Customer Service Manual - Section 7 : Dealing with Difficult or Abusive Customers

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Dealing With Difficult Or Abusive Customers


Occasionally a customer's behaviour may fall short of normal standards. No one likes paying tax, be it rates, council tax, inheritance or capital gains tax. Additionally many people find it onerous to comply with the procedures involved in making proposals or completing forms of return. Try not to take this personally. Keep in mind that 99 times out of 100 you are not the object of their anger. There may be other reasons, nothing to do with the VOA, which are putting the customer under stress. And what may appear to us a minor problem with someone's affairs may appear very serious to the person involved. Handling people who are deliberately awkward or aggressive is the least pleasant aspect of your job, but fortunately it is only a minority of customers who display these characteristics.

Calming the Conversation

There are a number of ways you can bring a conversation to a calmer footing and, preferably, remove the customer’s grievance.

Before you attempt to overcome a customer’s annoyance, listen carefully and try to find the cause of it. Put yourself in their shoes – try to see the problem from their point of view. If the grievance is because the VO is at fault in some way, you can offer an apology at the outset, which, in itself, may make the customer feel better and start to calm them down. If the customer is angry simply because they don’t agree with what we have done, although we have not made mistake, you can let the customer know you understand why they are upset – perhaps you can empathise with them.

Cause of anger

  • Identifying the background and the problem(s) will assist you in progressing the situation
  • Sometimes you know why the customer is angry because
  • You have background information relating to the case.
  • You have reasonable intuition/experience in dealing with customers
  • You have established the problem from what the customer has already said

To Progress the conversation

Give a positive response to what they have told you. Reassure the customer you want to help, but explain firmly that you require certain information from them before you can help. You may have to be assertive, and request they let you finish what you are saying before they start talking over you.

Sometimes it is easier to let the customer say their piece, let the complaint and the emotion out of their system, before you start to ask and clarify the information you need to help you decide your next course of action. While they vent their frustration you should listen and try to understand the source of the frustration. While listening you send a powerful unspoken message that you care about the situation.

During the conversation, if the customer is persistently rude and swears, you should say that, if they continue to talk to you in this manner, you will terminate the conversation. Give them the opportunity to cease this behaviour. If they are rude you should not be rude back, but be firm and explain you are trying to help them.

Keep calm and do not rise to their aggression. Do not take the criticism personally and remain objective. Do not let personal feelings cloud your judgement. Do not be intimidated, and even if they are forceful, do not accept what is said without challenge. You are entitled to correct clearly wrong statements and allegations. You should always be honest and not defensive. Avoid blame, but focus on resolving the problem. If the customer believes we have made a mistake, we have to accept what they say until we have carried out an investigation. After this we can tell the customer our findings and if we have made a mistake, we will have to put things right and apologise.

If you cannot help the customer there and then, for example you need further information, you should politely explain to them why you cannot help at this stage, or why you need to speak to someone else, and let them know when you will contact them again. Ensure that you do this. Only make realistic promises and ensure that you do follow it up. Try to end on a positive and constructive note.

All phone calls should be recorded on Customer Contact Record (CCR), in case the caller later misunderstands or misrepresents what you said, or comes through to another officer who needs the background if the caller refers to a previous call. Also, if another member of staff will need to see this person again, for example during an inspection, then they should be warned about the caller’s potential to be difficult. Remember that the CCR record should be factual and without opinion, ensure it accurately reflects what happened and always consider that the customer is entitled to a copy, under the Data Protection Act.

If the caller makes a personal threat to you, inform your GCSM /GVO /DV /Team Leader who will decide if further action is needed, for example to alert the police or to arrange for you to be escorted home.

If the caller makes a more general threat, for example, he will plant a bomb on the premises, make sure you report it to the location manager/officer in charge and make sure you are familiar with the bomb threat/security instructions. These can be summarised as, not panicking, try to find out where they are calling from - is there background noise for example, is the customer calm or drunk, hysterical or hyperventilating. This is useful information to pass to the police.

Conversations at the counter

Ideally staff should be able to see into the public counter or interview room, or there should be a panic button installed.

The rules of politeness and firmness apply.

If the caller persists on being intimidating, even after you have tried the above techniques, you can ask someone else to come in the room, if they haven’t already seen the caller becoming agitated, or use the panic button.

If you fear for your safety, leave the counter if you can and fetch assistance immediately, as the caller could push through into other office areas or start destroying VO property.

Security may be called to remove the caller or, as a last resort, the police.

You may consider not wearing an ID badge to the counter or wearing a false name to reduce the risk of a personal threat being followed through.

Inspections where there are difficult customers

Making Arrangements

  • If there is a file note to say the caller has in the past been threatening, extra care should be taken when arranging the inspection. Consider:
  • If a threat has been made against a specific person, it may be wise to send a different person to avoid antagonism
  • Consider whether it may make sense to send a male member of staff, perhaps the customer has previously made references of a sexual nature, or perhaps the person and has a threatening demeanour
  • Ensure that whoever carries out the inspection is accompanied
  • The other members of staff in the office should be informed of the address where the meeting/inspection is to take place and the time of the appointment. Then contact your colleagues once the meeting/inspection has been completed
  • The officer/s who are going should take a mobile phone with them and leave the number in case they don’t return after the agreed time limit, or cannot be contacted by the mobile phone
  • If the officers do not return by the specified time, or there are causes for concern, the officer in charge/GCSM/Team, Leader should contact the police or send another officer to the address

During the visit or inspection

Do Not Take Any Risks

If the customer’s behaviour causes concern, assess the situation. Consider if you could perhaps quickly carry out an inspection and call later by phone if there are any questions you need answers to. If he/she is loud and threatening, and cannot be reasoned with, you may decide to leave.

Allow the customer to go in a room first (he/she can’t lock you in).

Do not go in unsafe/ unlit areas.

Follow the Suzy Lamplugh guidelines – more details can be found at In 1986, 25 year old estate agent Suzy disappeared after she went to meet an unknown client at a property. To date, she has never been found.

If it is unlikely that another referencer will be able to inspect or the customer will not allow another inspection, then the assessment/band will need to be estimated.

A full file note and explanation must be made detailing how much progress was made before the visit/inspection was terminated. If the customer’s behaviour changed during the inspection, note what was the cause. For example, asking a specific question, such as, “Do you have the key to that door please?” The customer could be hiding access to an extension or a room that we are not showing on our plans.

Reasonable allowances must be made for diversity-speech impediment, accents, jerky movements (Parkinsons) and other disability but, if the behaviour is threatening, personal safety must not be put at risk.

Abusive Letters

Some customers express their anger and personality in written form. Even if a letter is abusive or angrily worded, it is still important to see whether there is any substance to the complaint. All customers have a right to complain and receive a reply. When you do reply try, if possible, to concentrate on the substantive points and concerns and ignore the abuse.

Our Policy on handling Unreasonably Persistent Complainants

We are committed to dealing with all complaints fairly and impartially and to providing a high standard of service to those who make them.  We aim to put things right successfully for our customers where matters have gone wrong as a result of our actions.  The Agency’s procedures for dealing with complaints are clearly explained on our website.   

As part of these procedures we do not normally limit the contact complainants have with us.  However, there are a very small number of complainants who, because of the frequency of their contact with the Agency, hinder our consideration of their, or other people’s, complaints.  We refer to such complainants as ‘persistent complainants’ and, in exceptional cases, where the level of contact is unreasonable, we will take action to limit that contact.  The decision to restrict access to our service is taken at Director level.  Any restrictions imposed are appropriate and proportionate. The options most likely to be considered are:

  • requesting contact in a particular form (for example letters only)
  • requiring contact to take place via a named officer
  • asking the customer to enter into an agreement about their mode of contact

In all cases where we decide that a complainant’s behaviour is unreasonably persistent, we will write to tell the complainant why we believe their behaviour falls into this category and ask them to change it.  If the behaviour continues, we will write to the complainant notifying them that we are limiting their access to the Agency, explaining how that affects them and for what period.

Where a complainant whose case is closed persists in communicating with us about it, we may decide to terminate contact with that complainant.  In such cases, we will read correspondence from that complainant, but unless there is fresh evidence which materially affects our decision on the complaint we will acknowledge receipt and place it on the file with no further action to be taken.

New complaints from people who have come under the unreasonably persistent complaints policy will be treated on their merits.

Examples of actions or behaviours by unreasonably persistent complainants are set out below.  It is by no means an exhaustive list and local factors will vary, but they are examples that have come to our attention.

  • Persistently refusing to specify the precise grounds of a complaint, despite offers of assistance with this from the Agency
  • Refusing to co-operate with the complaints investigation process while still wishing their complaint to be resolved – this includes cases where there is a 'scattergun' approach across different communication channels 
  • Refusing to accept that certain issues are not within the remit of a complaints procedure (eg challenging tax policy which is outside the Agency’s remit) despite having been provided with full information about the procedure’s scope
  • Insisting on the complaint being dealt with in ways which are incompatible with the published complaints procedure or with good practice
  • Making what appear to be groundless complaints about the staff dealing with the complaint
  • Changing the basis of the complaint as the investigation proceeds and/or denying statements made at an earlier stage
  • Introducing trivial or irrelevant new information which the complainant expects to be taken into account and commented on, or raising large numbers of detailed but unimportant questions and insisting they are all fully answered
  • Making unnecessarily excessive demands on the time and resources of staff whilst a complaint is being looked into, for example by excessive telephoning or sending emails to numerous VOA staff, or writing lengthy complex letters every few days and expecting immediate responses
  • Submitting repeat complaints, after investigation has been completed, essentially about the same issues but with additions/variations which the complainant insists make them 'new' complaints which should be put through the full complaints procedure
  • Refusing to accept the decision – repeatedly arguing the point and complaining about the decision.
  • Combinations of some or all of these

Our Policy on unacceptable behaviour by a customer

The Agency has a duty to ensure the safety and welfare of our staff.

We are committed to dealing with all customers fairly and impartially and to providing a high standard of service.  As part of this service we do not normally limit the contact customers have with us.  However we do not expect our staff to tolerate behaviour by customers which is clearly unacceptable (e.g. abusive, offensive or threatening) and may take action to protect our staff from that behaviour.

When we consider that a customer’s behaviour is unacceptable we will tell them why that is so and will ask them to change it.  If the unacceptable behaviour continues, we will take action to restrict the customer’s contact with us.

The decision to restrict access to the Agency will be taken at Director level.  Any restrictions imposed will be appropriate and proportionate.  The options we are most likely to consider are:

  • requesting contact in a particular form (for example letters only)
  • requiring contact to take place with a named officer
  • asking the customer to enter into an agreement about their conduct

In all cases we will write to tell the customer why we believe their behaviour is unacceptable, what action we are taking and the duration of that action. 

Where a customer continues to behave in a way which is unacceptable, we may decide to terminate contact with that customer.

Where the behaviour is so extreme that it threatens the immediate safety and welfare of the Agency’s staff, we will consider other options, for example reporting the matter to the police or taking legal action.  In such cases, we may not give the customer prior warning of that action.

Further Information

More information on how to deal with difficult customers can be found via the Customer Services Home Page in our policies on Unreasonably Persistent Complainants and Unacceptable Behaviour.

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