Customer service: How to handle legal action threats from customers

No matter how incredible a product or service is, we are on planet Earth, and no one can escape the risk of getting sued in a court of law. This is especially true for companies operating on US soil and international companies providing products or services to US citizens. Why? Well, the US legislative system, as you may already know, is pretty popular for lawsuits. It does not mean the company you work for cannot get sued in any other country. It may not be as easy as in the States, but it can happen. 

While it is unpleasant, do not let the threat get to you (Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

Hearing anyone yell at the top of their lungs: “I am going to sue you!” is already quite unpleasant. It can get particularly stressful for you as a customer service representative to hear this from a customer. Of course, you do not want to be held responsible for the customer suing the company.

All kinds of questions can pop up in your head when legal action is a threat. What should I say now? What if I lose my job if I don’t address the threat correctly? Should I beg the customer not to do it? What if whatever I say will make the customer carry out his threat?

Not to worry! After all, the customer chose to reach out to you, so there is still hope you can resolve the complaint. Here are some useful points to remember during communication with a customer who is threatening legal action:

1. Do not panic!

Remember, most legal action threats do not reach the stage of actual lawsuits. By simply having the option of resolving a complaint via a court of law, many customers nowadays throw around the legal action threat at any given opportunity. Sure, don’t rely on the fact that every customer must be bluffing, but understand that you can’t control what the customer is going to do. If a customer reaches the stage of threatening something so severe, he must be unhappy and most probably doesn’t trust you or your company. Acknowledge this dissatisfaction, and help the customer, but don’t concede to the threat. You can’t please everybody. That’s the reality. 

Plus, do you think courts and lawyers have nothing better to do than work with superfluous lawsuits? They do, and they don’t appreciate wasting their time on something silly such as a lawsuit against a company for unfulfilled fantasies. There have even been instances when courts would punish individuals for filing absurd lawsuits excessively. The legal system is familiar with the fact that people may abuse it, so keep up your composure and concentrate on assistance. 

2. Look above and beyond 

Your mission is to comprehend why the customer is angry. It may sound simple at first. For example, the customer didn’t get their refund, or the customer’s service expectations were not met. Often, some cues can guide you to the hidden underlying frustration triggers. You can pick these up by psychologically analyzing the customer (want to learn how?). As a customer service representative, you need to be able to filter the customer’s outburst of negative emotions to see the source of the issue and inconvenience. 

Take my word for it, as I have been on the front line myself. I answered calls from customers who would scream, refuse to listen, try to offend me personally and, of course, threaten legal action as an additional strike. Many times, there had been either an underlying cause or a different factor that I could leverage to bring my interaction with the customer under control.

For instance, one of the customers did not understand a charge by the company, yet his legal action threat was mainly attributed to a quarrel with his wife just a few minutes before the call. Another customer threatened a lawsuit about the services provided simply because he had been given a run-around by all the previous agents. Don’t assume anything based on your character. Do try to see the situation from the customer’s shoes. 

3. Just business, nothing personal

The customer does not know who you are or what is your life story. Frankly, the customer does not even care most of the time. Therefore, do your best not to take anything personally, especially when dealing with a complicated case of a customer threatening legal action. It does not mean you should not take the case seriously though. If the customer is so unsatisfied, he needs to vent. None of that bad energy gets directed at you as a person. Stay calm. Don’t lose control. Never be sarcastic. You should maintain a polite and professional manner, no matter what. 

Since there is already a problem, don’t be a part of it! If you understand that you may have contributed to the customer’s anger anyhow, you should apologize and make things right immediately. The faster you do this, the better for you. If, however, extreme tension has been reached (when the customer decides to offend you personally), it is time for you to take extra control of the call. Avoid self-centered proclamations like:

 “I did not work five years for this company to be spoken to in such a manner!”

“James, I have had it with you. Stop being rude if you do not want me to hang up!”

“I demand you take what you said about my football team back! F**k me? F**k you!”

4. Are you there!?

When a customer is venting, you should take short notes in your notepad (or using your computer). At such troubling moments, customers are extra sensitive. They need to be comforted that whatever they say does not go into one ear and out the other. Reiterating the customer’s complaint and any vital details mentioned will do just that. Otherwise, at the minimum, verify your presence using verbal nods (yes, of course, uh huh, I see, OK). It will indicate that you are listening. It’s simple, but it works! 

I remember checking bad calls that reminded me more of a monologue by the customer – no sign of life from the customer service end of the line. I even thought to myself: “Poor man, if I had been in his shoes, I would have hung up and given up already.” It seemed as if that customer service representative could have been taking a nap or having lunch while the customer vented. While some may not mind such dead silence, others certainly will. If the customer feels like he lost your attention, they are more likely to proceed with their threat. Be vigilant. In addition, you are responsible for the length of your call, as most of the time, it is the company’s money that pays for calls.

5. Apologies Sir, the real ones

Customers have a good sense of insincerity. Don’t test this fact or take it for granted. It is surprisingly valid every time, no matter how good of an actor or actress you may be. It’s all in the energy you transmit. Now, apologizing is valuable, but your apologies must be authentic when you deal with threatening customers. Only this way will the customer understand that you relate and are interested in fixing the problem. Don’t trouble yourself too much when apologizing, and don’t intentionally try to be sincere. Be you. Empathy is the keyword here. Empathize, and it will come naturally. 

Since it is a fact that one must show empathy and provide apologies, it makes many customer service representatives make the apology sound very scripted. If you make it sound like a must, as if you are reading a script, it is an additional indication that you should reconsider your job. Customer service without empathy is like a violin without a bow – pointless. Some bad examples of how to apologize, perhaps? 

“I am sorry you did not read our policies, sir.”

“I apologize for the confusion you still have, even though I have explained everything clearly.”

“My bad, Jonathan.”

6. Question everything

It will help you understand the issue better and also analyze the gravity of the customer’s threat. Ultimately, you want to know how likely the customer’s threat is a bluff. If you get the customer to provide more details about his complaint, he may unwind more. If the threat is serious the customer will continue the tense positioning. Otherwise, you will witness the conversation continue down a different, threatless path. 

Do not fear to ask clarification questions (Photo by Leeloo Thefirst on

Each critical case like a legal action threat requires an organized approach. Aim to create a report with a complaint summary, including the customer’s demands (value of refund) and contact information. This report will help you determine whether the customer’s threat is legitimate. All the facts will require analysis as the resolution always depends on facts. Here are some questions you could be asking:

  • When/how/where did the issue occur (+ any other relevant details)?
  • Is it the first time the customer is complaining about the issue to the company?
  • Did the customer already proceed to file the lawsuit (or do you still have a chance to resolve the issue between the customer and the company)?
  • Are there any alternative resolutions the customer could perhaps consider?
  • Was the customer able to review and clearly understand the Terms & Conditions of your company? * (see point 7 below)

7. Defend? No, help!

Your job is to support the customer, not to protect the company. As soon as the customer feels a slight indication of defense from you, the trust between you may be lost. Ensure that your actions and words reassure the customer that you are on their side. If the customer cannot trust customer service, he has only one way out after legal action is brought up – proceeding with the lawsuit. That is not what you want. Make sure the customer perceives you as a viable channel of assistance, a simpler alternative to get what he wants without the headache of courts. And yes, a lawsuit is a headache for all involved. 

If you understand that it is possible to handle the situation peacefully, set aside all talk about the Terms & Conditions of your website and the policies or regulations of your company. Those may only make customers more irritated. If your customer seems willing to cooperate, at least to some degree, it is not needed. Your task is to amicably resolve the matter through dialogue. It is the most inexpensive and time-effective solution. I had some people training in the past who seemed to have difficulty understanding the whole point of the Terms & Conditions (legal purposes) and abusing it! Just imagine such a scenario:

Customer: “Hi. I am calling you because I am very disappointed in the product I paid for, which did not match my expectations. It was not safe for consumer usage. What can you do for me? Is a refund possible?”

CS representative: “Sir, you have agreed to our Terms & Conditions. A refund is not possible. Hi, by the way.”

Horrible. It translates to:

 “Umm, no. Our refund policies were explained to you in a massive text document that you had to agree to upon purchasing our product, so we can keep our butts here in the company safe from your ridiculous possible refund demands. How the product did not match your expectations is irrelevant because the products we sell are awesome. They are 100% safe for usage, and you are wrong. Why are you even calling and annoying me anyway?”

8. Keep your focus!

It can be tempting to drift away in a conversation with an angry, provocative customer. After all, the customer will throw all kinds of unpleasantries in your direction to test you. If you break down, the customer wins, and the chance of him heading to court increases. You would then contribute to the customer’s position on how incompetent and unprofessional your customer service is. It does have to do with taking things personally, from point 3 above. “Why would there be customers who could confuse me?” I hear you think, “don’t they understand that it will not help me help them?” Oh, but there are, so be vigilant, and no, they don’t, but they also do not care. A personal example, perhaps?

When I used to work as a customer service representative in a call center, there was once a customer who turned out to be the master in focus disruption. For the sake of this example, let’s call him Tom. So, Tom seemed to be a standard-type customer on the surface. Tom called in and stated that he had a big issue. He also threatened legal action. See, the thing about Tom was, he talked, but you would not understand if he would listen too. Tom would talk and talk and talk. He would talk about his issues with your company, entering some irrelevant personal points here and there (but not enough for you to think of him as strange just yet). It was only after about 30 minutes of the phone conversation that you would realize that Tom was probably insane – right then when he would mention how he fought in both World Wars, how he had an amazing, sexy body, and how he does not have a complaint after all. Tom was an overweight 30-year-old man in 2016.

To avoid a dramatic ending as such, concentrate only on what is important – the issues encountered. Address all the questions and concerns about the product or service in detail. If the customer strays off, bring him back to the main topic of the phone call. Do your best to dazzle the customer with your professional ability to resolve his or her issues. If you can address the threat in such a way that turns the situation into a positive one, you are a master of customer service communication. 

9. A solution, perhaps?

Believe it or not, it is what the customer is calling to get. It is human nature; to complain, but the end game is about resolutions. The fact that the customer is threatening legal action does not mean that a possible solution from your side will not be expected. Remember, it is a hassle for both parties to be involved in a legal action case. What if your proposition can resolve the issue at hand? 

It is crucial to mind the following; if the solution you offer does not float the customer’s boat, all is not yet lost. No matter how amazing you think your solution is, it may be only you who think so. The customer is another being – with other things in mind. If your solution does not suit him, ask what solution would be preferable, and then see if it is possible. 

10. Negotiating expectations

When an interaction contains legal threats, it is frequent for customer service representatives to want to end it as soon as possible. This dangerously increases the risk of accepting whatever demands the customer pulls forth, no matter how extreme they may be. If you promise something, that’s it – there is no going back.

Be careful, as this type of conversation is a negotiation. Learn when to say “no” sturdily while simultaneously keeping the customer at bay. Don’t make promises you cannot meet! There are few worse things than not delivering on a promise, especially when the expectations have been set. Here is a disastrous example:

Customer: “I want a million dollars! Now!”

CS representative: “Of course, sir. I understand. We will give you what you want. Please do not sue the company because I may lose my job.”

And here is a great example:

Customer: “I want a million dollars! Now!”

CS representative: “Samuel, I understand your frustration 100%. We can certainly consider a refund for the bad service provided since we value you as a customer. You have spent $1,500 on the service in total. This would be the amount we could refund you accordingly.”

11. Seek legal advice!

Advice from a professional attorney can set you on the right path (Photo by RODNAE Productions on

If you have not reached a desirable solution for the customer in your initial interaction – and the legal threat is still impending – it is a good idea to seek a professional opinion from your legal department (if any) or a lawyer. This will help you understand whether the threat is legitimate or empty. If you are composing (or planning) a response to a customer who threatened a lawsuit, definitely get a second opinion. It costs you nothing (or less than the lawsuit damages), yet it helps to know that you are on the right path in this possibly complex situation. Sure, a lawyer will also be necessary if you have reached the point where you need to negotiate legally or formalize a settlement. 

12. Mistakes noted – business improved

No matter what, if a customer got to the point of threatening legal action, something somewhere must have gone wrong. Learn from it! This is an invaluable lesson. You will not want to encounter this lesson ever again! It will not only be expensive but how many lawsuits do you think the company can survive? You are the link between the customers and the company’s management, so escalate the matter. Show initiative and do some future damage control, otherwise, you may be handling many more legal action threats regarding the same issue. 

The suggestions above can work for multiple threats, be it threats of contacting the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Better Business Bureau (BBB), the Attorney General, or the Supreme Court. While the repercussions of suffering each of the above threats may vary, your mission is always the same – to prevent further escalation past customer service. Do you want to be a pro in crisis management? Reach out, and let’s talk about how I can help you!


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