How to Deal with Difficult Customers

Illustration by Saskia Keultjes
Illustration by Saskia Keultjes

Even if you run a business people love, difficult customers are a fact of life. They may be a small percentage of your community, but in the moment, they can feel impossible to handle.

When you work in customer service, figuring out how to deal with difficult customers is part of the job — but it can also be the hardest part of the job. As humans, we’re hardwired to care about others. That’s what customer service is about, right?

To do the job well, you need to balance this innate caring with strategies and skills that help you diffuse rude customers in the moment.

Sometimes, it’s clear that a customer’s woes have nothing to do with the issue at hand, and there’s a way to tackle that, too.

9 tips for dealing with difficult customers

We spoke to several experts who have moved up the ranks of customer service in different industries, so we could learn from their examples of dealing with difficult customers. It turns out there’s more than one way to transform these cringe-worthy moments into mutually beneficial experiences.

1. Prepare in advance

In any customer service role, knowing how to deal with rude customers depends directly on your knowledge of the product or service. Building a strong foundation — and working toward mastery — becomes even more essential when you’re dealing with someone who’s testing your limits. The sooner you can get the mechanics of your role down, the more effortless and nuanced you can be throughout these charged moments.

This same “prepare in advance” ethos extends to educating yourself on customers. Katherine Yasi, Director of Customer Support and Onboarding at Zaius, always dives into the customer’s profile before stepping onto a call. Are there any open support tickets, negative customer NPS surveys, or notes connected to this customer? These details give you context and a sense of their likely response.

2. Recognize the opportunity in failure

The good news about dealing with difficult customers is that, if you do a good job, you can more than make up for the issue that started it all. The service recovery paradox states that, in every customer service failure, there’s an opportunity to transform rude customers into loyal patrons. So, you can actually benefit from higher customer satisfaction levels than you would have if nothing went wrong.

Lindsay Howard, the Wine Director at Island Creek Oyster Bar in Boston, says she’s learned the same thing in her 10 years in the hospitality business.

“My biggest successes have been when someone is really upset with my selection from our wine list, but I still happen to find something special from my cellar to offer them. Those moments are when I feel like I have done my job right.”

When you enter a tough situation, take a moment to make a mental shift. If you can remember that every difficult customer is a worthy challenge, it will be easier to manage it step-by-step.

3. Change channels

Sometimes, it can be tempting to try to contain a customer interaction to emails or cut off a conversation for time’s sake. That’s especially the case if you’ve experienced a glitch and your team is stretched as it is. But doing the opposite, and giving customers the space they need to vent, can actually be the more efficient, effective solution.

Nathanael Newby-Kew, the Associate Director of Customer Support at Skyword, believes that increasing the level of interaction brings a sense of concern to the conversation that people appreciate:

“If you’re communicating over email, hop on the phone or escalate to the next level of support to show them you’re taking the situation seriously.”

Next time you’re dreading a tough call, remember that it’s always going to be better than handling difficult customers over email. Here, customers can have the space they need to vent, and they know they’re being heard, which sometimes is a resolution in itself.

4. Adapt your approach to the customer’s personality

We all have different personalities, and the same goes for rude customers. One way to make tough interactions better is to adapt your approach to their approach. The Disc framework, which is often used in sales, is just as effective in customer service.

You start by identifying the customer’s personality type (one of four) and offer a solution that is catered to the way they like to problem solve.

Source: DISC Personality Testing

Tyler Haire, a marketing strategist who worked in bilingual customer support and success for eight years, says using this framework revolutionized his day-to-day. “I could really help difficult customers in a way that they could accept. It was remarkably spot-on.”

At Skyword, Newby-Kew took a similar approach to an extremely detail-oriented customer (definitely a C personality). The customer kept submitting separate tickets for every issue he came across in their platform, and it became a tangled mess of complaints that frustrated everyone on the support team.

“We ended up hopping on a call and sharing a spreadsheet that detailed which of his issues had been resolved and which were in progress. We then had him rank his priorities and created a new email chain for each issue with a reference number he agreed to include.”

By tracking and documenting the issues, Newby-Kew tailored his approach to the customer and came to a resolution.

5. Find your balance between empathy and boundaries

Even if you have your approach to rude customers down, it’s still not easy to experience abrasive language and even abuse. Everyone has a horrific example of dealing with difficult customers. Howard has had people yell curse words in her face, stomp like children, and threaten to have her fired.

To do her job well, she needed to walk a fine line between expressing empathy and maintaining boundaries — and you need to, too. Here’s what our four experts say about the importance of striking that integral balance:

“It’s really easy to identify with the customer (especially if you’re empathetic), but you have to limit the extent to which you take it on to be effective in your job. Getting emotionally involved is not going to help you or help the customer. It’s a quick way to get burned out.”out.” Tyler Haire Tyler Haire
“I have dealt with a lot of uncomfortable stuff. First, I stay calm and listen. Sometimes people just need someone to listen. I hold my ground if it is very uncomfortable and get back up when needed.”needed.” Lindsay Howard Lindsay Howard
“A lot of customer service is just having empathy for your customers without letting it consume you. Everyone has bad days — just because a customer is having one doesn't mean you have to share that burden.”burden.” Lindsay Howard Nathanael Newby-Kew
“I honestly used to approach these situations with a lot of anxiety. Over time, I have learned to take a calmer approach. Let the customer vent and actively listen to them. Every once in awhile it can be good to stop and summarize what you’ve heard in your own words.”words.” Lindsay Howard Katherine Yasi

6. Apologize with sincerity and without rambling

A perfect apology meets a few key requirements: It’s short, sweet and sincere. But when you’re dealing with rude customers, it’s easy to veer too far in one direction or the other. You can react to their negativity with an insincere “sorry” or over-apologize and ramble way to much in reaction to their distress. Work on getting comfortable with your own middle ground, so it feels natural even in a tense situation.

Don’t: “Hmm, that’s not good.”
Don’t: “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry — how did that happen? Yikes! What a terrible mistake. I just can’t apologize enough … this is absolutely horrendous. I feel awful. What a mess you’re in.”
Do: “I’m so sorry that our team fell short yesterday. We have high standards, and we didn’t meet them with that delivery time. Let’s get this sorted out right now.”

When you do apologize, own up to any shortcomings on your company’s end. Even though it may be hard to do when you’re up against an irrational reaction, it’s the honest way forward.

7. Never, ever lie to customers

Once you’ve apologized effectively, get to the crux of the problem. Sometimes, there isn’t a solution yet. It’s really tough to be the bearer of bad news, but lying to difficult customers never helps the ultimate goal: driving customer loyalty.

In situations where you don’t have a resolution just yet, be transparent and clear. For example, Yasi needed to navigate a software integration issue with a customer. He demanded a concrete timeline, but her team didn’t have that information. “I looped in our VP of Engineering, and we had to have a very direct conversation with the client that a timeline was unrealistic. We shared that were committed to resolving all the issues and providing a timeline when we had the data we needed.”

Even if you can’t deliver a solution, create a plan and deliver that plan with confidence. Ultimately, customers want to know that you’re putting in the effort to meet their needs for the long term and you’re willing to follow up until it happens.

8. Lean on your team

Even when you’re putting all your skills to work, you can be in way over your head. That’s natural — you’re not supposed to know everything. Figuring out how to deal with difficult customers often requires that you ask for help. When Haire worked in healthcare support, he connected people with mental health challenges with treatment options — all in Haire’s second language, Spanish.

One day, a man called in for help who was experiencing suicidal thoughts. “It was difficult at first to understand what was going on because I thought the client was under the influence of drugs, but once I identified the situation, I was able to escalate the conversation to a clinician. We got him the help he needed,” says Haire.

The biggest takeaway Haire remembers from that tough situation: Even though you’re on the front lines dealing with customers in the role, there is a team behind you that can give you support. Never be afraid to ask for what you need.

9. Get creative when making things right

In the hospitality industry, the traditional “fix all” for big goof-ups is to take care of the meal for the guests. In e-commerce, it’s a whopper of a discount or an exchange. Going beyond these industry norms, though, makes it more likely that customers have a change of heart.

When Howard encounters a tough scenario, she sends cards, emails, delivers gifts to customers’ homes, or gives disappointed customers bottles of wine. “I get more creative than I used to. I’ve even called ahead to other restaurants where a customer regularly dines and purchased a bottle of champagne for them in advance,” says Howard.

People love it. Not only is her approach generous, it’s unexpected. Give it a try. Over time, you’ll become an expert at turning a terrible experience into a reason for a customer to love you forever.

Elizabeth Wellington
Elizabeth Wellington

Liz writes about business, creativity and making meaningful work. Say hello on Twitter or through her website.

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