How to Deal With Difficult Customers

Nine tips from Podium on contending with complaints

By Raechel Duplain, Podium

This article originally appeared on Podium’s blog page and is reposted here with Podium’s permission.

Dealing with upset customers is just a part of running a business.

No matter how hard you try to avoid it, eventually you’re going to have an unsatisfied customer. While business owners and managers strive to keep their customers happy, there will always be someone that comes in upset and complains about a service or product. 

You might not deal with it daily, but when you do, it tends to be memorable. Dealing with customer problems can be challenging and overwhelming, but with the right toolset, you can achieve the best possible outcome.

While it may be tempting to avoid difficult people altogether, the better idea is to deal with rude customers right then and there. Dealing with difficult people is essential, whether or not you like it. Knowing how to handle difficult customers and complaints is an important part of a business because:

  • It will help to retain customers.
  • It will encourage customers to recommend your business.
  • It can provide valuable feedback.
  • It develops customer rapport.
  • It improves your business branding.

Dealing with difficult customers head-on gives you a better reputation, but only when done correctly. You can’t expect to handle problems with more negativity. Instead, you need to approach any issue with the mentality that there is room for improvement and that the customer complaining is a human who deserves to be heard. 

Here are nine of the best tips from professionals to incorporate into your difficult customer training. 

1. Remain Calm and Professional

One of the best ways to handle an angry customer is to not react negatively to their anger. Practice active listening and make sure to reiterate what the customer is saying. When you have a customer that is verbally abusive and swearing, you cannot respond in the same manner. Take a moment to calm down and respond as properly as you can. In these cases, you can indeed kill them with kindness. 

Remind the customer you want to help them and that you are here to resolve the situation. This statement alone can go a long way to defusing things. Then, work to resolve the issue. Whether the issue is simple and can be fixed in a few minutes or the problem is complex and takes days to resolve, you are there to find a solution. 

2. Practice Reflective Listening

When a frustrated customer has voiced their complaints, reflect their concerns back to them in a way that shows them their concerns have been heard and understood.

Consider the following exchange: 

Customer: “I am frustrated because everything is out of my budget and you won’t work with me.”

Manager: “I realize this, but…”

This conversation is not going to end well by anyone’s standards. Instead, if the manager also takes cues from the customer’s body language and reflects her concerns back, the conversation would sound more like this:

Customer: “I’m frustrated because everything is out of my budget, and you won’t work with me.”

Manager: “I’m hearing that our pricing is a barrier. Our products and services currently don’t fit into your budget and you would like discounts. Is this correct?”

While you may not be able to come to a resolution, your goal is to make your customer feel heard and this will help when dealing with difficult customers. As a bonus, you are clarifying what the customer needs to be happy with the resolution.

3. Let Them Speak

In many cases, simply allowing an angry customer the time and space to voice their complaint will help them feel better. Don’t argue with the customer or try to speak over them. Instead, let them have their say. Let them get it all out of their system and practice active listening through good use of body language. Lean into the conversation and nod your head in agreement when it makes sense. Repeat key points back to them. 

For instance, when your customer says something like, “I brought this product home and it didn’t work well in this situation.” Reply with something to the effect of, “So, I understand you’re unhappy with the performance of our product during this instance. Let’s see how we can resolve this.” 

Then, judge the situation and find solutions that may work. If you don’t find any agreeable resolution, consider refunding, bringing management on board, or agreeing to disagree. Part of handling difficult customers is knowing when you can’t resolve the issue without assistance. 

4. Be Understanding of Their Viewpoint

It can be easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to something a customer is complaining about, but you must be more careful than that. Take time to build rapport with your customer by empathizing with their situation. Put yourself in their shoes. Show that you understand their frustration.

When you empathize with their problem, it’s easier to calm down upset customers and come up with a solution. It can be a natural reaction to get louder as the customer does, but instead, lower your voice and speak slowly. Keep a clear mind and remain courteous. Maintaining a helpful attitude is something you’ll notice in all of our examples of dealing with difficult customers. 

5. Keep an Open Mind

Listening to the customer’s experience and treating it as an opportunity to learn and improve will help you keep an open mind to what they are saying. Work hard at not coming from the viewpoint that you and your employees did everything correctly.

Remember that your customers are human beings with their own experiences and the occasional bad day. Maybe they had a cop stop them this morning or got into an argument at home. Part of dealing with difficult customers is trying to understand and work through the problem with them, instead of against them. 

6. Recognize Patterns

Remember, as a business owner or manager, you need to hear more than just the negative words the customer is saying. In some cases, complaints will be random and accidental, but there are times when you need to recognize patterns of unhappy customers. 

Take note when several concerns about the same product or service are expressed. This is a good time to reevaluate your offerings and find areas for improvement. 

7. Take a Deep Breath and Don’t Take It Personally

As we said, dealing with the occasional difficult customer is unavoidable. But you need to know how to remain professional and calm.

Everyone reacts to this stress differently. People isolate, cry, get angry, or get unresponsive. Learn your unique reaction patterns so they don’t catch you off guard. Remember, your customer isn’t the only one that can get irritated. If you find that you are lacking patience in a tense situation, redirect the customer to another employee or a manager and explain you are doing what is best for them. 

8. Don’t De-Escalate the Situation, Escalate It

While it may seem counterintuitive, escalating a situation before a customer has the chance to do so can be a very effective way to solve the problem. When a customer asks to speak with a manager, it tends to make the situation feel doomed. 

However, when you suggest, “Let me get my manager for you,” your client will take this as a sign you are taking them seriously and will often calm down. 

Escalation doesn’t have to mean a failure on your part. It means that you care enough to get your customer the person capable of offering the right resolution. If you happen to be that expert, then immediately establish yourself as such and provide some angry customer examples you’ve previously dealt with. This will highlight your ability to resolve the issue. 

9. Come up With Resolutions

Whether or not an acceptable resolution is offered can make or break the customer experience. At the outset, come at the problem with a resolution mindset. You don’t want to have bad reviews and negative interactions. Take the time to come up with resolutions as if all customers are watching you. 

A happy client can go a long way, but negative reviews and referrals tend to travel further. Give a refund when you can, offer a new product or free service, and move on. At the end of the day, you may have a happy customer in your hands.

Remember, you can’t operate a business without dealing with the occasional unhappy client. But how you handle them will always tell you more about you and your business skills than the actual customer.

Manage all your communication — from reviews and website conversations to text marketing, payments and more — with Podium. Click here to start a free trial.

Raechel Duplain is group manager, solutions marketing at BrandSource partner Podium, the premiere marketing and communications platform for local businesses.

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