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Q. How would you suggest I respond when a customer gets abusive and uses profanity with me?

Copyright MMX, by Dave Kahle

A. That's a difficult call. I have had only a couple of these experiences in my career. Let me do a little thinking out loud (or as it may be, on the computer.)

First, let's clarify the situation. We are not talking about a customer whose conversation is routinely laced with four letter words. In that case, there is no animosity, anger or abuse directed at you; this is just how he/she speaks. These customers are crude and vulgar, but they are crude and vulgar with everyone, not just you, and there is no negative impact intended. We all know customers like this.

In that case, we keep our dignity, refuse to lower ourselves to that level, ignore the four letter words and carry on.

I don't believe that is the situation to which this question refers. The writer is describing a situation where the customer is verbally attacking the sales person, and using profanity to sharpen his verbal assault.

This is a particularly tricky situation because it moves out of the realm of the purely "professional" and into the realm of the "personal." In other words, it is not just about the customer/sales person interaction, it's about you, personally. It's not just a "salesperson" who is being abused, it is you. That makes the basic direction of the response dependent on who you are.

Let's examine that situation. First, I don't think your use of profanity is ever appropriate, particularly in a sales, or a management, situation where you are dealing with people as a representative of your company. It reduces you to that person's level, diminishing your stature and reputation. So, let's rule out the option of reacting to someone directing profanity your way by spitting it back to him/her. Responding in kind is, then, off the table.

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On the other hand, the option at the other end of the spectrum; to meekly accept the verbal abuse and allow yourself to become the whipping boy for the customer's vulgarity - to just meekly accept it and not respond to it - is also, I believe, an unacceptable response. That also diminishes you and makes you seem less valuable and worthy. So, let's take that option off the table as well.

We have now narrowed down the range of options considerably, having ruled out the two positions on either extreme.

The issue then becomes personal -- one of identifying where your personal lines are drawn. There are some sales people who would not find this situation upsetting - who have the ability to let it roll off of them and move on to the next customer without giving it a second thought. There are others who would be devastated, upset and off their game for days.

It really is helpful for you to think it through before you find yourself in this situation.

Where is the line for you, personally?
How affronted would you be?
What would be the emotional impact on you?

Once you have given those questions some significant thought time, you'll be better prepared to react on the spot. Here are some possible reactions:

1. Stay calm; respond to the content of the customer's remarks, and not to the emotionally-laden language.
2. Let the customer know that you are personally affronted by his/her language, and try to continue the conversation in a more civilized manner.
3. Let the customer know that you are personally affronted by his/her language, and leave.

As an experienced sales person, sales manager, sales executive and business owner, I can tell you that I would not have any problem with you choosing any one of the three options, were you a sales person working for me.

Which of those you choose depends on the answers you came up with to the questions we asked above, as well as the variables inherent in the specific situation. I can tell you in the two of these kinds of situations that I recall being involved in, I chose option two on both occasions. I also have vague recollections of hanging up on someone who got abusive in a phone call.

The bottom line is this: You have a right to protect your personal dignity. Where the line is and what you choose to do depends a great deal on you - your experience, your emotional make up - and the specifics of the situation. Take some time to think it through beforehand, and you'll be better equipped to deal with the situation when, and if, it arises.

If you'd like some specific direction on option number two, above, you may want to check out my "Best of Dave" seminar, #15 How to Skillfully Handle Difficult Customers .

Dave Kahle has trained tens of thousands of B2B salespeople, sales managers and business owners to be more effective in the 21st Century economy. He's authored nine books, and presented in 47 states and seven countries. To access Dave's training, insights and tools online, visit The Sales Resource Center. Visit www.davekahle.com to check out a seminar near you.

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