How to Deal With Difficult Customers: 19 Strategies to Try
Whether you work in retail or in a call center, as a consultant or in a sales role, difficult customers are an unfortunate part of the territory. But, there are ways you can deal with them that can leave both you and the customer smiling.
The Types of Difficult Customers
There are many different types of difficult customers. You may come across:
- Angry customers: Those who either aren’t happy with your service or ask for the impossible, and then start yelling and throwing insults when they don’t get their way.
- Impatient customers: They might ping your customer service team 50 times a day wanting an immediate fix for their problem or expect their food to arrive before you’ve even finished writing down the order.
- Scope creep customers: These customers might have unreasonable requests, just one more edit, or keep changing their minds on what they want. They might pop in with questions or comments just for a chat. They may not be rude, but they definitely take up a lot of time and effort.
- Disengaged or unresponsive customers: Those who don’t care about their jobs anymore, and therefore make yours harder to do. Perhaps they always send their reports late, take weeks to reply to an email, or never pay an invoice on time.
Why Should You Deal With Difficult Customers?
We know it’s tempting to walk away from difficult customers or ignore them altogether. But that’ll only make the situation worse.
By dealing with difficult customers head-on — either by solving their problem or de-escalating the situation — you can make an effort to keep them as a loyal and happy customer.
Plus, word of mouth is everything in business. Disgruntled customers can write bad reviews, share their experience on social media, or continue to make your work life difficult if you don’t get to the bottom of their problem.
How to Deal With Difficult Customers
Got a difficult customer to deal with? Here’s what to do.
1. Stay Calm
Even when the customer is losing their temper, you need to keep yours. Take a few deep breaths if necessary — the customer can wait — and make sure you’re not reacting to the citation without thinking.
When you’re angry, you may say things you’ll regret, lose the customer for good, and even put your job at risk.
If the customer is angry and ranting, let them. Then, respond in a calm and collected manner, never raising your voice or returning insults — no matter how tempting that can be.
We know, sometimes difficult customers don’t deserve an apology. Maybe you’ve done nothing wrong and it’s them who needs to apologize, or it wasn’t you who made the mistake in the first place.
But, an apology can go a long way to calming the customer down if they’re angry or upset and saving the relationship.
Remember you’re apologizing on behalf of the company. If you can offer something as a token of your appreciation for their custom — a free meal, a discounted month of designs — do so. Just remember to check with your boss or your company’s policy before doing so, however — you don’t want to promise something you can’t deliver.
3. Respond Promptly, But Don’t Rush
When a customer has contacted you with a problem, or even an unreasonable demand, you want to respond promptly. That’s part of offering great customer service.
But you also don’t want to rush and say something from a place of anger or promise a solution you can’t follow through on.
Take a moment to take a deep breath, think through your response, and then get back to the customer.
Check your company’s policy on response times. If you strive to reply to all customer queries within 24 hours, for example, you know you can take five minutes to think through a response to a demanding email before hitting reply.
4. Get to the Root of the Problem
Problems can easily escalate into something bigger than they really are, especially when emotions are involved. Ask the customer what has happened and why they’re unhappy to try to get to the bottom of things.
A customer may come across as being difficult, when really they’ve been promised a discount by someone else on your sales team, for example.
Once you’ve asked the right questions and established what exactly is going on, you’ll be in a much better position to solve the problem.
5. Explain Your Answers
What may be obvious to you, might not be to the customer. Explain the reasoning behind your answers, such as why you can’t help.
For example, if you can’t provide a refund, state why exactly — is it not in your store policy? Or has the customer been using your software for six weeks already?
If your customer is being unresponsive, explain why them not providing you with their order number means you can’t look into their account issues and get them back on track.
While this doesn’t always work, you may find that simply being told the reason behind a decision helps the customer understand and move on.
6. Offer Solutions
Aim to be solution-oriented in every interaction you have with customers.
If they come to you with a problem, focus on solutions. If you have to say no to a request, offer some other things you can do, instead.
While the solution may not be exactly what the customer was looking for, it’s better than offering them nothing, and it may help you keep their custom.
7. Don’t Take it Personally
Most of the time, difficult customers have nothing to do with us. They might be upset at something in their personal lives and be taking it out on you, or they’re angry at how your company is dealing with a problem.
Either way, it’s rarely something about you personally, but you may get a difficult customer who takes their anger out on you by hurling insults down the phone, over email, or even to your face.
Strive to solve customers’ problems and offer solutions, and then not dwell on whatever insults they throw at you. It’s easier said than done, of course, don’t let difficult customers become a source of stress at work.
8. Learn from Your Mistakes
It can be hard to find out a customer is being difficult because of something you did. Perhaps a long-term client is threatening to cancel their contract based on your disorganized account management, or a mistake at work caused a customer’s order to become delayed.
When this is the case, remember to learn from your mistakes. Analyze how it happened in the first place and brainstorm ways you can ensure it doesn’t happen again.
Apologize for the mistake and own up to your part in it. You may even find a sincere apology and offering some solutions is all it takes to turn a difficult customer into a happy one.
9. Set Boundaries
If you regularly experience inpatient customers who demand your attention and help 24/7, it might be worth setting some boundaries to help deal with them.
That could include:
- An email auto-responder that outlines when exactly you’re available and when they can expect a reply
- A voicemail greeting stating the same information
- An out-of-office message for when you won’t be in your inbox for a period of time that includes and details of who to contact for help instead
You can also set some boundaries in your communications with these types of difficult customers. For example:
Thanks for getting in touch and I’m sorry to hear you’re having trouble accessing our client portal. I’d be happy to help solve your connectivity issue and get you back up and running.
In the meantime, we’re a small team, so while we strive to help our customers as quickly as possible, we can’t be available 24/7 and our responses may be delayed on weekends.
I hope you’ll have patience with us!”
10. Call for Backup
Sometimes, you need your manager to step in and take control. Other times, you just need another college to come in and say the exact same thing you’ve said. Difficult customers sometimes need to hear they’ll get the same answer from multiple members of staff — and it’s not just you — or hear it from a higher-up.
If you’ve tried getting to the root of the problem and offering solutions, it may be time to speak to your manager or a colleague and ask them to speak with your customer.
And even if you’re not asking a colleague to get involved with the customer, it can be useful to get an outsider’s opinion on it to make sure you’re responding in the best way possible.
11. Put Yourself in the Customer’s Shoes
It’s easy to feel defensive and like the customer is wrong — especially if they’re being rude or abusive — but take a moment to put yourself in their shoes.
Where they quoted the wrong price on a project, and now they’re in hot water with their boss? Or did you just reject their mortgage, leaving them back at square one when it comes to house hunting?
By adopting this mindset, you’ll be able to deal with difficult customers with more empathy. You may even stop seeing them as difficult, and rather see that they’re just going through a difficult time.
12. Watch Your Body Language
If you’re dealing with customers over email or on the phone, you’ve just got your words and tone of voice to worry about. But if you’re speaking to a customer face-to-face, you can’t forget about body language.
It’s easy to say polite words, yet come across as defensive, aggressive, or stressed with your posture, facial expressions, and gestures.
Here are the non-verbal cues to look out for:
- Uncross your arms and keep them by your side or in your lap
- Unclench your fists and avoid any finger tapping or fidgeting with your hair or clothes. Keep your hands still for the most part.
- Stand up tall with your shoulders back
- Make eye contact
13. Try Framing Your Responses in a Positive Way
Even when you have to give a customer bad news, look for ways you can word it in a way that focuses on the positives.
For example, you may not be able to offer them a refund, but you can give them store credit.
Try keeping a positive tone throughout the interaction, and hopefully this will rub off on them.
14. Show You’re Listening
Hearing “I understand, but…” is never fun as a customer, and it can be downright annoying.
But, you want to show your customers you are listening to their problems, and not just saying you are and trying to end your interaction with them as soon as possible.
Non-verbal cues can help here if you’re face-to-face. Remember to make eye contact and nod. If you’re speaking over the phone or over email, you can repeat small parts of their problem back to them to show you’re listening and understand.
Phrases to use on the phone or face-to-face include:
- “I see”
- “I agree”
- “I hear you”
- “That sounds difficult”
15. Build Rapport
This can be hard to do over email especially, but no matter how you’re communicating with the customer, try to build some rapport.
Show sincere concern for their problem, show you’re listening and understand why they’re upset or angry, and — if the moment calls for it — attempt to make a light-hearted joke.
Use “we” instead of “you” and “I,” and try to make the customer feel like it’s you and them versus the problem, instead of you versus them.
16. Offer to Hop on the Phone
Trying to deal with a customer over email or chat software and getting nowhere? Offer to jump on the phone to talk through their problem.
This can help you deal with difficult customers in a few ways.
Firstly, the customer may be able to explain their problem better over the phone, meaning you can find a solution more quickly.
But secondly, it’s easy for people to forget they’re speaking to a human when they’re just staring at a screen. Jumping on the phone means you can hear each other’s voices, you can give them verbal cues — like showing you’re listening — and hopefully form a connection.
Demanding customers may get embarrassed about their scope creep when they suddenly have to verbalize it on the phone, and angry customers may calm down when they hear a friendly human voice trying to help them.
17. Check Back in on Them
If you’ve managed to solve the problem or de-escalate the customer, you may think your work is done. But don’t forget to check back in on them.
This could be when they’ve received their order, for example, or a few days after the difficult situation has passed.
This is a great opportunity to ask how everything is going, if you can help with anything else, and apologize again for the original problem, if needed.
This is how you can turn a difficult customer into a loyal one, with outstanding customer service.
18. Let the Customer Go
This tip depends on your role and how senior you are, and on what exactly is making the customer so difficult. But sometimes, you can’t fix the situation.
If you work in a restaurant, for example, and a customer is being abusive to staff or those around them, ask them to leave, get them removed from your place of work, or at least speak to your boss to highlight the customer’s bad behavior.
If you work in a sales role or offer a service, depending on your level, you could make the call that the customer isn’t worth keeping. If they cause trouble, take up a lot of time, or otherwise can’t be convinced to stop whatever difficult behavior they’re doing, you may be better off losing their custom and focusing on both new and current customers who aren’t difficult.
19. Consider Customer Training Courses and Workshops
This may not help when you’re in the trenches with a difficult customer, but getting some official training on customer relations can help you next time. And unfortunately, there’ll most likely be a next time.
Training and workshops can help you and other team members learn how to deal with the types of difficult customers you come across the most. You might go through de-escalation techniques, go over scripts your company wants you to stick to, or practice conflict management.
“Tell Me About a Time You Dealt With a Difficult Customer?” Interview Question
Being asked how you’ve dealt with a difficult customer is a common interview question, especially if you’re interviewing for a retail or service position, or a role in sales or consulting.
To answer, remember STAR, or station, task, action, result.
- Situation: Tell the interviewer what exactly was happening in the scenario. Why was the customer being difficult exactly?
- Task: Explain what you were doing or responsible for, and how you were involved.
- Action: Describe the steps you took to deal with the customer.
- Result: Outline how the situation ended.
If you’re asked how you would deal with a difficult customer, remember to mention some of the tips in this article, like apologizing, getting to the room of the problem, and framing your response in a positive way.