Customer Service Skills:
Dealing with Difficult Customers

See also: Customer Service Telephone Skills

Facing a difficult customer, whether in person, on the telephone or via direct messaging, email or social media, is many people’s worst nightmare. If talking to customers is part of your role, however, it is almost inevitable that you will have to deal with a difficult customer sooner or later. Learning how to manage those conversations will be a useful skill for the future.

Difficult customers are not just encountered when they make a complaint, although this is often the case. Sometimes, though, the most difficult customers to satisfy are those who have contacted the company for the first time, because you have no history with them, and therefore have less information about how to treat them. For those customers, it is doubly important to listen carefully to what they are telling you, because that will give you important information.

This page discusses how to deal with difficult customers in general, with some information about particular situations. These include, for example, on the phone, and dealing with complaints.

The Key to Good Customer Service

Our page on Customer Service Skills explains that the key to good customer service is simple:

You have to focus on the customer, and what they need and want from you, at all stages of the relationship: before, during and after a purchase.

This applies with difficult customers as well, if not more so.

The Number One Rule of Dealing with Difficult Customers

There is one primary rule when dealing with difficult customers: don’t make a bad situation worse.

It may, therefore help to consider what might make the situation worse for the customer. In other words, what is going to make an already angry or frustrated person more angry or frustrated? This list covers some of these issues:

  • Not listening to what they are saying – or being perceived not to be listening. You can show that you are listening by responding with ‘fillers’ such as ‘yes, I see’, and ‘uh huh’ periodically, as they speak. If you are typing as you listen, it is a good idea to explain that you are making notes about their issue, so that they do not think that you are getting on with other work, and just letting them vent. It is also helpful to check your understanding by reflecting and paraphrasing, as this shows very clearly that you were listening.

  • Not acknowledging their feelings, or that they have a reason to complain. We all like to have our feelings acknowledged, and it is a relatively simple thing to do. It puts you on the customer’s side, and makes it less likely that they will be angry with you. It also gives you more time to think about how you are going to respond. Use phrases such as:

    I can tell that you’re very frustrated by this situation, and I can understand that.”

    “I can hear that you’re really angry about this, and I am very sorry that you have had to go through this.”

  • Not letting the customer explain the problem. It can be tempting to jump straight in and start to answer the customer, as soon as there is a pause in their speech. Don’t. Wait until you are sure that they have finished, and take time to check that you have really understood the problem by asking them questions and summarising the situation.

  • Making excuses or getting defensive. There is nothing quite so annoying as someone who is making excuses. Don’t do it. Your customer probably doesn’t care why something went wrong, or whose fault it was, they just want it put right. Focus on how to improve the situation, rather than explaining it.

  • Promising too much and then having to backtrack. It can be tempting to promise the earth, just to stop your customer from shouting at you. It is, however, going to make things much worse if you then have to backtrack and explain that, actually, you have no power to deliver a new product tomorrow. Only promise what you can actually deliver. If anything, under-promise, and over-deliver.

  • Not explaining what is going on or disappearing for long periods. If you have to leave your customer, perhaps to go and talk to your manager about what is possible, explain what is happening:

    I need to talk to my manager about what can be done, so please wait here, and I will be back as soon as I can. I’m sorry, it may take me a few minutes to locate her, so please don’t worry if I am gone ten minutes or so.”

    “I need to talk to someone in Accounts about this. Would it be OK to put you on hold while I do so, or would you rather that I called you back?”

    “I need to talk to my manager about this, but he’s on another call right now. Could I take your details, and call you back in about half an hour?”

  • Trying to guess what they want, and how to resolve their complaint or issue. It sounds simple, but many difficult customers are made more difficult because nobody has asked what they actually want. They may simply want to be heard. The best way to find out what your frustrated customer wants is to ask them. Try saying something like:

    I can see that this is frustrating for you. How can we best resolve it, in a way that will work for you?”

    “I am so sorry you had such a bad experience. What can we do to put it right?”

Our guest post on Dealing with Customer Complaints contains other suggestions about how to take a complaint, and also what to do next. It also contains some tips for dealing with complaints, including keeping records of all interactions, and providing comprehensive staff training for anyone who deals with customers.

Dealing with Difficult Customer Telephone Calls

Dealing with difficult customers is doubly hard on the phone, because you do not have any visual clues—and neither do they. It is therefore harder to build rapport, and you are also unable to use body language mirroring or other standard techniques.

You have to work much harder with the main tool at your disposal: your voice.

Your voice has to convey your emotion, whether pleasure at speaking to the customer, or sympathy with their issue. Because so much of our meaning is conveyed by body language, you may have to exaggerate your tone of voice on the telephone to ensure that your meaning is understood. This can feel artificial at first, but it does work.

There is more about tone of voice, and other aspects of speaking in our pages on Effective Speaking, and Non-Verbal Communication: Face and Voice.

TOP TIP! Smile…

Believe it or not, smiling can be ‘heard’ over the telephone.

People can tell if someone they are talking to is smiling. Your voice sounds different, and you come across as warmer and more welcoming. It is therefore good to answer the phone smiling, particularly if you often answer it to customers trying to make a complaint or resolve an issue!

There is more about some of the issues specific to telephone calls with difficult customers in our page Dealing with Difficult Customer Calls.

Generic Skills, Different Types of Customers

Every customer, of course, is not the same. The skills required for dealing with difficult customers, however, are generic. They will usually work with most customers.

There may, however, be some specific situations where you need a slightly different approach. Our guest post on Difficult Customers provides a useful and fun infographic to identify different types of difficult customers, and suggests some specific approaches that may be useful.