How to Handle 7 Unexpected Customer Service Scenarios

Lola BarbierLast updated on January 2, 2024
9 min

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Working in customer service is usually seen as straightforward and repetitive: Customers ask questions, get answers, and say goodbye—that is, until something else comes up.

Many customer service scenarios are routine, but on an average day, customer service reps also deal with challenging and often unexpected situations.

To bridge the gap, some managers give their staff call center scripts. Depending on the situation, a formatted response can lead to good customer interactions, but these conversation guides have their limits.

Most consumers enjoy their customer support experience more when agents don’t sound like robots, and scripts stifle the creativity and problem-solving skills agents need to adapt when things aren’t so routine.

Since going off-script shouldn’t mean flying by the seat of your pants, let’s look at how support reps can handle several unexpected customer service scenarios.

1. Emergencies

Customer service representatives may always be on the frontlines, but they’re not always prepared to handle unforeseen problems.

Whether it’s a server crash or a security breach, support reps must respond in ways that minimize frustration and retain trust when worried customers reach out for an explanation.

What customer service reps should do in an emergency:

Apologize. To maintain trust, customer service agents must show empathy during an emergency. Acknowledging fault is a great way to do this while clearing the way for productive conversations. Any attempts to minimize the issue will frustrate even your most loyal customers and should be avoided.

Be transparent. There’s no time for beating around the bush when an emergency strikes. Agents should clearly communicate the expected resolution time and methods you are employing to fix the issue. As Slack taught us, committing to transparency during an outage works wonders.

Plan ahead. Having a crisis management process in place before an issue occurs can reduce stress for agents and guarantee smoother interactions with customers. When agents feel prepared to tackle the unexpected, they’re more likely to be level-headed during difficult phone calls. For maximum impact, consider building a quality assurance program and involve all relevant teams in your customer service emergency process.

What customer service reps should say during emergency:

“We’re so sorry for the inconvenience here—our product team recently released an update to feature A, which is interfering with how feature B performs. The good news is, they’re aware of the issue and are working on a fix as we speak. They plan to deploy the fix later this afternoon and I would be happy to reach back out to let you know as soon as it’s been pushed live. Would you prefer an email or a phone call?”

2. They don’t know the answer

There’s no shame in not knowing the answer to tricky customer support questions. For frontline agents, the most important thing is to remain unflappable and put the customer first.

No one likes feeling shut down, least of all customers. When customer service representatives say things like, “I’m unable to answer your question at this time,” or worse yet, “I don’t know,” it’s a conversational deadend that creates the impression your company doesn’t care.

What customer service reps should do when they don’t know the answer:

Instead of offering excuses that revolve around their own experience (“I wasn’t trained for this,” or “I’m new here”), customer service reps must craft responses that acknowledge the customer experience.

They can be honest about their shortcomings, but they must let customers know exactly how and when you’ll work toward a solution.

What they should say when they don’t know the answer:

Consider something along the lines of, “I’m not sure how to answer that question right now, but I’ll get in touch with our [relevant team or contact] and we’ll have an answer for you by [specific and achievable timeline].”

When handled with finesse, agents can leverage a lack of knowledge to communicate their commitment to helping customers get what they need, even when it requires additional effort on their part.

3. They screwed up

There’s no easy way out of admitting you’ve made a mistake. To regain a customer’s trust, your support reps must bite the bullet and apologize—sincerely. This can be even harder for customer service representatives during periods of stress and frustration.

What customer service reps should do when they make a mistake:

Apologizing honestly and transparently is the only way to mitigate the fallout of a mistake which inconvenienced customers. Passing the buck or throwing other people—or the company—under the bus reflects poorly on agents as individuals and on the business as a whole.

What to say when you make a mistake:

“I apologize, (CUSTOMER NAME), we’ve made a mistake by (whatever it is), and we’re working on fixing it by (correction efforts go here). We expect everything will be back to normal by (timeframe), and in the meantime, we’re available to help in any way we can.”

If agents feel empowered enough, they can use “I” instead of “we.” But being forthright matters more than pronouns and must come first. Second, give the customer a sense of closure by being as specific as possible about your team’s plans to correct the mistake.

4. The issue is on the customer-side

Explaining to a customer that they’re the one in the wrong is a delicate matter requiring ninja-like finesse.

Here’s the good news: It’s also a wonderful opportunity for support reps to flex their customer service skills and display empathy.

What customer service reps should do when a customer makes a mistake:

Never take a blaming tone with the customer or make them feel like it’s their fault they’ve made a mistake. After all, their misunderstanding or lack of knowledge could likely be traced back to inadequate support or a less-than-intuitive user experience (UX) within the product.

When a customer makes a mistake, your agents’ primary goal is to teach and empower them to be successful.

What to say when the customer makes a mistake:

“The issue appears to stem from (the mistake they’re making). Trust me, I’ve been there before! The system is a little confusing, so thank you for bringing the issue to our attention, since now we can work on a fix. In the meantime, here’s how to work around it: (solution). Please let me know if I can offer any more assistance.”

5. You’re dealing with very angry customers

Dealing with irate customers is an unpleasant but inevitable aspect of working in customer service. Whether they’re having a bad day or are generally irritable, difficult customers can get so fired up they’re ready to rant before agents can say “Thanks for calling…”

Unfortunately, this is one customer service scenario no amount of training can prevent.

What customer service reps should do when the customer is angry:

When a customer is agitated, the goal is to gradually bring them down to your emotional level, not to rise to theirs. Customer service agents should give them a chance to vent a little—interruptions will only add fuel to the fire.

This time is actually a gift, as it gives support agents time to plan their next move.

What to say when the customer is angry:

“I understand how frustrating that must be, I’m sorry you’re encountering this issue. Let’s look at how we can solve it together.”

Empathize with their situation, keep your voice level and calm, and wait until they begin to respond to your emotional cues. Apologizing is key, even if it isn’t your fault. Sympathize with the customer and offer your help. Once the customer has settled, you can move on to solving their issue.

When anger crosses the line

There’s a difference between anger and abuse, however. Some customers aren’t calling to report a problem or resolve an issue, they’re simply looking for a punching bag. If a customer makes agents feel uncomfortable or unsafe by being threatening or overly aggressive, they are well within their rights to refuse further communication.

“I’m perfectly willing to listen to your valid grievances and even more willing to help resolve them, but I have to warn you that if you continue using such aggressive language, I’m going to have to terminate the call.”

If the customer ignores these warnings, customer service reps can and should follow through by inviting the customer to contact your team again once they’re willing to be respectful.

6. The customer’s request is unreasonable or unfeasible

Some customers make unrealistic demands: a product you don’t ship, a feature you won’t add, a discount you can’t grant. Letting customers down easy is tricky since you don’t want to turn their interest into disappointment or make it seem like the company doesn’t care about their needs.

What customer service reps should do when customer expectations are unrealistic:

The trick to giving customers bad news is to put a positive spin on what they don’t want to hear. It won’t always work, but you’d be surprised how often it does. Without that positive spin, you’re just letting down a customer instead of helping them see the alternative or the silver lining.

What to say when a customer request can’t be met:

“We’re not planning on releasing that feature for the moment, but here’s a way to achieve the same (or a similar) effect.”

“We don’t carry that item right now, but we’ll have it in stock in two months. Shall I set one aside for you as soon as it’s available?”

“Unfortunately, I can’t grant you that refund, I’m sorry. As a small business ourselves, we just can’t swing that. But we try very hard to tailor our product to our customers, so perhaps I can recommend another plan better suited to your specific needs? Don’t forget, you can cancel your subscription at any time.”

Better than an unyielding “no,” agents should give the customer context and options. Explain the reason behind the “no,” present alternatives, and respect their intelligence. A good compromise will have the customer walking away feeling satisfied and comfortable with the outcome.

7. The customer wants to cancel their subscription

Like difficult customers, customers who churn are an inevitable part of doing business. If a customer calls your team to cancel their subscription, many enterprising support reps may be tempted to try talking them out of it.

What customer service reps should do when a customer wants to cancel:

Don’t try to talk them out of it. If a customer’s made their mind up, it’s unlikely anyone can change it. Agents may be able to sway a small number to stay with discount codes and promos, but consider this: if your product isn’t right for this customer today, how likely are they to churn after their discounted subscription ends?

It’s better to rip the band-aid off in one motion than inch-by-inch. If a customer service agent reverts to sales, this is likely to cause more harm. However inserting interview questions about what went wrong can help retain future customers and minimize complaints.

What to say when a customer wants to cancel:

“I’m sorry to hear that (your product) wasn’t right for you. We can cancel your subscription together. Would you be willing to let me know what went wrong for you so that we can make improvements for future customers?”

Be graceful, and remember to leave a positive impression that lasts beyond the immediate business relationship.

Published on February 25, 2020.

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