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Cutting the cord on inappropriate customer conversations

Main illustration: Hallie Bateman

In a frontline sales job many years ago in my college days, I was in a live chat conversation with a customer that was going really well.

We were having a friendly conversation, and they were really interested in making a purchase. The conversation moved to email to close the sale, and that’s when it happened: suddenly they were asking if we could break the business relationship and meet in person romantically. They knew the address of where I worked and what I looked like from my photo on the site. When they got angry at my refusal and accused me of leading them on, I felt uncomfortable and worried. I explained the situation to a manager and asked if I could move the customer to another agent. They replied, “Well, are they going to buy the product from you?”

I was pretty upset. It was demoralizing to realize this customer’s sale was more important than my feeling of safety and respect. A teammate whom I confided in took over the conversation with the customer, who never replied and never made the purchase. I swore if I ever became a manager (which I did) I’d never allow a member of my team feel this way and would instead foster attitudes like that of my helpful teammate.

Live chat software is amazing. It can break down a lot of barriers between you and your customers. It allows for issue resolution/sales without lengthy hold times on the phone, and even help some customers become friends. But sadly, and inevitably, there will be people who abuse their access to your team. You can’t put a price on knowing how to react responsibly. You need to be prepared for how to deal with it – and know you’ll be supported by leadership – or your team is bound to churn.

What is inappropriate/abusive customer behavior?

If you’ve never worked in frontline sales or support, or if your front-facing dealings have been limited you may not know this happens. It’s easy to think of tough customer conversations solely being based around them being angry or having to say no. Inappropriate or abusive behavior is different to anger. It ranges from short personal comments, to abuse, to borderline harassment. We’ve seen “Hi gorgeous!” to “You’re a f****** idiot!” all the way up to sexually explicit photographs.

Abusive content examples

Non signed-in visitors/leads are more likely to act in this manner because they benefit from anonymity. There’s no name, photo or email address attached to their conversation. However, paying users can be just as inappropriate. They’re still behind a screen. They may think it’s funny; they may be lonely. Their motivations differ, but what shouldn’t change is the stance managers should take and how they equip their teams to deal with such behaviors.

Empowering your team

This starts on day one. A section of our Customer Support new hire onboarding is dedicated to dealing with inappropriate or abusive behavior. I also wrote an internal wiki article to outline the process and ensure the team have a written reference, reassuring them that they’re entitled to speak up about feeling uncomfortable in a situation. They can…

  • Ask a teammate to take over at any stage, and a manager will step in where appropriate. Even if a comment seems ‘harmless’ to one person, it can make another feel deeply uncomfortable and they don’t need to go on.
  • If they feel comfortable doing so, they can ask the customer themselves to stop speaking to them in such a manner. (We use a specific Intercom tag so we can quantify how many of these types of conversations we receive and refer back to them if needed.)
  • If a visitor conversation begins with inappropriate comments that are beyond what deserves a reply offering product assistance (explicitly abusive or sexual in nature), block that person immediately.
  • If an ongoing visitor/user conversation starts down the road of “Hey you’re really good looking!”, or “Are you f*****g stupid???” steer the conversation back to the product and don’t acknowledge the comment.
  • If it persists, reply with something along the lines of, “I’d appreciate if we can keep this conversation professional. I’m here to help you with any product or technical questions you have.”

I know from past experience that you can feel silly asking for help. You try to play it down and tell yourself, “I’m being too sensitive.” Proactively encouraging teammates to feel safe asking for assistance and to look out for each other breeds an environment of non-judgement. Sometimes I receive DMs from teammates alerting me of a conversation happening with another teammate, encouraging me to step in. The beauty of Intercom is being able to see everything unfolding in the moment and easily being able to reassign a conversation.

The key to building trust with your team is never ignore the situation or laugh it off. Confront it head on, take it seriously and let them know you’re there for them.

Confronting a customer as a manager

A manager should never be afraid to step in and take over a conversation that’s getting out of hand. If they spot it happening in real time, they should offer to take over as a teammate may not feel fully confident in doing so, as described above.

manager intervention steps

A manager should never be afraid to step in and take over a conversation that’s getting out of hand

Taking over a conversation can be as non confrontational as you wish. Depending of severity of the comments, you can just take over and simply say “Hey X! Ruth stepping in for Y. I see you were having an issue with installing Intercom. I can take it from here 🙂 Can you send me the following information please…”

However for more severe cases, don’t be afraid to defend your team. “Hi X. Ruth stepping in here. I’m a Lead on the Support team here. I read over this conversation and would appreciate if you keep the tone with the team here professional and appropriate.” Most conversations turn around and get back to the initial product topic. When they don’t: “You’ve refused to cooperate with my request to keep this professional. We don’t tolerate explicit/abusive/inappropriate comments towards the team. I’m afraid I’m going to have to end this conversation.”

This applies equally to non-paying and paying customers. It’s easier tell a nameless, email-less lead you’re blocking them than to lay down the law with a high paying customer; however, the effect abusive and inappropriate comments have on teammates are the same, no matter the MRR. Don’t be as quick to hit the block button for paying customers, but be sure the team knows that no matter how much they pay your company, they’re not worth more to you than your team’s well being.

Dealing with inappropriate or abusive conversations is a different judgement call every time. Not every customer reacts the same way to being called out. But as a manager, remember every teammate deserves to feel valued and respected.

As leaders we have a duty of care to our people. A frontline team who sees their manager and company care more about their wellness than an inappropriate customer’s revenue feel valued. Showing them how important they are is key to their happiness. Happy people are more productive and your company will be more profitable. Place your people first and the rest will follow.