BAD Customer Service is a CPTSD Trigger

When I think about my five biggest triggers for trauma reactions – things like feeling trapped, humiliated, or having an angry outburst – one of them is definitely BAD customer service.

It’s one thing when it’s a restaurant or retail shop where you have the option of never going again. But when it’s your mobile phone carrier, your gas & electric company, your bank, or your health plan, you’re stuck… If the customer service worker who takes your call treats you in a way that’s unfair – or that humiliates you in front of other customers – that can be a huge trigger for Complex PTSD symptoms.

Have you ever really lost your cool in those situations? Whether you are the customer or the customer service worker – if one person tips over into emotional dysregulation or says something unkind, it’s really common for the other person to get “tipped over” too. It’s not uncommon that people who work in customer service have themselves lived through trauma.

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After a negative interaction, both the customer and the worker might spend the next several hours in a dysregulated state. Both people’s families will likely find them stressed at the end of the day. You can see how the ripple effect of one bad interaction can go on and on.

But if one of those people can turn around a bad interaction – or prevent it, or have a really positive customer service interaction – that also has a ripple effect on all the lives it touches.

And that’s what I want to talk about – not just how bad customer service triggers CPTSD but how GOOD customer service can be a path of healing and joy, even when you’re just buying groceries. Even in jobs that are considered menial. It doesn’t always happen but there are things you can do to tip it in the right direction. 

Why do I know this? Some years ago I used to be a customer service consultant. I taught people how to transform customer service, at the system level and at the level of one-on-one interactions. I loved this work. 

Before I ever made YouTube videos, and before I even knew the word for CPTSD, I was teaching teams and individuals some of the same principles I teach on this channel, about calming your triggers, staying focused on the positive outcome you want, and finding joy in connecting with people wherever you might find them. 

I was teaching this to corporations, non-profits, and government agencies. They’d bring me in to lead a half-day workshop with a clinic team or a phone support department. Usually, it was a group of workers who had been getting a lot of complaints from customers. They were often in systems that generated a lot of frustration and disappointment in customers, and they hadn’t always received sufficient training to handle the complexity of customer needs. They were usually feeling blamed, tired, powerless to improve their work situation, and resentful at me for being one more person (they thought) who would tell them what they were doing wrong. 

So I’d start by asking people if they’d had a bad customer service experience recently and invited anyone who wanted to, to tell us about it. Within ten seconds, the first hand went up – then another hand, and another and another. Everyone has been hurt as a customer before. 

The stories came out, the emotions came out – people were laughing and even crying. They were talking about ways that bad customer service had hurt them and humiliated them and affected every part of their life – their health, their families and their sense of confidence. This was true not only when they were the customer in bad interactions – but when they were the worker who was (maybe also) part of creating that bad interaction. 

Bad customer service hurts both people, even when it’s caused by just one of the people, the worker or the customer. Next, I’d ask my students if they’d had any good customer experiences lately, and how that affected them. They begin to tell amazing stories of kindness, unexpected generosity, and lives changed. Then there’d be tears, and agreement that these good experiences had the power to make their whole day happy. Then I’d ask them, “To have that good feeling again, would it be worth practicing how you can deliver that good customer experience – not just for the customer, but for yourself?” And everybody had this beautiful aha moment: customer service interactions are an opportunity to show others love and kindness – not just because a job requires it, but because we find happiness in doing so. We can give that to each other at the post office, on the phone with the electric company, at the front desk of your doctor’s office, and yes, even with mobile phone service providers (yes, even them!). I still sometimes have a hard time staying regulated in customer service interactions. I have a history of trauma already and that can make me feel triggered when I get treated like I’m dumb or “difficult.” When I’m trying to get a problem solved and they’re “ma’am”-ing me (saying, “Ma’am, you’re going to have to calm down”) then I really can’t calm down. 

Not being able to calm down, by the way, is often a symptom of a state of dysregulation. This is a trauma thing. It’s a neurological state that can make you feel numb or over-reactive, spaced out or frantic, discombobulated or to ready to run away. (If you think you might get dysregulated, you can take my Dysregulation Quiz here). 

Staying regulated is especially hard in customer service situations where things are going wrong, especially when you have no choice but to get what you need through the customer service worker. 

For example, the person who puts you on hold for 45 minutes and then disconnects your call… The health care front desk worker who makes you say why you’re visiting the doctor right in front of 20 people in the waiting room… The government office that requires you to wait for four hours in a dirty room to even find out that you didn’t bring the right paperwork… The manager who comes out and tells you again and again, “Ma’am, calm down.” (I really don’t like that one!). 

These experiences can feel demeaning, infuriating, unjust… and they can tap into deep parts of your old trauma – stuff you can’t even connect to a specific experience in the past but now it comes out like lava inside. It’s a feeling of overwhelm, a need to get out of there, or an expression of anger that flies out of your mouth and scares people. You might see that in their faces and flood with shame, and then get more dysregulated. These are CPTSD reactions. And yes, they can be triggered by bad customer service. I know a lot of you are reading this and nodding your heads right now, thinking about some doozies of bad customer service you’ve had happen to you. And a lot of you are nodding because you’ve been a service worker, or you are right now, and you’re going through this at work. 

It works both ways: part of what is happening in a bad customer service interaction is that the people working in those roles can also feel threatened by the customer’s power. You may not feel like you have power as a customer, but the people who take jobs in customer service, because of factors they can’t always control, might also feel helpless in those situations. 

In some organizations, these folks are encountering frustrated customers and getting yelled at all day (have you ever had a job like that?). They also have a high probability of coming from a history of trauma. If you answer phones all day from angry customers, you almost have to have superpowers of dissociation that would allow you to tolerate that kind of interaction. It’s horrible getting hung up on, screamed at, or threatened that the customer is calling the manager and demanding that you be fired. 

In spite of all this, most customer service interactions are pretty good. We can be grateful for that. But when it’s bad, it’s so bad. If you have CPTSD, a bad interaction can trigger dysregulation in you that lasts for days. It can hold you back and keep you down professionally and as a person. So many people are carrying this level of trauma, and when one person’s trauma gets set off, it easily spreads to the other person, and then another, and another. 

We are more connected than we realize sometimes. For better or for worse, our nervous systems, our hearts, and our emotions can be so tender.  So we protect ourselves. We fight. That’s why customer service interactions can be a horrible mosh pit of aggression. They can also provide opportunities for extraordinary human kindness and connection. It sometimes only takes one person – it could be the worker, or it could be the customer – to turn it around. 

And it’s worth being that person. Why? Because even when you’re at work at a job that’s not so great… this is a day in your life. No matter how trivial the task at hand is, there can be meaning in it, because of the other person who is there with you. 

Here are my five tips for workers, followed by five tips for customers.

For Workers

  1. Make a Welcoming Statement – It’s normally your role to acknowledge that a person has walked in the door or called you. So instead of saying, “Dr. Smith’s office, this is Wanda– what’s your ID number?” You can say, “Hello! Thank you so much for holding. My name is Wanda and I’m the front desk coordinator here. May I ask your name?”  Yes, that took a few seconds longer than a perfunctory greeting, but it puts the interaction on a more personal footing. When people recognize they are talking to a fellow human – someone who could be their sister or their son or their friend – they’re more likely to feel safe, and to feel a responsibility to treat you kindly.
  2. Use Friendly Words and Tone of Voice – This isn’t rocket science but it’s a simple step you always want to follow. A flat, “Hi. How can I help you.” sounds different than a friendly “Hi! How can I help you?”  It sounds obvious, but if you use friendly words and tone of voice every time, the whole interaction can go in a completely different direction than it might have – and that’s what you want. Good, friendly, connected interactions make workdays feel like real experiences that are part of your life too.
  3. Demonstrate Empathy – If a customer says, “Hi. I was trying to get there for my 9:00 appointment today but I’m really sorry, my car won’t start and now I’m running late.” Your automatic response might be, “OK, what time will you be here?” But that’s glossing over what a person just told you.  Problems are often why customer service calls and visits are initiated. You can improve the interaction by acknowledging the problems that are mentioned. So when your customer says their car won’t start and they’ll be late for their appointment, you can first demonstrate empathy, and say something like, “Oh no! That must be so stressful! OK… let’s figure out what we can do to make sure you still get seen today. Do you have a sense yet of how soon you can get here?”  Sounds better, right?
  4. Put Things in the Positive – The fourth tip for workers is to frame situations as positively as you can (without misleading). So, if that caller says, “I’m waiting for roadside assistance, and they said they’d be here at 9:15 so I think I’ll be able to get there at 10:00 or so.” Your first reaction might be to say “Ten? No, we won’t have any appointments then. We’re completely full.”  But even if you don’t have any appointments, you can put things in the positive and say, “Hmmm. It might be hard to fit you in at 10:00, but I’ll tell you what we can do. If it works for you, we can reschedule you the day after tomorrow.”The answer was still no, but it was described in such a nice way – i.e., “I’ll tell you what we can do.” A hard no, on the other hand, can set off old feelings of helplessness and neglect. Putting things in the positive can help people feel like they have someone on their side (because they do!).
  5. Offer Options – A big trigger for people with CPTSD is feeling trapped without having any choice. These emotions and triggers aren’t happening consciously. They’re happening because of years and lifetimes of experiences being helpless and powerless. So the fifth tip is to offer options. When your patient says, “I can get there at 10,” you can say,“We don’t have any slots at 10:00, but we can reschedule you tomorrow – or – if you like, I can call you today if a slot opens up.”  Notice how the answer is still, “You’ll have to reschedule,” but how they’ll do it is now a choice. That helps them know that they’re respected, that they have a say in this, and that you care about them.

For Customers

If you’re the patient or customer in a customer service interaction, here are five tips to help you have a positive interaction, and to get the results you need (i.e., your problem gets solved).

  1. Don’t Jump Directly to Your Question or Complaint – It’s natural to begin by saying why you’re seeking customer service help – for example “Yes, I bought this flashlight here yesterday and it doesn’t work.” Sometimes that’s fine, but it can sound abrupt and challenging to a stressed worker. To avoid a negative tone, you can begin your interaction by making eye contact and smiling at the worker who will be helping you. Greet them; this helps create a connection as two people. Then you can tell them why you’re there.
  2. Use Friendliness – Just like I told the workers in their five tips, your second tip is to use friendly words and a friendly tone of voice. Friendliness is something we all need, and it’s more likely to elicit empathy and cooperation from the person working with you.
  3. Explain the Problem or Complaint Simply and Clearly – Speak in a way that makes it easy for others to understand the issue quickly – no long stories, no blame. Even if the broken flashlight created a problem for you, you don’t actually need detail that.
  4. Demonstrate Empathy – When a customer has a complaint, especially when the worker is hurried, it can be stressful for both parties. This is doubly true if the worker is accustomed to getting a hard time from customers. If you trigger their fear or defensiveness, there’s a greater risk they’ll be hard on you, and the whole exchange can escalate to a bad interaction. The solution is to stay kind and calm. Give the worker and the store the benefit of the doubt. Let them know the resolution you’d like. In this case, let’s say you want a replacement flashlight (see fifth tip).
  5. Interact With Patience –Let’s say they’ve run out of flashlights. It’s tempting in those moments to let them know you’re irritated that you’re being inconvenienced, but remember that these interactions are part of your life, and anyway, they don’t actually have any more flashlights! The best thing that can happen is you get your refund and go somewhere else. Treat the people here in this interaction with patience, kindness, and goodwill. It’s good to have those strengths with you, ready for anything.


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