If you have a business or have ever worked in a customer-facing role, you will have experienced a difficult customer. Sadly, there will always be at least one disgruntled person you will need to deal with, and it is probable that as you read this you are already thinking of a specific incident when you dealt with a difficult customer previously.
Difficult customers can make an otherwise good day turn bad and can make a pleasant job unenjoyable. That’s why it is important to develop skills that will help you deal with difficult customers. With the right tools, you might be able to completely alter the situation and the outcome and walk away from stressful situations without feeling defeated.
We have gathered the best advice on dealing with difficult customers, made up of various techniques and tips from top business people, analysts, consultants, and psychologists. But it is important to remember that even with the best advice, there will still be customers who won’t be reasoned with or appeased. The goal of these strategies is to help you handle the conflict as best as you can, knowing that there will be times when no one comes out of the situation happy.
Types of difficult customers:
The first thing to remember is that customers can become difficult for different reasons. There are different types of disgruntled customer and although most of the principles stay the same for conflict management, it is good to know what you are dealing with. Knowing the type of anger or frustration you are dealing with will help you decide which conflict management tools are best.
Some of the most commonly seen difficult customers fall into these categories:
Impatient customers may be frustrated because your business is taking longer than expected, or they could be impatient because they ran late at home or need to get to a meeting. Impatient customers are the most common form of difficult customer and can be difficult to deal with because most solutions that are offered will take some time. Working with an impatient customer can also make other customers upset because it can often seem like the person who complains the loudest gets the fastest and best treatment.
Your indecisive customer may be time consuming, but they are rarely aggressive and don’t tend to cause a scene. Indecisiveness often springs from having too many options or insufficient information and this can become frustrating to the customer and make decision-making even harder. The good news is that these customers are easier to deal with because it is highly likely that they want a solution as much as you do and will look for a quick and easy option.
Angry customers are the ones who are never satisfied. Be cautious when dealing with an angry customer because it is not uncommon for an angry customer to still be outraged even after you give in to their demands or bend over backwards for them. If you are able to find the root of the anger, you may be able to handle the problem. But there are times when you will need to accept that this customer is unlikely to be appeased.
The customer is not always right, and as a professional in your field you will know that. But a lot of customers will still believe that they know best. The demanding customer might want things done a certain way or at a certain time with no frame of reference for what they are asking. They may even expect their demands to be prioritised over every other customer’s needs. As an expert, it is often difficult to handle this kind of customer because they can be difficult to reason with. However, with patience and clear communication you may be able to find a compromise while helping to educate the customer on why their demands are unreasonable.
Strategies for dealing with difficult customers
The number one rule in conflict management with difficult customers is to not make a bad situation worse. Wherever possible, diffuse a situation and then solve it. This is easier said than done, but following these practical steps will help you to reach a point of resolution.
Remember to keep in mind the type of difficult customer you are dealing with while implementing these tools. Tailor your conflict resolution strategy to the customer and the situation you are dealing with to ensure the best outcome.
As soon as you hear that a customer is unhappy or being difficult, take a moment to pause and think through your response. If you enter the situation angry, defensive, or upset, then you are likely to escalate the problem rather than solve it.
Even if you have been having a bad day, it is important in this moment to take a deep breath and set aside your own emotions. The situation may not be your fault, and the customer may be unfair in their complaint or accusation, but it is your job to be professional.
Taking a moment to pause and reflect on how you are feeling gives your mind permission to process your own emotions later. You are not dismissing how you feel, rather, you are prioritising conflict resolution. You want to be able to give your full attention to the client and their needs.
Whatever the situation, the most important place to start is with active listening. You need to listen with an intention of understanding rather than waiting for them to stop talking so you can interject.
Most customers want to be heard. They want to know that a company cares enough about them to listen to them and find working solutions.
Listening to your customer also allows them to feel like they are working with you rather than against you. If you are on the same team, working towards a common goal, then it is easier to work calmly and find a solution that works for both parties.
Avoid distractions and interruptions during your conversation. If necessary and if possible, remove yourself from any environment where you could be disrupted. Show the customer that they are your priority by giving them your full attention.
A lot of frustration is brought on through miscommunication or confusion. To avoid this happening, repeat what your customer has said to clarify their concerns and make sure you understand exactly why they are unhappy.
Try saying things like:
“As I understand it, you are feeling… because… is that right?”
“Am I right in saying that… has upset you because…?”
“I can see why… would upset you. Other than… is there anything else we can address?”
Using this kind of language shows that you are listening and actively looking for a solution.
Make sure that your tone of voice is appropriate during this. Don’t rush through the repetition and don’t raise your voice or become sarcastic. Remember that you need both parties to be calm in order to find a working resolution.
Body language, tone of voice, and how you choose to word your sentences can all show how you feel about a situation. Be conscious of this and try to put yourself into your customer’s position to see why they feel as they do.
Every complaint will have a backstory. Try to keep in mind that your customer may be battling with other problems at home or at work which are making smaller problems seem bigger. Be kind and be thoughtful towards them. This will go a long way in calming down a difficult customer.
Even if you believe you are right, apologise. And be genuine.
No one goes into business with the goal of alienating customers, so try to remember that when dealing with difficult people. You can be genuinely sorry that your customer is upset without taking blame.
Some customers will not calm down, even if you have followed all the steps so far. If your difficult customer is still swearing or being aggressive, don’t respond in the same way. Stay calm and proceed as if they were acting normally.
If the situation becomes dangerous or problematic, calmly inform the customer that you won’t be able to help them if they continue with their behaviour (swearing, shouting, acting aggressively etc). Give them a chance to calm down and work with you and if they still refuse then it may be time to remove yourself from the situation for your own safety. But do so as calmly as possible.
In some cases, it may be clear to you how you can solve the problem. Having listened to your customer you will be able to present your solution clearly and show how it will address all of their concerns.
If you are still uncertain what kind of solution is needed, present the possibilities and then work with your client to come up with a solution. Being open and honest and showing that you are working with them towards a resolution can help them feel heard while creating reasonable expectations.
You might say something like:
“At this time I can do … however, I am unable to do… because… What kind of solution are you looking for that we can work on together?”
Every business will have processes in place that customers are likely to misunderstand or get frustrated by. If your customer is angry because they want a refund, but the refund cannot be issued for another week because of financial procedures, then you need to explain that as clearly as possible. Offer alternate solutions such as a phone call as soon as the refund has cleared or form of discount or benefit for their patience. Using software such as Booksy can also be beneficial. Depending on your industry, there are numerous applications that can help with handling a difficult customer.
Know when to quit
Not all difficult customers can be reasoned with and knowing when to give in is important.
If your customer is demanding and it’s not worth fighting over then it may be worth giving in. This might go against your principles, but if it saves you time and stress then it will pay off in the end. A good example is if a customer is haggling over a discount of a few pounds even if the discount is no longer valid. If you give in you may feel weak or like you’ve compromised, but your customer will leave with a better experience, and you won’t have to worry about having conflict.
Knowing when to quit is not only about giving in though. Sometimes you will need to leave the conflict because the customer is becoming more unreasonable. Know your boundaries, set them out clearly with the customer, and if it is clear no resolution will be met then you may need to walk away. Your customer will still be angry, but there will be times this is unavoidable.
What not to do
Using these tips will help you to deal with difficult customers in almost any situation. But if you are struggling to remember what to do, try to remember the things you should avoid.
Don’t make excuses or get defensive. This is not about you, it’s about the customer and invalidating how they feel will not help you to diffuse the situation. Your customer is not interested in why something went wrong, they are interested in the solution, so stay focused on solutions and not arguing over whose fault the situation is.
If a client comes in upset and has a bad attitude it is easy to adopt the same attitude. Don’t. If two people refuse to back down or become upset, then the problem will only escalate.
Make promises you can’t keep
Making a promise in the moment might make things easier, but if you can’t deliver on the promise later on, the situation will be far worse. Be generous and offer solutions, but stay reasonable in what you offer so that you don’t let your customer down again.
If you need to speak to a colleague, staff member, or supervisor, give the customer the information of where you are going and how long you expect to be. If you are on the phone, offer to call back or put them on hold. Your customer is already upset and having the person they are working on a solution with disappear with no explanation will upset them further.