

When you have all of their details, you tell them you won’t be able to help them whilst they are behaving like that.

My quick tips to deal with A: Aggression

  1. You say the following quickly and bluntly:“I am not prepared to accept that behaviour”
  2. You then hang up on them.
  3. You then ring them back in about 15 mins with a new fresh tone offering to help.

You do this because it interrupts their pattern of anger. They didn’t expect you to put the phone down on them initially and they certainly didn’t expect you to ring them back. You can now offer them a gift – by solving their original problem.

Now they should like you a bit more because you have called them back and hopefully they are now a little a rather than a Capital A. They also know you will put the phone down on them if they get too aggressive. You have set the rules of the call. The 15-minute rule also doesn’t give them enough time to write a ranting email or letter of complaint, so you should have covered all bases.

I am not saying this works with every irate customer but these are good rules to go by.