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Dealing With Difficult Customers

By: Jeff Durham - Updated: 7 Mar 2014 | comments*Discuss
Customers Complaints Work Violence Abuse

People who work in sales and especially, customer service are at the sharp end of having to deal with angry people and it’s not restricted to just these two types of job that have to bear the brunt of an irate customer. Most of us at some time in our jobs will encounter an uncomfortable situation like this no matter what line of work we do.

We’ll be faced with having to deal with fault finders, picky people, complainers, angry people or just down right know-it-alls and, whilst this isn’t the most pleasant of experiences we’ll have in our everyday working lives, it’s important to know how to deal with them.

Why a Correct Approach is Important to Business

What some companies fail to realise is that it’s not the angry person on the end of a phone or face-to-face which presents the most risk of you losing business. For every person who complains, there are perhaps 10 others who have simply gone away and taken their business elsewhere without you ever realising that they were unhappy with your product or service. Therefore, whilst a customer may be ranting and raving at you over the phone, it’s important to remember that, while they are still there complaining, they are still a valued customer and, as such, you have an ideal opportunity to win them over. This not only benefits the company but if you’re able to turn the situation around, you’ll gain more confidence and will be much more adept in tackling difficult customers next time it happens.
While a customer is still there, even if they are complaining, you have the ideal opportunity to win them over. Try not to lose a valued customer.

Of course, you’re not going to be able to please all of the people all of the time and no matter how much empathy you show or how tactful and diplomatic you are, you’re not going to win every ‘battle’ and some customers are, inevitably, going to vent their spleen and have already decided never to do business with your company again. However, if you adopt a correct approach, you can rescue many situations which would otherwise have resulted in another lost customer. Here are a few tips in how to deal with a difficult one.

It’s Not You Personally That’s the Problem...It’s the Problem Itself

When a person complains about something, it’s important to remember that they’re not attacking you personally. It’s a problem they’ve encountered which has caused them to fly off the handle. Yes, they might be ranting and raving or, perhaps, even swearing at you but if you take a deep breath – remember they’re not angry at YOU personally but because they have a problem. Therefore, even though you may think that their tone and/or language are highly inappropriate, it’s crucial you maintain a respect for the person even if you don’t respect their behaviour towards you.

Remember It’s YOU that has the Control

People can often ‘lose it’ completely when they are annoyed. They’ll shout and scream and gabble so fast, it’s often hard to get to the gist of knowing what their particular problem is. However, you are not angry and are calm and, therefore, you have the power and you are in control by remaining restrained. If you adopt this mentality whenever you’re faced with an irate customer, you’re likely to eventually win the customer around. But, the moment you start reacting emotionally to their outburst, you’ve released your grip on the power and control of the situation which will then escalate the problem even further and is likely to result in failure in terms of coming to a satisfactory resolution.

Listen Before Saying Anything

Once you’ve asked the person to explain their problem or issue to you, it’s then crucial that you:
  • Simply listen without any kind of interruption whatsoever until they’ve finished or pause for breath to ask you a question
  • Not only will this enable you to gain a thorough comprehension of what the problem is, by interrupting them ‘mid-flow’ when they are likely to be highly charged emotionally, you run the risk of them getting even more upset
  • By letting them speak until they’ve completed what they want to say, you’ll soon become accustomed to a plateau which is the point at which their anger is at its fiercest and then, once this climax point has been reached, they’ll start to slow down and regain their composure before reaching the end of what they’ve had to say – Then, and only then, is it your time to speak

Display Empathy

Once they’ve finished their diatribe, it’s important that you try to look at the situation from their perspective. Having not interrupted their flow and by listening intently, it’s already sent a signal to the person that you have listened and that you care about them and the situation they’re facing. Saying things like, “I can understand your situation” or “I’m sorry that you’ve been having this problem” can have a real positive effect of calming the person down to an extent to which you can start having meaningful dialogue between you.

Identifying the Issue

Once you have identified what the problem is, it’s important that you re-iterate it to the customer so that they are sure that you have heard them correctly. For example, “Now, would you mind if I just clarify that with you. You said you’d paid £10 extra for next day delivery service but the goods didn’t arrive for a further three days, is that correct?” If you’ve assumed correctly, the customer will say ‘yes’ and then you can move on. If not, they might wish to explain things further before you can proceed to the next stage. Once they’ve acknowledged that you have understood them correctly, you re-iterate your apologies then start to work upon a resolution to the problem.

Don’t Apportion Blame

Before resolving the problem, however, it’s important that you don’t apportion blame – neither to the customer or to your company directly to prevent damaging its reputation further. It’s proper and correct for you to apologise if your company has made a mistake but there is a right and wrong way of doing this. In the situation just described, the wrong way would be to say,

“I’m sorry. It’s hardly surprising your order was delayed. Two of the staff are on holiday at present and that department is way behind with processing orders”.

In responding that way, you are going to irk the customer even more. What you should be saying is something along the lines of;

“I’m sorry to hear that. There has clearly been a problem with communication and the processing of orders here. I can’t change that but I am going to try to rectify the situation for you.”

By giving such a response, you have acknowledged the problem and apologised for it but without apportioning direct blame.

The Resolution

Now it’s time to try to resolve the situation. There is never going to be a successful outcome every time here and what may be a satisfactory resolution for one customer may not appease another but what is important is to go about trying to resolve the problem in the correct manner. Let’s go back to our very simple problem with the late delivery of goods. Your response might be,

“I am going to refund the £10 as we clearly didn’t get the goods to you by the next day as promised and, as you are a valued customer, I’m going to send you a voucher for £20 which you can use against any future purchase you make with us”.

Hopefully, this will not only appease the customer but you’ve also opened up the opportunity for them to shop again with you. Of course, you’re never going to get all customers to accept your offer and some of them will choose to refuse it. At this point, it’s acceptable for you to ask them;

“How would you like us to resolve the situation which would be satisfactory to you?”

This then leaves the ball in the customer’s court for them to respond. Occasionally, they’ll ask for compensation which you can’t agree to and they will want to escalate their issue higher up the chain of command but by taking all of these steps, you’ll have done your job to the best of your ability and in a manner which is likely to resolve most issues.

The more you encounter difficult customers, the easier it becomes to deal with them and the more you’ll experience satisfactory outcomes. As long as you adopt an approach similar to that above, you’ll win more than you’ll lose. Nevertheless, always bear in mind that you’re never going to win them all.

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