Have you ever seen a toddler throw a public tantrum? If you have, you probably noticed that the parent responds in one of two ways: they rise to the eruption by shouting, or they simply ignore it.

From the outset it’s pretty clear that ignoring an outburst is better than rising to it.

An abusive customer who actively chooses to raise their disappointment until they reach foghorn levels of abuse is very, very similar to a three-year-old spitting the dummy, and how you handle them is almost identical.

Understanding a Mouth like a Sailor

Abusive customers are confronting and unpleasant but to really master the art of handling abusive language, you have to understand where the customer is coming from, even if that’s Planet Absurdity. So let’s go through the potential types:

Impatient Penny


Penny is buying groceries and the cashier needs to price check an item. The girl walks off with Penny’s item and is gone for two minutes before Penny starts getting prickly. She expected to pay and get out of there, now all of a sudden she feels like she’s lost control and she’s not happy.

Antagonistic Andy


Andy’s at the pub with his mates: he’s had a few too many, but he reckons he’s alright. It’s Andy’s round, so he stumbles up to the bar and loudly asks for his drinks, but the bar tender is shaking his head – Andy’s been cut off. Andy launches a series of violent, abusive insults until he’s forcibly removed by security.

Defensive Dan


Dan is fed up: he’s been at home all day waiting for his new mattress. The courier told him to hang tight between 8 and 4, but 4:15 ticks over and Dan is still stuck waiting. Dan calls the company and the customer service officer apologises for the mistake. She suggests a new day of the same time slot, but Dan’s had enough, wants his mattress now and is ready for a fight.

Quelling Quarrels

Now there may be reasons these customers have become angry and there may have been things that could have been done differently to prevent that anger but no-one deserves to cop abusive language. If you find yourself in a confrontation and the customer is using abusive language then remove yourself from the situation.

If your customer is shouting out an essay of explicit material, don’t let them. Interrupt them with:

“While I’m more than happy to help you, I cannot if you continue to swear. Is that understood?”

Asking if they’ve understood is vital: there’s really only one answer. If they continue try this:

“I want to help you but I simply cannot if you continue to swear at me. If it happens again I will have no option but to end our discussion. Is that clear?”

This kind of scolding will sometimes stop the abuse directly in its tracks. If they continue to ignore your firm but fair attempts, you have no other option but to hang up, walk away or have the customer removed:

“You’ve left me no alternative but to end this conversation.”

People Pleasers


At the end of the day, some people will simply not be able to express their anger in a reasonable manner, so it’s important that you know how to handle them in a calm and composed manner.

If you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation, don’t grit your teeth and bear it. Quell the confrontation before it becomes abusive, and if your customer is up for a fight, tell them to put down their gloves.