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Things Not to Say to an Irate Customer, or Anthem's Epic Fail

By Mick Brady
Dec 4, 2014 5:00 AM PT

I have sympathy for customer service representatives -- really, I do. I know that customers can be ignorant, demanding and ill-mannered. On the other hand, CSRs should be trained to deal with bad-tempered customers. Also, CSRs should be trained to avoid provoking pleasant and agreeable customers to the edge of meltdown -- or beyond.

Things Not to Say to an Irate Customer, or Anthem's Epic Fail

If your ears are burning, Elizabeth at Anthem Blue Cross, yes, I'm talking about you.

Here's the thing. Elizabeth is probably quite nice. She never raised her voice or behaved rudely. However, she said and did a bunch of things that drove one customer's blood pressure into the red zone and resulted in Elizabeth getting an earful.

This is Anthem's fault. Anthem should have given Elizabeth better tools to handle customer problems, and it should have taught her how to de-escalate a customer's anger rather than how to fuel an inferno.

Bad System

The problem should have been easy to solve. It appeared that recurring payments made by the customer's bank had not been applied to the appropriate Anthem account. During the first conversation, Elizabeth apparently was unable to interpret how any payments were applied.

In fact, she could not acknowledge that three payments in question actually had been received -- even after she was presented with all the relevant information from the customer's bank account record, including dates, amounts, check numbers, etc.

This too is Anthem's fault. It should not require a rocket scientist to locate a payment record and see how it was applied. Since it apparently does, and Elizabeth is not one, she asked that the bank records be sent to her by FAX. She wanted the very same details the customer already had supplied by phone -- but delivered by FAX. Anthem doesn't do email.

After much indignant complaining about a company the size of Anthem having no ability to process email correspondence, the customer finally agreed to print out the documents, schlep them out to a public FAX machine (no longer very easy to find) and send them to Elizabeth.

Days passed. When Elizabeth finally called the customer, it was not to address the payments problem -- it was to get details about the FAX. She needed to know the date and time it was sent, the number it was sent from, and how many pages were included. The FAX was sent to the number Elizabeth had given to the customer. The cover page bore her name and extension.

It apparently took Elizabeth several more days to locate the FAX. It was sent on Nov. 24. Elizabeth didn't call with an attempt to respond to it until Dec. 3. Seriously, even with a holiday to take into account, nine days to respond to a customer's billing problem with a possible cancellation looming? This is the social media Grow your business with social media management services from Deluxe! age, Anthem. Customers don't live on snail mail time.

The Conversation

When she finally called, Elizabeth should have been prepared to give the customer some information and advice, but it seemed she was looking at the FAX for the first time. The customer had sent details of the three payments, but Elizabeth apparently was no better equipped to understand how they had been applied -- or even to acknowledge that they had been received -- than she was during the very first call.

Elizabeth just kept repeating that payments that appeared to have been made were still outstanding.

The customer, already impatient over the long wait and the jumping-through-hoops, began to have the steam-exiting-ears feeling. The customer asked to speak to a supervisor. Here's where everything really went south, because Elizabeth did not immediately accommodate that request.

Instead, she said some things that a CSR never should say to a disturbed customer. The first few fall into the "blame the victim" category. They're variations on "you don't have to raise your voice to me," "you don't have to insult me," "you don't have to cuss at me," etc.

OK, if a customer says "f*ck you" or something to that effect, no CSR should be expected to take it lying down. However, if a customer says something like "this is a bunch of stupid bullsh*t," the CSR shouldn't take umbrage over the customer's crude language. The CSR should experience the sound of a little bell ringing in her head: This customer is really upset. I should do something to defuse the situation. Like get a supervisor on the line.

True -- it's better if a customer can exercise restraint instead of going berserk just because a CSR is impotent. But when a customer loses it, it's not a good idea for the CSR to say -- robotically and ad nauseum -- "I'm trying to help you." It's especially not a good idea if the "help" consists of repeating the same logic-defying thing -- basically, "the payments you made are still due."

It's a terrible idea to refuse to connect a distraught customer with a supervisor. It's really, really unwise to tell the customer that "a supervisor will only tell you the exact same thing."

Elizabeth actually said that during both the first and the third calls, so it likely wasn't a slip of the tongue. Elizabeth either has been trained to say that to customers -- or not trained not to. That is a very bad message to deliver, Anthem. If a customer can't get a reasonable resolution of a problem with a CSR, there should be an avenue of appeal.

CSRs should not be permitted to second-guess the way a supervisor might respond to a customer's problem, either. First of all, it's silly and arrogant. Worse, it's like telling the customer, essentially, "Give up -- you have no hope of resolving this. Just make those payments twice, or lose the insurance."

The Resolution

Elizabeth kept the customer on the line for, oh, maybe 20 minutes, waiting to see if a supervisor would become available. As it turned out, during the long silence -- punctuated by Elizabeth periodically telling the customer she was still looking for a supervisor (seriously, Anthem?) -- the customer figured out a way to access the information that Elizabeth apparently couldn't find.

Having discovered what happened to the payments, the customer hung up. Neither Elizabeth nor a supervisor bothered to call back.

The lesson: At Anthem, anyone who succumbs to frustration doesn't deserve customer service, I guess. On the other hand, it appears that at Anthem, a great deal of effort goes into provoking customers until they reach the breaking point. Maybe it's just another way to avoid actually addressing anyone's problems.


Mick Brady is managing editor of ECT News Network.


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