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The Hill Life: The Caller

A former intern of mine, we’ll call her S, was just hired as the Staff Assistant in a Hill office.  She loves her job, loves her co-workers and is very happy that she decided to come back to the Hill after graduation.  There’s just one problem, she’s having some trouble adjusting to life answering the phones.

Congressional offices receive dozens, sometimes hundreds, of phone calls per day.  The majority of them are from constituents who simply want to express their opinion and have a message passed along to the Member.  However, some of the callers are disgruntled, rude and say things to Hill Staffers that they wouldn’t say to their worst enemy.  Sexual comments, curse words and even death threats, Hill staffers have heard it all.

When S was my intern, she was known for her genteel phone etiquette.  She was always professional, and I was consistently impressed by her ability to casually interact with callers.  However, she’s having some understandable difficulty dealing with the callers who yell, swear and argue ad nauseum because she is not a confrontational person by nature and doesn’t believe in hanging up on a constituent.  And now that she’s the Staff Asst. and not an intern, she is reticent to escalate calls to her supervisors unless absolutely necessary.

Any good Hill staffer wants to treat callers with respect and deference, but that can be difficult when they’re yelling at you and hurling accusations.  So I thought we might help S and all the brave souls who work the phones out. 

What are your best tips for dealing with difficult constituents or defusing tense situations?

LEAVE A COMMENT

    28 comments

  1. Lindsay W says:

    I have spent time answering phones on the Hill but the majority of my professional telephone experience came from a college job in a call center. It's just important to remember that when an angry person calls they are not upset at you. They're upset at any number of other things and you just happen to be the disembodied voice on the other end of the line. They'll say horrible things to you and about you but it isn't really you they're upset at.

    Always remain polite and curt and never raise your voice in return.

    November 30, -0001/Reply
  2. TMH says:

    I've interned for my federal congressman and some of the calls I answered were horrid. The only thing you can do is be gracious, listen to them, and take their information (if they'll give it) so that you can “try” to help them. One thing that always bugged me was how people would call, rant for ten minutes, tell me how useless I am as an intern, and then refuse to tell me their name. What did help was sharing war stories with the other staffers and being assured it wasn't just me ­čśë She probably doesn't want to hear this but it will get better, and she'll get cynical about it with time.

    May 30, 2012/Reply
  3. Anon says:

    Luckily I am not in a position that receives many calls. My coworkers have all picked phrases that are absolutely unoffensive and they use them whenever they really want to curse someone out. One coworkers says “God bless you”, another one says “you have a WONDERFUL day, now”.

    I don't know if that's a good thing. It seems to me that this can really turn someone into a passive aggressive person, but I haven't been in their situation and it seems helps them.

    May 30, 2012/Reply
  4. Aunt_Pete says:

    I call people out on their behavior. You don't have to be rude, but a simple: “please do not be discourteous to me, I am trying to help you” USUALLY calms someone down. If it doesn't I talk over them and hang up: “Thank you so much for the call I will certainly take your comments under advisement. Have a wonderful day, take care now, goodbye.”

    You just have to learn not to take it personally.

    May 30, 2012/Reply
  5. Amy says:

    I worked at the front desk of a children's museum, and you would not BELIEVE the way that people treated us at the desk: think what happens on the phones, but in person and, since you're manning the desk, in a place where you are trapped and can't get away. I usually let the visitors rant for awhile and then asked them to fill out a comment card with their info so that someone could get back to them later. And, surprise surprise, very few wanted to put down their contact details. If they kept going, I found that Aunt_Pete's tactic worked best, explaining that I'm hearing them and that I appreciate their concerns. Then I promptly forget about it as soon as they leave. That's the only way to stay sane!

    May 30, 2012/Reply
  6. N says:

    I worked in an office with a 1-2-3 policy that I carried with me to later offices. It went first strike, “Please sir/ma'am, stop cursing/yelling at me.” Second strike, “If you continue to curse/yell I will terminate the call.” Third strike “Sir/Ma'am, I am terminating the call.” It helped the more timid interns assert themselves while remaining polite.

    There's always the “I'm sorry but we have many other constituents on the line I have to assist”

    May 30, 2012/Reply
  7. BG says:

    I used to volunteer for the White House Correspondence Office and interned on the Hill where I encountered that all the time!! My main piece of advice is to listen and then with a smile on your face, because for some reason I always believe the person can hear the smile, politely say: “Thank you for your opinions/comments and I will pass them along to the Senator/Represenative.” That allows you the freedom to hang up, becuase you addressed their concerns and obligated yourself to pass their discontent along. Another thing, some people call to rant and rave for what can seem like FOREVER; I would consider employing a set time of like 3-5 minutes that you spend on calllers, because you do have to answer other calls as well. I would also suggest taking a break after the call, laugh it off, and get prepared to do the whole thing all over again.

    It gets tiring after a while but as the Staff Assistant and generally the representative of your office for the constituents that are calling, being polite and gracious is the ony thing you can do. It's a tough job, but someone's got to do it!

    May 30, 2012/Reply
  8. Jay says:

    I answered phones for two years as a Staff Asst. I

    – always told my interns that they were not interning to be abused by constituents or others, and that if they got angry callers they should “give them to a supervisor”… me. That sometimes placated the caller, and more importantly, protected my interns.

    – considered it entirely possible, and practical, to hang up on callers who 'ended the conversation' by becoming unresponsive, swearing egregriously, or making personal insults or threats without stopping. If they end the conversation, then it's not a problem for me to hang up. ( My supervisors were sympathetic with this, which helped!)

    – referred out-of-district callers to their Rep, willingly or unwillingly. Every person gets one Representative, no more, per the Constitution. It is not okay to yell at every single Member of Congress's staff when you get aangry about a political action Congress takes!

    – discovered it really helps to repeat the person's name, or “Ma'am. Ma'am. Ma'am” to stop people who get into screaming tears and won't stop to listen or respond. I usually would give them five repeats before I hung up.

    – asked, 'whatwould you like me to do for you?' when people were irate. Usually that gets them in a more helpful frame of mind.

    – went for a walk around the block when the hatefulness flew too fast and thick! (Think: healthcare reform, or the bailout. Ugh.)

    May 30, 2012/Reply
  9. Shannon says:

    I'm a receptionist, for an agency that fields a LOT of complaints, and I've had some doozies. People scream, people curse, people demand that as taxpayers they should be able to talk to whomever they want whenever they want, or they holler that I'm a waste of taxpayer dollars. (Tempting response: “I pay taxes, too! Trust me, I'm not going to waste my own money.”)

    You have to detach. It is not personal. You are simply, to them, the face of an evil swarming bureaucracy that does not give them what they want when they want it.

    I simply ramp up the niceness and good cheer. Once they realize they can't rattle me, they calm down and switch tacks. I also say sympathetic, but noncommital things like, “I can see why that would be frustrating,” “I'm sorry that happened, it sounds terrible,” and, “I'd just like to start by thanking you for bringing this issue to our attention.”

    I disagree on calling the person out on their rudeness, in my experience it escalates the conflict. It's better to redirect their attention, like a toddler. Redirect by focusing the caller on action, not the complaint. “How would you like us to work with you to resolve this issue?” I also connect them to the person they need, but I'm sure to manage expectations. “Mrs X is the best person to assist you, please note that she is in a meeting but responds to calls within 24 hours. Would you like her voicemail?”

    I also sometimes keep motivational post-its on my monitor. “They can hear you smile!,” “It is not personal,” “Most people mean well and are just upset,” and, “The technology does not yet exist to strangle your fellow humans over the telephone,” are all personal favorites.

    May 30, 2012/Reply
  10. BC says:

    Jay has some great advice. I've been on the hill going on six years and spent a year as a staff assistant. I still answer the phone if it keeps ringing. I think the thing that works best is to call out rude callers as just that – rude. I usually say, “Ma'am, you are being incredibly rude,” or “Sir, I believe you're being threatening,” or “I can't continue to talk to you if you're going to continue being incoherent.” It's not a bad thing to call someone out and if they're rational, most people will be embarrassed by their behavior and will tone it down. It's the ones that have no shame that are the worst and sometimes you have to just hang up on them.

    May 30, 2012/Reply
  11. B says:

    First, I always give my first name when I answer. “Senator/Congressman/Rep __________'s office, this is B. How can I help you?”. Humanize yourself to the caller, they should know they're talking to a real person, not a machine. If someone calls ready to go on a rant, I will interrupt a caller right off the bat and say sweetly: “Sir/Ma'am, thank you so much for calling today. Standard procedure in this office is that I need to take your name, address and phone number before we continue.” This will throw some people, immediately requiring that their name is tied to their comments may put them off saying anything too offensive. Some, of course, will blow your request off.

    When a caller starts to swear, I will use the “I'm trying to help you, there is no need for inappropriate language” line. If they continue to swear or make inappropriate comments, I will give them a warning: “I'm trying to help you and understand your viewpoint, but if you cannot speak to me without using vulgar language, I am going to end this call.” Whether or not you do hang up, people who think it's okay to treat anyone like that should be called out on their behavior.

    If someone wants to go on and on, ranting and raving, I will sometimes tell them, “You are making many very interesting points. To ensure that I've captured the spirit of this conversation, would you be willing to put your thoughts down in writing and submit them via email?”. This has saved me a few times from callers who would have otherwise tied me up on the phone for who knows how long.

    May 30, 2012/Reply
  12. S says:

    It is hard when you are the last stop after they have been shuffled through several other people. By then, they are already irate. I was in charge of policy at a Governor's office. So it was often the case that if I couldn't help, I had to deliver the “There just isn't much more that we can do on our end” line. However, my approach was to be understanding and saying, “Sir/Maam, I understand your frustration but I am just doing my job.” That usually gets people to stop and feel guilty. Then the line about getting their information and returning their call after doing some research usually addresses the issue.

    Oh, and always remember those calls or letters where your boss or your office acutally helped the person resolve their issue! Those serve as motivation when dealing with difficult constituents.

    May 30, 2012/Reply
  13. former intern says:

    Working in a major political organization's legal office, I got used to phone calls from wild conspiracies to threats to promised to have boxes of “evidence” sent to us to prove one member or another was involved in some sort of illegal dealings. Once I was even asked if I was gay (during a particularly heated debate on same sex marriage) and was told that if I didn't have a boyfriend I must be one of those “closet dykes” and the kind gentleman refused to speak to me. It's horrifying what people will say. My supervisor, however, was exceptionally kind and figured out I was not confrontational by nature after she realized I'd been on one phone call for 18 minutes (aliens have actually infiltrated the pentagon in case you were wondering what the call was about). She told me many of the things that were mentioned above, but also one which turned into my go-to excuse when more passive attempts didn't work. I, the lowly intern, suddenly had a packed schedule of meetings to go to whenever a phone call turned south with no chance of recovery. I would tell them, “Thank you so much for your input, if you'd like us to follow up may I take your contact information? I have a meeting I have to run to but we'll make sure to look into it.” It usually helped stem whatever ridiculous tirade they were going on about.

    May 30, 2012/Reply
  14. KWM says:

    My first job on the Hill was answering phone calls for a Member who was highly involved in the health care reform legislation. I would arrive at work at just before 9AM, and my ear would be attached to the phone until we forwarded the calls to voicemail at 6PM. I did this until after the election in 2010 when I got a new job and I learned A LOT about how to manage callers, but the foundation of all of my phone survival skills was to set the terms of the call myself.
    Think of it this way, if the constituent calls after hours, they only have like 2.5 minutes to leave a message, right? So you don't need to spend 10 minutes listening to someone ramble while you let other calls drop. Let the person make their main point, take their information, politely let them know you've got other calls, thank them, say goodbye. “Alright, ma'am, I've got your message and I'll make sure [Member] gets it. I've got a couple of other folks on hold though, but thank you so much for your call. Have a great day.” If they insist they need a ton of time to make their point, they're going to have to send a letter or an email. Or you can see if a staffer who handles their issue can talk with them.
    In the same way, you can't let someone treat you poorly. Don't allow someone to be rude to you — politely remind people who get belligerent that they may not do that to you. “Sir, I understand your frustration and I'll be glad to give your message to [Member], but please do not use that language/call me that/lower your voice…” Depending on your office policy, don't be afraid to just drop if it's clear all the person wants to do is yell at someone. Give them fair warning to change their behavior. If they don't, just hang up. You've got more important things to do. “Ma'am, if you continue to yell at me/call me that/use that language, I will have to let you go… Ma'am, as I said, please don't [insert behavior]… Alright, ma'am, I'm going to have to let you go, have a good day.”
    Obviously, you have to balance total politeness with having boundaries, but it can be done. Just remember, those calls only have control over you if YOU let them!

    May 30, 2012/Reply
  15. Red says:

    Excellent suggestions. One that hasn't been mentioned yet: reword and then repeat the complaint back to the customer/constituent. This doesn't work if they're totally crazy, but it worked for me almost every time with the “very angry but still rational” clients. Many people just want to feel heard and understood.

    May 30, 2012/Reply
  16. strin012 says:

    I would strongly suggest asking whomever her immediate supervisor is what the office protocol is (if she hasn't already). Knowing what the standard is will better allow her to develop her own style and learn what can/should be sent up the chain of command. I had a two-strike system. Callers got one polite and firm warning not to yell or swear (I would usually add, “or I will be forced to terminate this call”). That made it very clear that the ball was in their court and they would decide how the call went.

    Another favorite went like this, “Sir, I am more than happy to assist you or to pass along your concerns. However, I will not have you or anyone else swear at me. If it happens again, I will terminate the call. Now, how may I help you?” More often than not, I had them eating out of my hand, profusely apologizing, and behaving. You have to assume an air of someone who will not tolerate such behavior without being rude to the caller.

    In my opinion, interns, Staff Assistants, and maybe even LCs don't get paid nearly enough to have strangers call and swear at them on the phone. There is no reason junior staff should have to sit through a call in which they are insulted, sworn at, etc. Someone should start a support group for folks on the Hill who have to answer phones. Bless their hearts.

    May 30, 2012/Reply
  17. Heatherskib says:

    #1- 3 strike rule
    #2″ I understnad that you are considerably upset, however I am having a difficult time understanding you at the moment. If you would like to take a moment to compose yourself and call me back my direct line/extension is #######

    May 30, 2012/Reply
  18. Rachel says:

    I was a Staff Assistant/Front Desk Receptionist for a Senator for my first year in DC. I was abused verbally every other day, and called horrible things (baby-killer, racial slurs, comments about sexual orientation, etc), which used to really get under my skin in the beginning. The best way to handle it is to ALWAYS keep an even tone of voice, and say things like, “Ma'am I am having a hard time understanding you, perhaps it would be best if you could call back at another time when you are less upset.” In my experience, acting as cool as a cucumber pisses them off even more, but they can't accuse you of being rude. Worked like a charm.

    And I agree with the other comments, hang up when the abuse gets seriously out of hand. If the caller gave you his his/her name, be sure to let your database coordinator know so they can flag the caller as “abusive” or whatever system your office has in place to track constituents. If your caller identifies themselves as out of your Member's district, be sure you have the Senate/House extension list so you can transfer them to their actual Member of Congress. I can't tell you how many irate people called up my boss's office because they were going through the Senate alphabetically. His name was sadly at the front end of the alphabet so we got a LOT of calls from all over the place.

    Additionally, my Chief of Staff made it clear that he had my back if I needed to hang up on someone. He also told me he would personally accept an abusive call if he was available and make it clear to the caller that they were no longer welcome to call the office. Great guy.

    Keep your chin up and remember that these people don't know you, and you probably don't want to know them! Additionally, for every horrible call I received, I also helped a lot of constituents with real problems by connecting them to the right case worker, or making sure their flag was flown over the Capitol for a veteran, or arranging a Capitol tour. There is a lot more satisfaction to answering the phones than abuse!

    May 30, 2012/Reply
  19. Ellen says:

    @ Heatherskib: I NEVER give out my direct line to irate callers because chances are those irate callers will pass it along to their friends who also have unkind words for me. I did not have that happen during my time on the Hill, but I currently work for a state agency and my phone number had to be changed after an assistant gave my direct number to a disgruntled caller and I was suddenly getting hundreds of calls a day from a couple of disgruntled groups.

    May 30, 2012/Reply
  20. YellowRose says:

    I would like to echo strin012 – especially if you are an intern reading this – PLEASE check with your supervisor before employing some of these techniques.

    I agree that it is never acceptable to have someone verbally abuse you on the phone – some of these suggestions would not fly in some of the places I have worked. I'm not saying any of this is bad advice – but each office has different protocol for how to deal with the phones and difficult callers. For example – many of the supervisors I have had would have sat me down and had a serious discussion if I had ever hung up on someone.

    May 30, 2012/Reply
  21. a.s. says:

    I haven't worked on the Hill, but my boyfriend does and I was reminded of one situation he was involved in when he was an SA a while back.

    If the call is explicitly threatening, the call should be documented and escalated. He worked for a well-known, long standing Senator and received a number of “I'm going to X” or “Senator Y should be careful because I will Z.” While 99% of the time these are simply people acting in an unbecoming manner, they're still considered LEGALLY to be a threat and can be prosecuted as such.

    My BF was instructed to remind the caller that threatening language was illegal and would be investigated if they continued (regardless of if this was the case or not). And that certainly got a lot of people to reevaluate their tone. May be worth checking with office policy on when this type of response can be used.

    May 30, 2012/Reply
  22. Capitol Hill Barbie says:

    I worked at a federal agency that handled some hot button issues for several years and was the second stop for phone calls that the receptionist couldn't or didn't want to handle. My main advice is to let them talk, because sometimes they do have a legit complaint that is just buried under a whole lot of anger. Once they actually finish ranting, you can actually help them. However, I also got a whole lot of crazy thrown my way. I usually just tried to be sympathetic and told them our policy on the issue if I knew it and otherwise I directed them to our website to file a complaint.

    One thing I will point out as an Executive Branch employee is that sometimes the angry caller is a staffer, and let's just say this: just because you got yelled at by a constituent and you work for Congress, you don't have the right to call and curse anyone out either.

    May 30, 2012/Reply
  23. Sara says:

    I find the book Verbal Judo to be a great resource for how to work with people in tense situations. I highly recommend it.

    May 30, 2012/Reply
  24. anonymous, but regular, reader says:

    I used to keep my latest fashion magazines in my desk drawer. The constituent calls to rant, and they're allowed to do that, and as long as I could get the gist, I felt free to flip a few pages and think about what I might want to wear or look like if I were in a different world for that moment.

    Also, the key to making it sound like you were inadvertently cut off, after an appropriate amount of time listening to the rant, is to disconnect yourself when you are in the middle of a sentence. As in, “Thank you very much for your call. I'm sure Member X will be…” and that's when you hit disconnect.

    May 31, 2012/Reply
  25. EK says:

    1. Make sure you're clear on your office policy regarding the worst callers. That could mean hanging up, transferring to the Chief of Staff, or even passing a tricky policy situation on to an LA or LC. Don't try to field 100% of the calls by yourself. If hanging up is permitted, use it when you need to. Some conversations are no longer constructive, and even the most even-tempered SA can't turn around every bad call.

    2. Taking a walk saved me from blowing up at a constituent more times than I can count. Move yourself physically away from your desk, even for just a few minutes, and work on calming yourself down after a particularly negative call.

    3. The suggestions above are great for people who are swearing at you, but for the times in between, I recommend “I'm sorry you feel that way.” I used that for a wide range of complaints, from “I think your boss stole the election” to “I think your boss is a drug smuggler.” It acknowledges their emotion without agreeing or offering an opinion on the subject matter.

    4. Don't forget about the people who aren't angry, just lonely. Frequent callers sometimes attach themselves to an office because they want someone to talk to. If you make a “friend” like this, set boundaries: “Mrs. Smith, you know we're very busy here, so I only have a few minutes to talk before I need to help other constituents.”

    5. When you're tempted to argue back or give a snappy response, remember that some people will try to record you, blog about you, or otherwise publish what you say. No momentary gratification is worth having your name on the Internet and jeopardizing your job. We've all been there, but stay neutral, even if you have to just say “go on” when you'd rather spout off CBO statistics.

    May 31, 2012/Reply
  26. Deborah says:

    Most of my suggestions have already been mentioned but having also helped man the phones during health reform, I will definitely say that sharing war stories really does help. I also know that the Capitol Police does a training session for how to handle abusive callers and they heavily emphasize that most of the abuse we're willing to take is more than we should. It's hard to hear that you're allowed to hang up on people when they're being abusive because we're all trained to keep the constituents happy but we're paid to do a job and that job doesn't involve abuse. Tell her that she really is allowed to end the call and perhaps take a stretch break if she needs to get away for a moment because the voicemail (or another staffer who can cover for 10 minutes) will be there.

    May 31, 2012/Reply
  27. GoGoGo says:

    I agree with all the folks above that preserving your own sanity and dignity needs to take priority when talking to tough customers.

    One thing I would add is, don't let the abusive callers rob you of actual opportunities for engaging with constituents.

    After a bunch of people have called just to berate somebody, it's easy to jump in with a defensive “Sir…” two sentences in every call. But as many unpleasant characters as there are out there, there are also callers who have a bone to pick, but are genuinely interested in expressing a point and engaging on it.

    “I hear you. I'm really glad you called. You know, the Congresswoman has decided to oppose this particular bill, but I know she's also been really frustrated about this problem that you're raising and that's why she's working on this other thing to address it…”

    Always check with the boss first about the rules of the road for your office.

    June 1, 2012/Reply
  28. Sarack says:

    CREATE A WARNING SYSTEM

    On The Hill my supervisor made it clear we were not to take any bad or abusive language and that the Chief of Staff had our back to hang-up whenever necessary. However, that in and of itself did not simply flip a switch that enabled me to hang up on people so, I created a warning system for the caller.

    After hearing foul language more than once or dealing with a verbal abuse for a period of time, I would give them a warning, something like:

    “While I am happy to pass along you concerns if you continue with such rude behavior, I will have to hang up.”

    Most likely, they won't change their tone. I would then tell them that since they could not follow my basic request, that

    “I'm sorry, but since you are not controlling your language/tone I am now hanging up” and ended saying “Thank you for your call. Have a nice day” even if they were continuing on.

    Also – if the person calls back multiple times after being hung up on, they might be able to be forwarded to Cap Pol. for harassing the office. Usually get a supervisor to ok this action after the staff assistant explains the circumstances.

    June 4, 2012/Reply