Providing top-tier customer service is one of the most basic and effective ways to bolster your business’s sales and growth, but it isn’t always easy. Difficult customers present unique customer service challenges and require specific training and techniques to satisfy their needs. The way you and your employees respond to a difficult customer depends on the situation, so you should be familiar with a range of challenging customer scenarios, as well as the best ways to respond to each of them. If your customer service team members need to brush up on their skills, there are also numerous training resources to help keep them in top shape and ready to effectively handle all kinds of customers.

The importance of customer satisfaction

Establishing and maintaining a good relationship with your customers is key to the success of your business. In a customer satisfaction survey of over 700 customers, 80% said they would switch to a competitor as a result of bad customer service. 

Although “the customer is always right,” they may not always be easy to deal with. Learning how to respond to difficult customers is an important step for any business owner, especially those who work in the customer service industry. Even businesses with the best products and services are bound to have occasional run-ins with angry customers. 

To build a positive reputation with consumers, it is important to have properly trained staff who can handle difficult people and resolve customer complaints. Kim Angeli, founder and CEO of Grateful Box, said that the first strategy in turning an unhappy customer from grumpy to grateful is to thank them for sharing their bad experience with you.

“Our natural response is to get defensive and get into a negative mindset with a disgruntled client,” Angeli said. “Once you flip the switch and start with ‘thank you,’ the response is out of the ordinary for them. This works in every business, and once the strategy is taught to the customer service teams, sales divisions and leadership, the impact is amazing.” 

However, handling a difficult customer doesn’t stop there. The following section will cover several other scenario-specific techniques and strategies that your team can learn to enhance the quality of customer service when dealing with different types of challenging customers.

Providing customer service over the phone presents unique challenges, especially if you are dealing with a difficult customer. Follow these customer service phone etiquette tips to offer the best possible customer service over the phone.

The impatient customer

The situation: An impatient customer may have been waiting in line longer than usual, and they may be running late for their next appointment or restless while you search for a solution to their issue or concern.

How to handle it: Be clear and to the point without appearing dismissive of their demeanor. Explain transparently why there’s a wait or delay without getting into specifics. Make sure an impatient customer knows that effort is being invested in resolving the situation.

Frame your answers in a positive light. For example, instead of saying that an item is out of stock, explain that a new delivery is expected by a certain date or that you are working quickly to restock the items in question.

The indecisive customer

The situation: An indecisive customer struggles to choose between several products or service options, but they may not communicate this concern to you.

How to handle it: Ask specific questions about some of the most common factors that impact decision-making, including features, service tiers and price. If you have any literature that can help them make a decision, point them to those resources as well. Most importantly, listen to their concerns with care.

The angry customer

The situation: No matter the scenario or solution, an angry customer is simply not satisfied with the end result, and attempts to rectify the situation are not helping and may even be worsening the situation.

How to handle it: Even if you don’t feel it’s warranted, begin the interaction by apologizing for the issue. Try to resolve the situation by addressing pointed grievances they have regarding the subject at hand. Remember to keep it brief: The longer you linger, the more opportunities for grievances arise, and the less time you have to spend with your other customers.

The demanding customer

The situation: A demanding customer zaps lots of your energy and time, often at the expense of other customers. They may be dead set on the product or solution they want and may not accept alternatives, even those that are a better fit for their needs.

How to handle it: Speak slowly and be patient. Hear their concerns and move swiftly to address them. Be transparent. Giving answers to buy time or put off their needs while addressing other customers may not go over well.

The vague customer

The situation: This customer comes to your business without a clear idea of what they need. They may have difficulty articulating the problem, or they may not have a complete understanding of their options. As you ask questions to get to the heart of the issue, the answers don’t necessarily help, and they may even add more confusion to the situation.  

How to handle it: Just like with the indecisive customer, ask the vague customer pointed and specific questions about their needs. This is likely to provide the information you need to best help them. Each question you ask should be with the purpose of getting to the bottom of the situation so you don’t keep other customers waiting longer than necessary.

The customer who demands a refund

The scenario: This customer type is so disappointed or unhappy with the product or service that they are requesting their money back.

How to handle it: Each company has their own refund policy, as well as regulations that determine which items can be taken back. While the best course of action is to provide a refund in full or in part, your company may want to offer a credit toward a future purchase. If you do give the refund, be clear about when it was processed and how long they can expect it to take.

The unhappy customer

The situation: Despite your best efforts to resolve the situation, the customer is still dissatisfied with the solution(s) offered.

How to handle it: An angry customer and an unhappy customer require a similar response. Begin with an apology, even if you don’t feel like one is warranted. Briefly take stock of the solutions offered and attempt to offer something else; consult your company policies to determine what you can offer in this situation. During the conversation, don’t dismiss their concerns or complaints; listen with a sympathetic and attentive ear.

Unsatisfied customers may express their frustration not only in person, but also through negative reviews online. Follow these best practices for responding to customer complaints online.

10 strategies for dealing with difficult customers

Mike Effle, former CEO of Vendio, knows a thing or two about great customer service. He offers 10 tips on how to turn a bad customer service situation into an opportunity to improve your business.

1. First and foremost, listen. 

Do not try to talk over the customer or argue with them. Let the customer have their say, even if you know that they are mistaken and don’t have all the information, or you can anticipate what they are going to say next. As you listen, take the opportunity to build rapport with the customer.

2. Build rapport through empathy.

Put yourself in the customer’s shoes. Echo the source of their frustration, and show that you understand their position and situation. If you can empathize with a customer’s problem, it will help calm them down.

3. Lower your voice. 

If the customer gets louder, speak slowly, in a low tone. Your calm demeanor can carry over to them and help them to settle down. As you approach the situation with a calm, clear mind, unaffected by the customer’s tone or volume, their anger will generally dissipate.

4. Respond as if all your customers are watching. 

Pretend you are talking not only to the customer, but also to an audience that is watching the interaction. This shift in perspective can provide an emotional buffer if the customer is being verbally abusive, and will allow you to think more clearly when responding. Since an unruly customer can be a negative referral, assume they’ll repeat the conversation to other potential customers; this mindset can help you do your best to address their concerns in a calming way.

5. Know when to give in. 

If it is apparent that satisfying a rude customer is going to take two hours and a bottle of aspirin and still result in negative referrals, it may be better to take the high road and compromise in their favor. This will give you more time to nurture other, more productive customer relationships. Keep in mind that the interaction is atypical and you’re dealing with an exception.

6. Stay calm. 

If the customer is swearing or being verbally abusive, take a deep breath and continue as if you didn’t hear them. Responding in kind will not solve anything, and it will usually escalate the situation. Instead, remind the customer that you are there to help them and are their best immediate chance of resolving the situation. This simple statement often helps defuse the situation.

7. Don’t take it personally.

Always speak to the issue at hand and do not get personal, even if the customer does. Remember that the customer doesn’t know you and is just venting frustration at you as a representative of your company. Gently guide the conversation back to the issue and how you intend to resolve it.

8. Remember that you’re interacting with a human. 

Everyone has an occasional bad day. Maybe your rude customer had a fight with their spouse, got a traffic ticket that morning or had a recent run of bad luck. We’ve all been there, to some degree. Try to empathize and make their day better by being a pleasant, calming voice. It’ll make you feel good too.

9. If you promise a callback, call back! 

Even if you promised an update that you don’t have yet, call the customer at the scheduled time anyway. The customer will be reassured that you are not trying to dodge them and will appreciate the follow-up.

10. Summarize the next steps. 

At the end of the call, let the customer know exactly what to expect, and then be sure to follow through on your promises. Document the call to ensure you’re well prepared for the next interaction.

Consider using customer relationship management (CRM) software to help with your customer service and marketing decisions. CRM software can keep track of all your customers and their interactions with your business across all communication channels. Check out our CRM software best picks.

Training courses and workshops for managing demanding customers

It is important for businesses to give their teams the proper conflict management training and techniques to be successful. You can train your customer service, sales and leadership divisions by enrolling your employees in customer service workshops.

There are several great training resources available, both online and offline. To help you find the right resources for building a supportive team, we spoke with experts to compile a brief list of great training workshops.

  • Peter Barron Stark Companies provides training and coaching on a variety of business topics. The company offers a course that specifically focuses on how to deal with difficult customers. This course will teach you how to effectively resolve conflict and defuse difficult customer situations.
  • Business Training Works hosts a large library of training courses that can help teams with leadership development, critical thinking skills and more. Teams that want to learn how to interact with upset customers and manage service stress can benefit from a half- or full-day training course focused on customer service and a full-day course focused on customer relationship management.
  • Pryor+ offers seminars, online training, group training, digital downloads and more. Businesses that want to rebuild customer loyalty and turn irate customers into valued allies can access training courses by Pryor+.
  • Telephone Doctor Customer Service Training is an international customer service training company that offers e-learning, DVD training, keynotes, workshops and more. Your team members can access courses to improve their conflict management and customer service techniques.

Your customer service reps will do their best work when they feel empowered to work through problems on their own, leading to higher satisfaction for both employees and customers. Try these ways to empower your customer service team.

Activities for handling difficult customer conversations

Honing your customer service and conflict management skills takes time and practice. After enrolling your team in workshops and training courses, you can implement recurring in-house exercises to keep their skills sharp.

When we spoke with experts about dealing with difficult customers, the most frequently recommended customer service training exercise was role-playing. Although each customer may bring about a unique conflict and interaction, it is important to prepare your employees for as many different situations as possible.

Sarah Bugeja, senior director of demand generation and marketing operations at Wave HQ, recommends acting out case studies in a group setting, where one employee role-plays as a customer and the other as a service representative. They can act out how each side might handle the given scenario, and once they resolve the issue, they switch places. This will help them understand each side of the situation.

When your employees are able to view issues from the customer’s viewpoint, they will be better equipped to empathize with an unhappy customer when a real situation arises.

“The simple fact is [that] difficult customers are part of running a business, but instead of seeing this as a negative, I would suggest seeing it as a positive,”” said Bugeja. “These customers are coming to you because they are looking for answers, and while they may not always do it in the most diplomatic way, you are given the opportunity to gain the trust of somebody whose trust you didn’t have beforehand.”

Jocelyn Pollock and Stella Morrison contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.


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