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6 tips for handling difficult customers

Photo by Christiann Koepke

Encountering difficult customers is inevitable, and they come in all shapes and sizes—from the angry one who is never satisfied to the impatient one who can’t wait a second longer. But the good news is you don’t have to dread these types of customers if you are prepared to interact with them. The first step is to remember these two things. 

  • Every customer interaction, good or bad, is an opportunity for you to represent your business. The calmer and more solution-oriented your response is, the better you represent your brand. 
  • While “don’t take it personally” may seem easier said than done (as it can certainly feel very personal when somebody is yelling at you), you are not “personally” responsible for someone else’s behavior. Even if you made a mistake or fell short in your service, if the customer chooses to be angry or disrespectful, it is their personal choice. It has nothing to do with you.

So what do you do when you have a difficult customer on your hands? Use these six easy tips to help resolve potential customer issues.

If you prefer to listen along, check out the audio version below.

1. Stay calm

This is probably not the first thing you want to hear, but staying calm is the best approach, even in the most heated interactions. It is by no means easy, especially if someone is yelling in your face. But remember, it’s not personal. When you maintain a calm presence, it will help lower the temperature of the situation as a whole and you’ll be in a better mental space to resolve the situation quickly.

“I always try to put myself in the customer’s shoes,” says Leslie Embry, founder of The Blowout Co. “If somebody is upset, then something else is probably going on in their life, but they’re taking it out on you, and you don’t know what’s going on with them. You always have to step back and go over the top with customer service because we don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors.”

2. Listen

Difficult customers will sometimes go on and on, ranting about things that have nothing to do with the actual problem or are completely out of your control. But if you listen attentively past the yelling and rudeness, you may be able to get to the bottom of the customer issue. 

The customer may be acting unreasonably, but by listening calmly, you can probably tease out something you can work with to quickly resolve the complaint.

“You gotta listen because what you can’t be is a know-it-all,” shares Chris Goode, owner and founder of Ruby Jean’s Kitchen & Juicery. “If you have people that have spent their money at your business and like they’re giving you real time feedback, you need to listen. And sometimes it hurts to listen. I’m not gonna lie to you—sometimes it’s like, ah, you could have been a little nicer, but you’re right.”

3. Ask

Sometimes the customer may be angry just for the sake of being angry. Or it could be misplaced anger at something else going on in their life. Regardless, sometimes simply asking a question like, “What can I do to make this better for you today?” will veer them away from their anger and direct them toward working with you on a resolution. 

You should also customize your response based on the situation and the potential solutions you have at your disposal—whether you say “You’re right, and we need to do something about this immediately” or “If I can’t take care of this, I know who can.” 

4. Apologize

This is tricky but important to implement. Even if you agree the customer is right and you or your business were at fault, it is hard to apologize to someone who is being outright disrespectful. Conversely, if you are not at fault, it is even harder to apologize for something you didn’t do. But either way, an apology can be a powerful comeback. 

You have an angry, disruptive customer on your hands, creating a negative environment for your employees and other patrons. Wouldn’t you rather the customer leave quickly and quietly versus staying and escalating the situation? It is never a bad idea to whip out the apology card. You may be surprised at how the customer takes the apology and does not even ask for anything else. Sometimes people just need to know they are being heard.

Nic Faitos, owner of Starbright Floral Design, shares his approach. “Usually I will start off the conversation… in true, empathetic Faitos fashion with a lot of sincerity, I’m going to say something like, ‘I wish I could turn the clock back and make this right in your experience the first time.’” 

5. Offer

If apologizing doesn’t work, offer them something. Sometimes you’ll have customers who are just plain rude. They had a bad experience, and now they just want to complain. In this situation, offer the customer something to make up for their dissatisfaction like a discount code for their next visit. 

Even when a customer isn’t cooperative, you can end the situation on a good note. Offering compensation is a good way to stop a bad situation from escalating.

6. Empathize

Lastly if neither asking, apologizing, or offering has worked, the only thing you can do is empathize. It doesn’t matter whether you think the customer is right or wrong. Simply acknowledging that you understand how the customer is feeling can go a long way. And it is also the most neutral stance you can take. 

You are not accepting responsibility or putting the blame on the customer. Empathizing doesn’t make the customer’s feelings right or wrong. But when an apology “isn’t good enough,” empathy can be the only choice you have. You are showing that you understand, and that is often enough to calm down a hostile customer.

As ideal as it would be to never have a disgruntled customer, we all know that isn’t a reality. There is no such thing as perfection, and no matter how particular you are about your business, mistakes will be made—sometimes in your control and sometimes out of it. But by working through each of these six steps, you can minimize the impact of unfortunate customer experiences and even turn them into positive ones.

Listen to the audio version

Yelp for Business · 6 Tips for Handling Difficult Customers

The information above is provided for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice and may not be suitable for your circumstances. Unless stated otherwise, references to third-party links, services, or products do not constitute endorsement by Yelp.

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