How working in customer service taught me how to support people in crisis

Customer service is often viewed as low-skilled work, but there is actually an art to doing it well.

I have had a number of customer service jobs, including working for various auto breakdown services, and a private pathology lab. I was often on the phone to distraught people: perhaps they’d had a smash on the M25, and they had 3 terrified children with them, or they were waiting for a breast cancer test result that was running late and were petrified the delay was due to bad news.

Those calls were much trickier than the average; however, through them I learned some fundamental principles that have continued to help me help others, including work with prisoners, rough sleepers, and those with mental illness, for many years since.

Whether you are dealing with a vulnerable person in crisis or a customer on the phone, these principles come in handy.

Here are 9 that I see as the most important:


1. What people define as a crisis is relative

A crisis can be an enduring situation where someone’s entire life is collapsing quite literally, or it can be a sudden, short-lived incident that causes acute stress but is able to be resolved within a day, or even a few hours.

What one person experiences as a crisis may not be the same as another.

Timing is also a consideration – someone might normally cope very well, but they might not have the emotional resources to cope at other times, depending on what else is happening for them.

All reasons for distress are valid and relevant because of the meaning they have for the person experiencing them.

It is best to avoid judging someone coming to you in crisis, even if their issue does not resonate with you, or it could be seen as minor or silly in comparison to others.

People need to feel like their problems are not just valid, but that the extent and gravity of their problems as they see them is acknowledged.

People, understandably, need to feel like they matter, and that their problems matter to you as much as they matter to them.

2. You can make a big difference in just one interaction

When someone is already stressed out, whether it is because they’ve dropped their phone down the loo, or they’ve found themselves suddenly homeless, the last thing they need is a difficult interaction when they reach out for help. This only makes people feel more stressed, angry, and frustrated with their situation.

We all know what a relief it can be to have a problem sorted out speedily and adeptly. The call handler is friendly, empathetic, and competent, immediately putting you at ease. They give you opportunities to ask questions, explain what you’re not sure of, and tell you what they will do to help. You come off the phone feeling lighter and less worried about your problem, now it is in someone else’s capable hands. Your stress levels decrease immediately.

Most of us have had experiences at both ends of this spectrum and can remember how differently we felt after each of them.

You can radically affect how stressed someone feels in quite a short space of time, depending on how you approach their issues and how you treat them.

You do not have to work in a call centre. The same principle works when supporting people in social or healthcare environments.

Make the most of those opportunities. Lessen their burden, instead of adding to it.

3. Anger is fear and a need to be heard

When someone in crisis appears angry, it is often fear in disguise.

Understanding this is key to being able to help someone whose stress comes across as anger.

If someone seems frustrated or angry, I stop talking and I listen. I let them do the talking.

After they get their initial rush of frustration out, most people begin to relax, especially if they aren’t coming up against resistance from you, and it is obvious that you are listening.

A calm, attentive reaction often takes people by surprise. They’ve most likely been expecting a battle, and you don’t let that happen.

You will notice their relief emerging as they begin to slow down, take some breaths & come to a calmer, more centred place. Sometimes people begin feel a bit embarrassed at their outburst, and they apologise. So many times, I have heard the words:

“I’m sorry, I know it’s not your fault – I’m just so stressed about it all and I don’t know what to do.”

At which point I say ‘it’s ok, I understand that this is very difficult for you/stressful for you’ or something similar.

People often just need to be heard and have their fears acknowledged. They need to be able to share the impact a situation is having upon them and have someone be a witness to that. They need to feel the emotions they are having are externally valid.

Anger is rarely about you as the helper: it is more about the person’s situation, and how afraid and out of control they feel because of it.

(N.B. I am not saying anyone should have to tolerate aggression. It is not okay for someone to be abusive. I have found that active listening, followed by focusing on joint problem-solving, is very effective in de-escalating anger. If it isn’t working, it is important to be assertive and possibly end the interaction if they are being aggressive towards you.)

4. People need allies

Someone in crisis who is reaching out for help longs to feel that they aren’t alone.

Being distressed and alone is something no one should have to experience.

Knowing that someone is helping to shoulder the weight of their problem (especially someone who has access to resources to help them fix it) can make a huge difference to how powerless someone feels.

It doesn’t mean that you should do all the work for them, or that you should step outside professional boundaries. Even simply ensuring the person has a positive and genuine interaction with you will help them feel less alone. Be a human.

Even if there’s little you are actually able to do for that person, just listening and acknowledging their frustrations is a wonderful way to be an ally.

5. Be reliable

This is one of the simplest, but also most powerful, of these principles.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to be reliable when you are working with someone in crisis.

It is likely that you represent a glimmer of hope for that person, so don’t just throw that away.

If you say you’ll do something, you must do it. If you forget easily, make a note, or put it in your calendar.

If you’re not able to do what you said you would, let them know. Get in touch and tell them that you’ll need a couple more days to find something out, or that you’re going to be trying something else instead.

Not doing something when you said you would (especially when someone is relying on you to help them), shows that person that they don’t really matter – even if that is not your intention.

Don’t just leave someone in limbo, wondering what’s happening. Call them. Get in touch and let them know.

It might feel easy to get lazy about these details, but don’t let that happen. It is that important.

If you can’t commit to an action or communication, it is probably best not to make or state those commitments in the first place.

6. Be honest

Don’t take the easy road and simply tell people what they want to hear, just to make your life easier. Honesty is everything – even if it means delivering less than satisfactory news.

People appreciate being told the truth.

Most people prefer news that isn’t what they want to hear to lies or vagueness given only to placate. This is otherwise known as ‘fobbing someone off’, and most of us know how that can feel.

7. Move people forward

A manager and trainer at Citizens’ Advice taught me this:

You may not be able to solve someone’s problems in one go, but you should aim to move them on a step further than when they came to you.

Openness, warmth, and a listening ear may be helpful in the moment, but you should also think about what you could give the person that they can take away with them.

It might be something tangible such as an information leaflet or a telephone number to call, but equally important are hope, the relief of a problem shared, the courage that comes from having an ally, or even some restored faith in humanity.

We can all think of times when we’ve walked away from an interaction feeling more hopeful, whether it was from a medical appointment or a call to the insurance company.

Think about how you want that person to feel when they put the phone down, or walk away from your office.

People feel better when they can see where they are going, or what steps to take next. It is like finally receiving a map to somewhere when you’ve been completely lost.

8. Everyone can benefit

We could probably all do with more customer service in our lives! You don’t have to be in an official ‘helper’ position.

I use these principles in my daily life to support others, even my partner, my parents, and my friends. I regularly ask myself:

“What can I do to help this person? How can we sort this situation out? Will letting them talk while I listen help? How can I help, in this moment, to take them from feeling stressed to feeling a bit better about things?”

9. Be human

I’m not suggesting by using customer service principles we should all become call-centre robots. Not at all. Good customer service is warm, supportive, and validating. Everyone is treated as an individual equally as important as the last, and everyone’s plight is as valid as the next.

Nurse, doctor, receptionist, call handler, or friend: any of us can make a difference to other people’s distress by thinking about how we interact with them, and what effect that might have on them. It doesn’t matter who you are or what position you hold, these principles apply to everyone.

It is about being a human being talking to another human being: the simplest things are often the most powerful!


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