How to address passive aggressive behaviour in your customer service team.

passive aggressive

How to address passive aggressive behaviour in your customer service team.

Have you ever experienced passive aggressive behaviour from someone in a customer service role? Have you seen it in your team? Have you seen it in yourself?

It can be seen in a range of behaviours:

the go-slow / unresponsiveness / sarcasm / repetitive, scripted or monosyllabic responses / overly literal actions / deliberate forgetfulness / poor performance generally / unfavourable treatment for challenging customers

Yes, we’ve all seen it. Customers can tell. And they don’t like it.

And to an extent it’s understandable: Customers can be difficult and disrespectful – and we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t sometimes have some sort of emotional reaction to that. The challenge is to recognise and control our emotions and always demonstrate our best behaviour, in every circumstance.

Simples! (not).

The particular challenge for customer service staff is that in difficult circumstances, they struggle to find a way to act assertively. They know they can’t or shouldn’t respond aggressively to a customer so they try and respond respectfully. Passively.

But it doesn’t work. Their controlling emotional subconscious finds a way to signal their resentment through the various passive aggressive behaviours mentioned above.

Part of the solution to tackling passive-aggressive behaviour in your customer-facing staff is therefore to help them to demonstrate more assertive, accountable behaviour through:

  • Giving them the freedom, autonomy and confidence to handle the situation as required
  • Skills training – helping them develop the approaches and language to handle different situations
  • Coaching – helping them understand and challenge their own behaviour

Freedom and confidence to act assertively

One reason why people demonstrate passive-aggressive behaviour is that they feel they can’t act assertively: they feel constrained and inhibited either by workplace expectations, critical managers or the aggressive nature of customers. If your staff feel they have no options, they will retreat into passive or passive-aggressive behaviour.

Give your staff options. Encourage them to do what needs to be done, or say what needs to be said. Support them when they do so. Passive-aggressive behaviour can be most common in heavily performance-managed, bureaucratic workplaces. In these workplaces, people can – and are often encouraged to – hide behind unhelpful scripts and processes which are only likely to lead to more client frustration a reciprocal resentment. Here, passive-aggressive behaviour might not only be directed at the customer, but also against a manager or internal process.

Encourage your staff to be accountable: to improve difficult situations rather than just endure them. Help them to do this by limiting any bureaucratic constraints, removing any culture of fear, invite and encourage their views on internal processes or how any situation should be handled. Most staff, especially those that have chosen customer-facing careers, actually want to help customers, even the difficult ones. Give them the freedom to do this.

Skills training

Skills training both equips people with the tools to act more assertively, and probably more importantly, gives them the confidence to use them.

Assertiveness, rapport building, questioning and listening skills, building trust and respect, conflict management: these are all skills that can be developed so that people know how to act more assertively, and have the confidence to do so.

Mindset coaching

In addition to developing skills, encouraging more assertive behaviour may also require a change in mindset. Customer service is at its best when a ‘win’ for the customer is also a win (not a humiliation) for the employee. Maintaining a customer centric mindset therefore involves:

  • seeing every customer interaction as a chance to shine
  • seeking to give challenging customers the same, or better, service as your most favoured customers.

One of the most challenging things to do in customer service is to turn a unhappy customer into a happy customer. But this is also one of the most valuable and rewarding activities. Demonstrating passive-aggressive behaviours shows a mindset failure and a ducking of these responsibilities.

Coaching can help. If you have a team-member displaying passive-aggressive behaviours, talk to them. Ask them how they felt, what they achieved through their behaviour, how they could have acted more assertively and why they didn’t.

You may encounter resentment, excuses, confidence issues, dubious self-justification or more but you have started them on a journey back to more assertive, accountable behaviour.

CX Training is a Brisbane-based provider of tailored, in-house customer service, customer experience and sales training solutions.