Handling difficult phone conversations

Jenny Riedel, Practice Development Consultant

Imagine this scenario: You’re at your desk on a typical Wednesday. Your mood is upbeat and you are on track to accomplish your goals for the day. Then, the phone rings. Caller ID reveals the name of a client who is always upset about something. Your first instinct is to push the ignore button; however, doing so will only delay the inevitable conversation.

Individuals in every profession experience similar situations. While these calls are difficult, there are steps you can take to make them less painful and more productive.

  • Never begin a conversation until you are able to focus on it.
  • While this seems like common sense, in a world where we are required to multitask, distractions like emails, text messages, meetings and phone calls make this easier said than done. If a client has taken the time to call, you should make time to be present for the conversation.

  • Do not interrupt.
  • Often, in our quest to provide an answer or move to the next item on our list, we cut people off. This is dangerous, as you might not have all the information. Give the client the platform and let him or her finish before you speak.

  • Listen to understand.
  • It is critical to fully understand the client’s issue. Often we formulate a response before all the details are revealed. As the Dali Lama said, “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know; But when you listen, you may learn something new.”

  • Offer to look into the situation.
  • Sometimes issues can’t be resolved in the client’s favor. However, when you acknowledge his or her frustration and promise to review it with all parties, you offer hope. Even if ultimately there is no resolution, you’ve taken the client’s concern seriously, and that’s a win.

  • Validate client concerns without admitting wrong doing.
  • Sometimes when a client calls with concerns, he or she just wants to be heard. If processing paperwork has taken longer than expected or a call center representative wasn’t helpful, the client may just want to tell someone about it. Be the person he or she can vent to. Empathy goes a long way.

  • Never over promise.
  • While we all like to solve problems, resolution can take time. Always overestimate the length of time it will take to unravel an issue. It’s better to under promise and over deliver.

  • Confirm the situation and reinforce your understanding.
  • Before hanging up, recap the issue(s) and provide your plan of action. Make sure your client is in agreement with next steps. Then, send an email summarizing the conversation.

  • Follow up.
  • Depending on the issue and plan of action, a follow-up conversation should be scheduled. Remaining action items should be addressed and deadlines confirmed or adjusted. Finally, when the issue is resolved, send an email summary to close the file.

    A call from a frustrated client doesn’t have to ruin your day, or theirs. By following these steps, you can both walk away with a better understanding of the issue and, if appropriate, clear steps for resolving it. Talk to your External Director of Practice Development to discuss your strategy for handling difficult phone calls.

    Note: Remember to consult the Compliance Policies to ensure you report complaints if appropriate and keep all communication in accordance with our retention policies.


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