Customer Service

9 tips for handling difficult customers

Written by Michael Hoon

Every business, in every sector, in every industry, is filled with difficult clients or customers who make doing your job 10 times harder than it has to be. After a long day of work, it can be enough to make you rage out… or crumple into a ball and weep. When you feel like you’re going to lose it, try these 9 helpful strategies instead.

1. Show how well you can listen.

You know they’re totally in the wrong, but they don’t understand that yet. They’ve got the situation or the facts all incorrect and you just can’t bear to hear them rehash details that don’t make sense. All they hear from your impatience is that they’re not being heard. Try just letting them get it all out. Listen patiently to what they have to say. Let them vent. It will help you set them straight if you understand their position better first and if they feel like you’ve been paying attention.

2. Show empathy.

Forget for a second that this person is rude, mean, and wrong. Whatever their problem, they really want you to understand and help them. Repeat back what you hear as the major issue. Express your genuine regret that they’re having a rough time, and show an honest willingness to help. Even if you have to fake it, use eye contact, body language, and verbal cues to show you care and are engaged. Don’t talk over your customer—this just feels like a power play. Let them finish first.

3. Talk slower and sweeter.

Just because your customer raises his or her voice doesn’t mean you have to respond in kind. Lower your voice and slow your speech down. The calming effect can be immense. You can still be firm—the last thing you want to do is show your fear. But try to inspire the client to relax just with the way you’re speaking.

4. Look for nuance.

Is their ire coming at you from a place of anger, anxiety, annoyance, or frustration? Getting a more specific sense of where their wrath originates can help you figure out how to tackle neutralizing it. Look at the situation from their point of view and try to figure out what may have triggered their (over)reaction. See if there’s anything you can accept blame for or fix easily, and start with that.

5. Imagine you have an audience.

If you’re having a hard time keeping your cool, just imagine you’re not alone. Rather, pretend you’re in a room full of clients or customers. Imagine this audience of people is judging your company on your merits as a problem solver. Keep the tone confident and cool. Playing this trick on yourself is a great way to stay professional and courteous, even when you want to scream.

6. Find your foothold.

Is there anything, in your customer’s tirade that makes a little bit of sense? Look for something you can work with—break down the rant into manageable, actionable chunks and talk your customer through those. Finding even one thing you can solve immediately, however small, can really diffuse a situation and make a customer feel heard and respected.

7. Pretend to be wrong.

If you flip the tables and start agreeing with everything your customer says to the point of taking all the blame upon your shoulders (where it doesn’t belong), you might just find the customer will soften and start saying things like, “Well, I understand it’s not your fault.” It’s a bit of a hit-or-miss strategy, but can be super effective in certain situations.

8. Give them a parting gift.

Your biggest goal as a liaison for your company is to repair the relationship. See if you can give your customer a voucher or a bonus discount of some kind—anything to make them feel they’ve “won.”

9. Don’t take it personally.

At the end of the day, some customers can’t be reason with and some people are irrationally angry. It’s not about you. It’s probably not even about the company. Let it wash right off your back. Don’t take it home.

About the author

Michael Hoon