You Win, I Win: How Being Assertive Can Take Your Customer Service Game to the Next Level

November 17th, 2017 | Isabella Steele | Customer Service
You Win, I Win: How Being Assertive Can Take Your Customer Service Game to the Next Level


Imagine that you’re in a situation where you are chatting with someone – maybe a customer, a friend, a relative, or a boss – and the air is getting tense. Your discussion escalates, and that person who you were once having a civil conversation with is raising their voice to you, and displaying signs of aggression. How do you react?

If you are like most people, you may display one of two predictable behaviors: fight, or flight. This is because when confronted with aggressive behavior, we tend to either react aggressively back, or retreat towards passiveness. These behaviors worked wonderfully for prehistoric human beings who were confronted with a physical threat like an angry grizzly bear. Unfortunately, that same reaction doesn’t tend to serve us well in modern business environments.

This is why we need another option; the so-to-speak road less traveled that will help strengthen –not weaken – your business relationships, personal relationships, and your relationship with yourself. You could be assertive.

Why should assertiveness matter in customer service? And how do you achieve it? These are some of the questions that we will answer in this blog post.

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What is Assertiveness?

Assertiveness is a learned communication skill that is based on balance. It involves being direct about what it is that you want, need, and feel, while considering what the other party wants, needs, and feels as well.

Sounds great, right? If that’s all there is to it, then why aren’t more people assertive? Because of our prehistoric wiring for survival, it is hard for many people to break away from the flight-or-flight behavioral model – that’s why it’s important to rely on solid tips and tactics to overcome this tendency. Other people stray away from assertiveness believing that it is synonymous with aggression. If the thought of being assertive sounds unappealing, or has a bad rap in your mind, it helps to think of assertiveness as being a happy medium in the middle of a scale between passiveness and aggression.

To know what exactly that happy medium is, let’s first recap what it means to be aggressive as opposed to being passive. Management and leadership training program, MindTools, defines aggressive behavior as follows: “Aggressive behavior is based on winning. It requires that you do what is in your own best interest without regard for the rights, needs, feelings or desires of others. When you are aggressive, you take what you want regardless, and you don’t usually ask.”

On the other hand, passive behavior is based on not wanting to hurt or agitate others. It involves a degree of foregoing of your own rights or self-interest for the sake of someone else, or out of fear of escalating a situation. As much as this option may seem harmless, it can create feelings of self-betrayal and resentment of the other person that can also be damaging to relationships. In business, not speaking up about what you think or how you feel means that your voice will go unheard, which can hinder overall team progress when you have valuable and worthwhile contributions that you are not sharing.

When you are assertive you are neither the doormat nor the bulldozer. According to MindTools, assertive people have the following advantages:

  • Get to “win-win” more easily – They see the value in their opponent and in his or her position, and can quickly find common ground.
  • Are better problem solvers – They feel empowered to do whatever it takes to find the best solution.
  • Are less stressed – They know they have personal power and they don’t feel threatened or victimized when things don’t go as planned or expected.
  • Are doers – They get things done because they know they can.

How to Prep Your Assertive Side

  1. Cultivate Self Respect

    The first step to achieving assertiveness is to respect yourself. If you don’t respect yourself, then you are prone to being more affected by rude customers. Self-respect involves a few things, including the following:

    • Having pride in oneself – Be proud of your capacities and achievements!
    • Knowing oneself – This includes knowing your limits; what you will put up with and what you won’t.
    • Having self-confidence – Meaning trusting in your abilities to get the job done.
    • Caring for yourself – Such as by treating yourself with kindness and avoiding behaviors or patterns that will make you feel badly.

    When you don’t respect yourself, you run the risk of falling into passive behaviors. Be aware that self-respect is not the same as arrogance; it means knowing who you are and what you value, and living in a way that is true to that. Note that if you are in a transitionary phase in your life and are unsure of who you are and what you value, you can still respect your process of discovery!

  2. Cultivate Respect for Others

    The second step to achieving assertiveness is to respect others. In customer service, if you don’t respect your customers, then you are never going to succeed at truly connecting with them and finding the best solution to their problems. Your customers, colleagues, boss, etc. also aren’t going to respect you if you don’t respect them.

    Respecting other people involves the following:

    • Listening to the other person
    • Being considerate
    • Being polite
    • Avoiding judgement
    • Avoiding an emotional response
    • Encouraging the other person
    • Reaching out/offering help
    • Respecting the other person’s abilities
    • Being sincere

    When you don’t respect others, you run the risk of falling into aggressive behaviors. Respecting others will have immediate rewards in both your personal and professional relationships, and is the next step on the path towards reaching assertiveness.

  3. Find Your Balance

    There are a few theories that might give you some more insight into the balance that assertiveness strikes:

    Parent Adult Child Model

    Eric Berne’s Parent Adult Child Model says that when we relate to another person, we’ll always take one of 3 positions, the role of the parent (aggressive), the adult (assertive), or the child (passive).

    If you see you’re taking a parent role with your customers, you might find yourself being critical, trying to guide their behavior, and acting in a way that is true to the more aggressive end of scale. In this case, your customer (or whomever else you take this role with) might be using childlike behaviors, such as being blasé, dependent, emotional, or playing the victim. Alternately, the roles could be reversed, and a bossy customer might play the role of the parent, in which case you might fall into the role of the child.

    The thing about the parent and child roles is that they each tend to feed into the behavior of the other, which makes things worse. This is why acting as the adult is so important. When you act as the adult, you can view situations objectively, with understanding, and not be judgmental. As the adult, you don’t feed into either the parent’s behavior, or the child’s – instead you begin to empower each to fall out of their respective roles, and behave as the adult as well. You can see this in action when you act as the adult by treating a screaming customer respectfully and with understanding, and as a result, they slowly begin to calm down, and eventually may even match your level of voice.

    Yin and Yang

    Another way to illustrate the equilibrium that is assertiveness is through the Eastern philosophy of Yin and Yang. Yin and Yang speaks of a masculine and a feminine energy that exist within everyone. In order for a person to have a happy, healthy, and productive life, both energies must be in balance.

    Yang refers to a masculine energy, which is associated with the following:

    • Positive traits: confidence, action, discipline, firmness.
    • Negative traits: dominance, forcefulness, aggression.

    Yin refers to a feminine energy, which is associated with the following:

    • Positive traits: compassion, nurturing, understanding, listening
    • Negative traits: emotional, apprehensive, passive

    As you can see, both Yin and Yang have their positive and negative qualities. Being aggressive is a negative Yang trait, and being passive is a negative Yin trait.

    According to Eastern philosophy, if you find yourself falling into a negative Yang trait, such as aggression, you can remedy it with a positive Yin trait, and vice versa. For example, you can remedy aggression by applying listening and compassion. And you can remedy passiveness by applying confidence and action. Both “fixes” are recipes for assertiveness, and you can use them to remedy passive or aggressive behaviors in yourself and in others.

    Identifying Aggressive/Passive Customers

    A Run-In With An Aggressive Customer

    If you meet the following behavior, chances are you are dealing with an aggressive customer:

    • Blatant or disguised verbal hostility – Aggression can come in the form of subtle verbal hostility such as sarcasm, criticism, thinly veiled antagonistic jokes, or it can be more obvious, like belligerent name calling and cursing. Example:
      • “Yeah, whatever, take your time. I’ve waited long enough already.”
      • “Why can’t you people just do your f*****g job??”
    • Interrupting or taking over the call or live chat – Aggressive customers often don’t want to listen, and may hijack the call or live chat. Example:

      Agent: “So according to our system it looks like your order should arrive by tomorrow. If it doesn’t–”

      Customer: “You know what, hang on one second. Let me straighten some things out. I bought this product because the shipping time was supposed to be 5 business days, not 7!”

    • An agitated or angry tone – This could be in the form of bitter groans, “ugh’s,” curtness, explosive bursts, or just straight up yelling. Example:
      • “What don’t you understand???? YOUR SERVICE WAS AWFUL AND I WANT A REFUND!!!”
    • Threats – If your customer is threatening to move their business elsewhere, have you fired, or sue the company, they’re being aggressive. Example:
      • “How dare you talk to me like that?? Do you know who I am? I want to speak with your manager. You are going to regret using that tone with me!!”
    A Run-In With A Passive Customer

    Passiveness can sometimes be harder to identify than aggression. These are some of the signs that you have a passive customer on your hands:

    • Hesitation to speak up – If your customer seems like he or she is going to speak up, and then doesn’t, that customer is probably behaving passively. This might include starting and stopping sentences, saying “never mind,” and so on. Example:
      • “I just wa–… I wanted… Aghh, nevermind.”
    • Soft or mumbled speaking. Example:
      • “I thought I… *unclear muttering*… and then I got this.”
    • Unclear or uncertain answers – If your customer is not being clear or direct with his or her answers, chances are he or she is being passive. Language like “I think that’ll be okay…” or, “I guess so…” can show there’s issues under the surface that the customer isn’t sharing. Example:

      Agent: “Okay, great! Shall I go ahead and place the order for you?”

      Customer: “I mean… I guess so.”

    • Sad, frustrated, or resigned tone – Being passive isn’t a great feeling. If your customers are stuck in this role, it is possible that after a while they’ll feel frustrated or saddened by not being able to better assert their wants. Example:
      • “I just…ugh, never mind. I’m going to have to think about it and call back later.”

    How to Practice Assertiveness with Customers

    Being Assertive With An Aggressive Customer

    If a customer is being aggressive, it is important to not get angry or be aggressive back. It is also important to not roll over, and let the aggressive customer run the show. Here are some of the many ways that you can practice being assertive with an aggressive customer:

    • Be kind, but firm – Just because you’re being kind to a customer doesn’t mean you’re a pushover. By coupling compassion with resoluteness you’ll be able to withstand the storm of even the angriest customer.
    • Be confident – Confidence is best used with a customer as a silent force; don’t use it as an attack tool or throw it in your aggressive customer’s face. By bringing confidence to the table, you won’t let your aggressive customer push you down.
    • Don’t let the customer hijack the conversation – It’s okay to let your aggressive customers speak, but don’t let them hijack the conversation. You can avoid this by asserting yourself verbally. If a customer is ranting about something, calmly assert yourself to redirect the conversation. For example, you could say: “excuse me sir… Sir. I would be happy to help you with this problem, but I’m going to have to ask you to answer a few questions so that we can reach a quick and effective solution.”
    • Do your best to stay calm and collected – Losing your cool on an aggressive customer is a recipe for disaster. By staying calm and composed, your customer will slowly run out of steam.
    • Watch your tone – A customer will notice an aggressive or challenging tone and use it to fuel their aggression. By watching your tone, you can keep from escalating an issue.
    • Listen – To show active listening and get to a solution fast, listen and ask questions if and when appropriate.
    • Imagine you’re at the same level as the customer – By relating to your aggressive customer, you will be able to more easily treat him or her with compassion and resect.
    • Don’t take abuse, and transfer to a manager if and when necessary – It’s okay to say sorry to an aggressive customer, and use whatever tricks you have up your sleeve to try and placate him or her. But if a customer is berating you excessively, it is important to have self respect, and know when to get the call off of your hands. This might involve escalating the call, live chat, or email to a supervisor, or even knowing when to get backup from your supervisor when making the decision to not serve this given customer again.

    Here’s an example of a scenario with an aggressive customer, and how you might respond:

    Agent: “Hello, thank you for contacting WeddingPhoto! How can I help you today?”

    Customer: “Uh, I had booked a photographer from your company to photograph my daughter’s wedding. The wedding starts in two hours, and they are NOT HERE!”

    Agent: “Of course, I underst–”

    Customer: “AND, your company has been a nightmare to work with! Your customer service department is unbelievably terrible.”

    Agent: “I’m sorry to hear that ma–”

    Customer: “You guys are WEDDING photographers! WEDDINGS ARE ONCE IN A LIFETIME EVENTS!! And you have unresponsive, rude agents, photographers who don’t show up on time… what the f*** is this??? Seriously, what the f***?? I swear, that photographer had better show up in the next 10 minutes, or I’m going to file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau!! Not only that, I’m going to sue you for all you’re worth! It’s my daughter’s SPECIAL DAY! What part of that don’t you understand?”

    Agent: “Ma’am. I understand that you are frustrated – If it were my daughter’s wedding I’d be frustrated too. I want to help you with your issue, but I’m going to need your cooperation so that we can get to the bottom of this and figure out a solution as quickly as possible. Now, can I please have your name and the name of your photographer?”

    Customer: “Margaret Birmingham, the photographer is Gary Thompson.”

    Agent: “Okay, thank you for the information. It looks like about 30 minutes ago Gary called in about a flat tire. Help has been dispatched and we have sent another employee to take care of Gary’s car, and a taxi to make sure that he arrives at your event on time. According to the status report he should be arriving any minute now.”

    Customer: “Ugh, of course. Alright. Well… I hope so. Thank you.”

    Agent: “Again, I’m very sorry for the delay. Congratulations to your family; I hope that everything runs smoothly from here on out.”

    In this exchange, the agent was able to take control of the situation back from a customer who was behaving aggressively. By responding calmly, compassionately, and firmly, the agent was able to hear the customer out and ultimately steer the conversation towards where it needed to go: resolution.

    Being Assertive With A Passive Customer

    Don’t fall into the parent role and steamroll a passive customer. Here are some of the ways in which you can practice assertiveness with a customer who is being passive:

    • Give them a platform to voice their opinions and their concerns – Passive customers often don’t speak their mind out of fear of inconveniencing or hurting others. If a customer is behaving passively, it is important to give them room to speak their opinions, rather than making rushed decisions for them.
    • Don’t meet passiveness with more passiveness – Being aggressive with an aggressive customer can lead to disaster; being passive with a passive customer can lead to stagnancy. Although you want these customers to tell you exactly what they want on their own, some assertive prompting is generally needed to move things along.
    • Use good questioning techniques to uncover your customers’ needs – Open questions and probing questions can encourage your passive customers to share what they’re thinking and what they want.
    • Listen for non-verbal cues – Passive customers often won’t voice concerns out loud, and will instead communicate their feelings through tone of voice. When you’re on the phone with a passive customer, listening out for those cues can help you get a handle on what the customer’s actually thinking or feeling.
    • Recommend with confidence – There’s a difference between being pushy and being confident. Once you have uncovered what it is that your passive customer needs, make confident recommendations to help move the problem towards a solution.
    • Explain liberally – You may be confident about your recommendation, but that doesn’t mean that your passive customer necessarily is. It pays to explain why your recommendations are ideal for that particular customer, especially if something seems like it may be unclear to them. You want your customer to feel good moving forward, and that means having them onboard and on the same page.

    Here’s an example scenario with a passive customer, and how you might respond:

    Agent: “Thank you for contacting Luiza’s Home Furnishing! How can I assist you today?”

    Customer: “Hi, I was supposed to have received my 3-piece sofa bed 3 days ago, but I haven’t gotten anything yet. My order number is 0493820.”

    Agent: “Absolutely. I’m very sorry about the delay. It looks like your product was damaged during delivery, so it was returned to our distribution center. Unfortunately, our system shows that the color that you had ordered – red – is no longer in stock, so it will be about 20 days before we can get it to you. I’m so sorry for this inconvenience.”

    Customer: “Shoot. Yeah. That is inconvenient…”

    Agent: “Well, there are three ways in which we can proceed. The first is by keeping your original order and color choice, and waiting the 20 days. The second is by cancelling your order and receiving a refund. The third is by changing the color or model of your sofa to one that is in stock at our distribution center.”

    Customer: “Well, I don’t know. This is just very disappointing.”

    Agent: “I understand completely–I would feel the same way if it were me. What is most important to you, the model, delivery speed, or color?”

    Customer: “I mean, I liked everything. I guess the sofa model and the delivery speed. I need it in a week for when my sister comes to visit.”

    Agent: “How about I list some of the other colors that we have in stock of the same model, and you let me know if any of those sound okay? That way you can have the same sofa model and also receive it in time for your sister’s arrival.”

    Customer: “Alright.”

    Agent: “We have blue, green, black, and beige. Do any of those colors sound good to you?”

    Customer: “I guess I could do black.”

    Agent: “Okay, great! That option should arrive to you in 5-7 days max. Shall I go ahead and replace the order?”

    Customer: “Yeah, sure.”

    Agent: “Great, your order has been changed. You’ll be receiving a confirmation email shortly confirming this. Please feel free to contact us with any future concerns that you might have!”

    Customer: “Okay, thanks.”

    The agent in this example laid out a clear path for the passive customer, and give him limited but clear options. The agent responded to the customer’s passive “I don’t know,” with good questioning techniques, and in doing so was able to uncover the customer’s needs. In the end, the agent suggested a solution that would best fit the customer’s needs, and the customer ran with it.


    Being assertive doesn’t always mean getting what you want; it means you had the courage to ask for it. It means that you had the decency to care about and respect the needs of others, and the strength to care about and respect yourself.

    So what are you waiting for? Bring an assertive mindset into your next customer interaction, and leave fight-or-flight out of the office and back in the stone age.

    For additional reading on how to deal with upset customers, check out our blog post, How To Handle Angry Customers: A Guide to Conflict Resolution and De-Escalation.

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    [Free Training] Live Chat & Customer Service Certification

    This free training features up-to-date customer service best practices, to help you boost your skills and become a true customer service professional.

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    Isabella is a freelance editor, writer, and blogger at Live Chat 100 and Comm100. She is passionate about helping people, teams, and organizations grow into their full potential, and excel in their service. In her spare time, you can find her traveling, painting, or drinking copious amounts of coconut water. Connect with Isabella on LinkedIn.

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