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Email – aggressive clients

Posted by Michael Bloch in ecommerce (Tuesday December 27, 2005 )

It never ceases to amaze me how many people believe the relative anonymity of email allows them to be rude in their communications. If you’re involved with the customer service aspect of ecommerce, no doubt you’ll know what I mean.

I’m not referring to clients who express frustration in an acceptable way or those people for whom English is a second language. In the case of ESL situations, conveying concepts can be quite difficult and sometimes appear to be rude, even if that wasn’t the intention.

Frustration can also be well warranted on occasion and it’s a way for people to let a merchant know that they are at the end of their rope and an issue needs closer attention.

What I’m referring to are unsubstantiated insults and the inevitable “I’ll report you to (insert real or imagined authority here) and I will sue you” type of emails. I’ve had people threaten to sue me for a $2 purchase they managed to screw up.

No matter how top notch your online business is, you will no doubt strike these people from time to time. Sometimes it’s just a part of their personality, at other times it’s because of life events not even related to your company that makes them nasty. Email has the right level of anonymity for them to focus their anger on you.

We live in a world of facades and the online world has only strengthened that. The facade in this case can be on both sides. For example:

a) Ranting client makes out that he’s well connected, is probably 7 feet tall and is good with firearms, when in fact he’s probably built like me and his only friends are the imaginary elves dancing on his keyboard, which by the way belongs to his parents.

b) Merchant makes out that he’s terribly concerned and upset that the client is so frustrated when really what he’d like to do is snap the clients’ arm off and hit him with the wet end.

OK, it’s somewhat of an exaggeration, but you get the idea :). Just in relation to point a) – I’ve tested this theory out once. I had one particularly vile little gnome continually harassing me via email. So I turned up on his doorstep one day to sort things out in a civil manner. The fear in his eyes when I said who I was makes me laugh to this day. It’s especially funny if you’ve ever met me – I’m not particularly threatening. Needless to say, the conversation went very well and I was never bothered by him again.

Of course, this strategy is rather time consuming.

I think the days of the “client is always right” are well behind us now. I prefer to work on the premise of “the customer may be right”. That is, before I respond, I try to research an issue thoroughly to determine if there is a valid reason behind their angst. If there is validity, then that’s a whole different ball game, but clients should *never* be permitted to hurl insults or make unnecessary threats. Each time you let a client get away with this, it just reinforces that behavior as a means of getting their own way.

In many cases, unreasonable clients are that way as they’ve been burned before. Sure, there are many unscrupulous online merchants out there, but I’ll be damned if I’m the one who pays for a consumers’ inability to discern a legitimate online business from a scam.

I’m not anti-customer service or anti-conflict resolution in the slightest. In fact, many people who know me well compliment me on my diplomacy and my willingness to resolve conflict :). I assure you, the diplomacy is all external at times. I go internally bezerk when dealing with some of these twits.

The temptation is always to stoop to the same level as the client. For example, I’ve always wanted to say things back like:

“yes, that may all be true, but I bet you have a small…”


“The Better Business Bureau? They are a subsidiary of our company..”


“Here’s the number for the FBI, they’ve been chasing us for years.. I think there may also be a reward; I tell you what, let’s split it 50/50”

even just the classic…

“Oh, why don’t you just f#$$# off!”

Of course, I never say these things, but the fantasy is nice while I’m tapping out my “Dear Sir,” responses.

Actually, it’s really important not to stoop to the same level as the ranting client as that only irritates things further. If you’re angry, step back from the situation for a while if you can and then respond. People also have a habit of selective quoting – remember whatever you write in an email can be easily forwarded on.

For a more in-depth article with tips and advice for handling ornery consumers, read my guide to dealing with aggressive online clients. There’s even a sample response email in the article you can use ;).

Have any humorous “ranting client” stories? Post them here, I’d love to hear them. That way, the next time I’m dealing with a bad situation, I can come back and read your stories to put a smile back on my dial before responding :).


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