How To Deal With Difficult Customers

Published on:

May 20, 2021

Man serving woman to depict poor customer service.

When was the last time you dealt with a difficult customer?

We all know the signs. Short responses, exasperated tone, long pauses and sighs.

Difficult customers are an unavoidable part of doing business. Yet even for the most experienced of customer service managers and advisors, difficult customers can be… well — difficult.

Businesses are struggling because they’re not meeting customer expectations, whatever those might be. In fact, 54% of customers have higher expectations for customer service now than a year ago. It’s no easy feat, but businesses need to rise to the challenge of customers they deem difficult.

We’re of the ever-optimistic opinion that we should all be treating these customers as an opportunity. An opportunity to enhance our customer service phone skills and communication skills, as well as to prove that your business really is the best option for any customer because of your outstanding customer service levels.

That’s why in this article we’ll be looking at:

  • Why conflict resolution is a vital customer service skill
  • The service recovery paradox
  • Examples of difficult customers
  • How to deal with difficult customers

Why Conflict Resolution is a Vital Customer Service Skill

What a world we’d live in if every customer was an absolute dream. In reality though, difficult customers are a part of the job. More than that, 99% of the time, there’s a reason they’re being “difficult”. You just need to get to the bottom of it.

These customers are in the minority. In fact 72% of the nation wish they were better at complaining and avoid doing so. So listening to these difficult customers and identifying the underlying issues will help all your customers.

You can achieve better resolutions with difficult customers with conflict resolution skills. It’s a vital customer service skill to have because these conflicts are inevitable. No matter how perfect your customer experience, you are bound to have those customers where you failed to meet their expectations due to error or an oversight.

You can’t just hang up on these customers or pull down the shutter. At least, we certainly wouldn’t recommend you do that if you want your business to last long!

You need to know how to deal with difficult customers to run a functional business. Not only this, but there’s evidence that customers may be more loyal to a business after conflict resolution. This is known as the service recovery paradox.

The Service Recovery Paradox

It’s a bizarre fact, but customers can be more loyal to your business after experiencing a service failure than they would have been had it never happened.

When things go wrong, customer loyalty and retention obviously takes a hit. However, if companies exceed customer expectations in resolving these conflicts, then customers may actually end up being more loyal to the company than they would have been had the customer experience gone smoothly in the first place.

This rather paradoxical idea has been proven time and time again to be true, and it’s why service recovery and conflict resolution are so important to businesses. 

That’s why we say you need to see these customers as an opportunity. An opportunity for your customer service advisors to turn an unhappy customer who may have a negative impact on your business into a loyal, lifelong customer who feels valued thanks to their great customer service skills.

That all starts here, by knowing the common types of difficult customers and how to deal with them.

Examples of Difficult Customers (and How to Deal With Them)

Though there’s the occasional outlier, for the most part, difficult customers can be neatly categorised into the following types. We’ll walk you through how to deal with all of them.

The Impatient Customer

The impatient customer can be a real challenge. Mostly because their impatience can come across as rude or unnecessary. In reality, chances are this customer is impatient for a reason.

This reason could be that they’re running late for something. It could also be that they’ve been left on hold for too long and it’s made them feel exasperated. This is to say, it may or may not be your company’s fault that your customer is impatient. Either way, they are and there’s almost always a plausible, reasonable explanation for their impatience.

We’re focusing on reasoning out their impatience because this is the first vital step in knowing how to deal with a difficult customer like this. It makes them human. After all, who wouldn’t be feeling a little impatient from those examples above?

From here, how to handle an impatient customer is simple. Acknowledge their feelings and express your understanding. Then be clear, concise and attempt to resolve the issue as efficiently as possible. Being helpful is the most useful tool in your box here, alongside being transparent about any reasons for further delays. 

Let them know you value their time as much as they do and that you’re invested in resolving the conflict.

The Indecisive Customer

The indecisive customer, although often well-intentioned, can be another difficult customer you may not know how to deal with. This customer struggles to pick from several different options, whether that’s products or services. To further complicate things, they may not communicate this to you, they may just dwindle around between options trying to avoid a decision.

Failure to understand the indecisive customer can result in customer service advisors being too pushy towards a product the customer doesn’t want and may not like, ultimately resulting in a poor customer service experience. It can also result in an indecisive customer turning into a frustrated customer.

Knowing how to deal with indecisive customers all comes down to know the right questions to ask. Their indecision is based on a lack of knowledge about your products or your brand. They may not want to ask further questions, but they may also not even know what questions to ask to help resolve their conflict.

Customer service advisors here need to break out the questioning techniques to get to the root of the concerns, as well as actively listen to answers. From here, they can supply customers with the resources and information they need to come to a decision themselves. 

The Angry Customer

Some customers are flying off the handle by the time you speak to them.

We can’t express enough how rare it is for a customer to be doing this without having experienced some seriously bad customer service beforehand. So chances are, while it’s not you at fault, the company is intrinsically linked to the reason they’re so angry.

Dealing with angry customers can be difficult because it can feel like nothing you do is resolving the conflict. In fact, some of the time it can feel like everything just seems to be making the situation worse.

So here’s how to deal with an upset customer — first and foremost, listen. Active listening will help you increase your empathy, focus on the customer’s needs, reduce miscommunication and ultimately, come up with better resolutions for the customer.

As part of this listening, sometimes customers just need to vent. So let them. Once they’ve gotten it off their chest they’re far more likely to be able to move on to figuring out how to resolve their problem with your business.

You should also be empathetic. Try and put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Verbalise this understanding to your customer to reassure them you understand their frustration and you’re dedicated to resolving their problem. 

Then ask them how they’d like to see the issue resolved and figure out whether you can meet that expectation. This will involve taking ownership of the problem and dealing with it as appropriate. This may include chasing up other departments, speaking to managers for authorisation and organising callbacks to update on progress. You should do everything you can if you want a hope of winning this customer back through service recovery.

The Demanding Customer

The demanding customer is difficult because of how much time and energy they take up. It’s not necessarily an issue if you had all the time in the world to deal with just that customer, but that’s rarely the case. The reality is, the demanding customer takes up time at the expense of other customers.

They may also refuse to listen to advice, even if you’re certain it’s the best advice. For example, if you’re recommending a product you know is the best fit for their needs but they want another.

Knowing how to deal with a demanding customer involves patience, and plenty of it!

Listen to their concerns and address them with clarity and transparency. All you can do is give your best advice, as well as give them the resources they need to make the decision themselves. 

The Entitled Customer

Similar to the demanding customer, the entitled customer can be a headache inducing experience. So much so that there are entire forums dedicated to those who have to deal with them!

Entitled customers want special treatment. They often have a bad attitude and unrealistic customer experience expectations. They think their behaviour is justifiable because they’re more valuable to you than you are to them. It’s not untrue, but it doesn’t make dealing with entitled customers any easier.

It can be tough trying to please entitled customers, but it’s all part of knowing how to deal with difficult customers generally and nothing experienced customer advisors can’t handle. 

Often you can’t realistically do everything they want, so don’t. 

Do the next best thing, which is make them feel special. Let them know they’re your top priority, use their name wherever possible, thank them for being a customer and so on.

This can go a long way in easing more reasonable behaviour from these customers. 

The Penny-Pinching Customer

​Some people were born to haggle and can’t get enough of it. While it’s welcome down on the markets, the reality is in most modern businesses customer service advisors and salespeople don’t have much or any wiggle room when it comes to price. By this we mean, they have little or no autonomy to change the price so haggling with them is a bit futile.

Yet still, some customers don’t seem to believe this is the case. The penny-pinching customer wants to haggle on price or get a freebie. Chances are, whatever you offer, they’ll always push for more.

How to deal with frugal customers is simple — take money out the equation. Instead of talking price, talk about the benefits of your product or service and the feelings associated with it.

You solve a problem, so focus on that instead of the price. 

The Customer That Demands a Refund

Often refunds are totally justified. That’s why refund policies are clearly laid out by companies, and most companies have very reasonable policies that customers can stick to and be happy with.

But every now and then, you’ll get a customer who demands a refund who isn’t within the refund window. This can range from fairly reasonable to rather unreasonable. For example, an Awardaroo employee in a previous retail job had a customer try and return a used toilet seat a year after purchasing as it was still within the 12 month refund window!

Dealing with customers who want a refund can be tricky because advisors often have to stick to the refund policy. However, for more reasonable circumstances, it’s well worth escalating the issue to get authorisation to give at least a partial refund or credit. The customer who gets some kind of refund will be much happier and much more likely to shop with you in the future than the customer who doesn’t. 

How to Deal with Difficult Customers: 10 Simple Tips

As you can see from the above examples, knowing how to deal with difficult customers, regardless of the different types of customers, often requires the same key customer service skills and strategies.

In summary, follow these 10 simple tips on how to deal with difficult customers for the best results:

  • Don't take it personally
  • Be empathetic
  • Listen
  • Take ownership
  • Know when to escalate
  • Keep calm
  • Verbalise your understanding
  • Use and share resources
  • Be transparent
  • Remember, they're only human!

Dealing with Difficult Customers: An Opportunity

As you can see, there are many key customer service skills you’ll need to know how to deal with difficult customers.

While there are challenges with particular types of customers, a company’s ability to excel when it comes to conflict resolution can be a game changer for the customer experience.

So ensure your customer service advisors feel empowered and able to deal with difficult customers and aim for outstanding conflict resolutions every time for the best results for your company.

We can help with this with our unique telephone service skills training course. Our bespoke training helps empower your staff to deliver the best customer service, regardless of the situation. Find out more.

About Paul Freudenberg

Paul Freudenberg is a business productivity coach and consultant with a focus on operational excellence delivering improved profitability and business performance, and Founder of Awardaroo in 2005. Paul has set the mission of Awardaroo to help raise UK Business Productivity from one of the lowest in the G7 to one of the highest by 2030. Connect on LinkedIn

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