3 things to never do when you complain to customer service


Most people don’t call a customer service hotline because they’re happy. If you’ve picked up the phone and dialed a 1-800 number, chances are you want to complain about something. But bringing a bad attitude into the call isn’t likely to get you the results you want. That’s according to a new study by researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC).

Complaining to customer service: What not to do 

The angrier or more aggressive you get during a customer service call, the greater the chance you’ll receive poor service in return, according to the paper, which was published in Journal of Applied Psychology. That’s not exactly surprising — most of us would predict that rudeness begets rudeness. But the researchers wanted to know what exactly customers were doing to antagonize customer service reps. To find out, they used transcripts and computerized text analysis to review over 100,000 words spoken in more than 400 calls to a Canadian customer service center. The goal was to identify how workers responded to what customers said during a conversation.

“We know that customer service quality suffers when customers are rude or aggressive to employees,” David Walker, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor in the faculty of management at the UBC’s Okanagan campus, said in a statement. “But our research is one of the first to pinpoint the specific words service employees hear from customers that can undermine the quality of customer service.”

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The biggest complaints 

Consumer frustration with customer service is common. Even though many companies have taken steps to improve the way they deal with customer complaints, such as enhancing technology and adding services like chatbots, many people still report being unhappy with the way their problems are handled, according to Consumer Reports.

One of the biggest complaints was rude or condescending service. Seventy-five percent of people Consumer Reports surveyed said rude workers were a major annoyance. But the results of the UBC study are a reminder that impolite or uncooperative service reps may simply be responding to rudeness on the part of customers. Customer service calls are a two-way street. When callers pay attention to how they address the person who picks up the phone, they may get better service.

Specifically, there were several customer moves that triggered a negative response from workers, especially when those things occurred in combination. Do these three things the next time you complain to customer service and you may hurt your chances of getting your issue speedily resolved.

1. Use aggressive language

The more aggressive your language when talking to customer service, the less likely your problem will be resolved satisfactorily. Most people probably know that, but apparently it doesn’t stop people from getting sassy with innocent call center workers. Roughly three-quarters of the calls researchers studied contained aggressive language — words such as angry, complain, hassle, and nightmare.

No matter how frustrated you are, you tend to receive better results if you use positive language. When people used positive words like “great” and “fine” during a call, the customer service response improved.

2. Attack them personally

The customer service rep isn’t to blame for the faulty product you received, and you both know it. Taking out your frustration on them personally won’t help you get your complaint resolved faster. The researchers found that when a caller used aggressive language along with second-person pronouns like “you” and “your,” customer service got markedly worse.


Saying things like “Your product is garbage” puts the customer service rep on the defensive. Reframing those comments by saying “This product is garbage” yields better results.

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3. Interrupt

Your mother told you it was rude to interrupt people, and she was right. Cutting off the customer service representative violates normal conversational rules and makes them less likely to want to help you. Nonetheless, the majority of calls analyzed in the study contained customer interruptions.

“[W]hen they interrupt the person they are talking to, we found that the employee’s negative reaction is much stronger,” study co-author Danielle van Jaarsveld said. Even if you’re pressed for time and want to get your issue resolved as quickly as possible, hear out the customer service rep. They may be trying to explain something important to you.

Overall, the lesson from the UBC study is that a little politeness goes a long way when it comes to getting your customer service issue resolved.

“If customers change their language so that it’s less about the employee and more about the product or problem in question, they can improve the quality of the customer service they get,” Walker said. “Employees can handle a lot, but when aggressive language and interruptions happen together — combined with minimal positive language from the customer — employees get to a point where customer service quality suffers. Customers need to remember that they’re dealing with human beings.”

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