How to Handle Difficult Customers: Ideas for Improvement

Let’s act all grown up for a minute and face the facts. Running a business, it’s impossible to not have to deal with difficult customers at some point in time. As long as there are error-prone humans involved in the commerce, these shouting, whining and complaining beasts aren’t going anywhere. And I don’t mean to discourage you by saying this. I’m sure you’re quite aware of the elephant in the room. In this post, I’d like to discuss actions you can take to make dealing with difficult customers as painless as possible.

While doing some research for this post, I’ve come across a couple of interesting ideas, but also a lot of trivial ones. ‘What gives you the power to question another man’s ideas?’, you may ask. Well, I’ve been on the customer service frontline myself, you see, so I’ve gathered quite a lot of first-hand experience in the issue at hand.

This is why I decided to take up a little different angle in my discussion of dealing with difficult customers. Its first part may be interesting especially to those business owners, who have customer service departments and aren’t directly dealing with complaints themselves. I guess I’ll try to stick up for CSRs a little bit. Don’t worry though, I don’t intend to start a revolution but rather give you a revelation of sorts, and then move on to less topsy-turvy ideas.

Workings of a customer service department

Like I said, been there, done that. Also, I’ve had a fair share of experience not as much complaining but contacting businesses for various purposes and observing how they respond.

Obviously, there’s no single successful tactic or approach when it comes to difficult customers. In an attempt at being prepared for what may be thrown your way, you might as well start with introducing some changes to you customer service department.

Invest in your CS agents more

I’ll start with what I think is the biggest problem when it comes to handling difficult customers. In many cases, the quality of support isn’t very high because CSRs aren’t motivated enough. I’m not even talking about the money aspect.

Let’s be honest, the task of tackling angry clients isn’t the easiest and most rewarding job out there. My suggestion to business owners is to provide more training in techniques of dealing with difficult customers, instead of teaching company policy or terms and conditions. Build agents’ morale, be thankful and let them know they’re doing a vital job for the company as a whole.

Be more flexible in your policy

I think the ability and willingness to introduce changes in this aspect will greatly depend on the scale of your operations, as I understand that large businesses simply don’t care for each and every of their clients.

Nevertheless, I feel it’s important to be able to sometimes go out of your way to meet difficult customers’ expectations, particularly if it’s a not a big deal that the client is contacting you with. What it means for CS agents is that sure, they ought to stick to the policy as often as possible, but you should create a buffer allowing for deviations in crisis situations.

Also, it would be great if agents dealing with difficult customers had more power in their hands when it comes to making decisions, instead of having to move complaints up the chain of command. By doing so, they increase the cost of operations and it takes more time and people to resolve the issue. Basically, not a win-win at all.

Don’t stick to the script too much

I mean, literally. Agents working on the phones have a script that is supposed to aid their conversations with clients but on many occassions it simply doesn’t do the job. CS reps are required to stick to robotic responses anyway, especially in the face of quality control that listens to calls, which seems a bit silly if we’re talking about having a natural conversation with the person on the other end of the line.

My point is, that if you’re the person in charge, allow agents to diverge from the script a little, especially when dealing with difficult customers. Focus on training your employees in things like positive language, tone of voice (you can really hear emotions through the phone, trust me, I’ve heard myself a number of times) and expressing empathy.

Emotions and language in handling difficult customers

Keeping your emotions in check might be the most difficult task when dealing with a difficult customer. However, it’s imperative that you don’t let them get the best of you. If you have CS reps getting their hands dirty, the least you can do for them is provide training in anger management and conflict resolution skills.

People dealing with difficult customers need to set aside their feelings, stop thinking it’s a personal attack and trying to convince the client that they’re not the ones to blame. Instead, they need to listen carefully, try to put on the customer’s shoes and not jump to any conclusions.

In terms of language used when talking to difficult customers, I’d like to touch upon two things. First, don’t overdo the whole ‘happy-to assist have-a-terrific-Tuesday I’m-here-to-help-until-I-get-a-heart-attack’ stuff. Being professional and polite is a must, however, it’s easy to come off as being insincere if you try too hard. Your customer will care a lot more about the actual solution than the language that was used along the way.

Second, I already mentioned using positive language. Not knowing something is not the end of the world. Being willing to help means a lot, though. So, instead of saying ‘I don’t know’ use ‘let me find out’. Display initiative and let the difficult customer know that you’re going to take steps to find a solution.

Best practices for dealing with difficult customers

There’s no fixed list of dos and don’ts, a lot will depend on your line of business and the type of clients you have. In this point I’d like to, however, provide you with tips in the form of short paragraphs, that will give you some ideas as to how to handle difficult customers.

Start by letting your client vent and apologize for the situation that occured. Saying ‘sorry’ isn’t admission of guilt but a display of good manners. Offer explanation and show willingness to help to ease the client’s anger.

Listen carefully, don’t get defensive. It’s not a personal attack. Instead show empathy and try to think clearly and react in a cool manner. Imagining other customers are watching may help to keep your emotions in check.

In the early stage of dealing with a difficult customer, try to establish if it’s a ‘natural troublemaker’ or a genuinely frustrated client not happy with how your business worked for him.

Treat the complainer as individually as possible. Knowing what his history is with your business and what are the perspectives of doing business with him in the future will help you decide how much you can do to appease him.

Remember, that most of the times it is actually your business that has somehow disappointed the client, so it’s your responsibility to iron things out. Starting with the perspective that the customer may have a valid point should help. However, before you make a decision, get all the facts straight.

Admiting there’s a problem is a step forward, so stay calm and communicate. Don’t try to sweep it under the rug, or it will most likely backfire.

Try surprising exceptionally difficult customers by agreeing with them from the start, of course, within reasonable limits. This should stop them in their tracks and diminish their anger.

Don’t put up with super rude clients at any price. They’re not worth your time and effort. If someone uses profanity or outright disrespects you, try asking a straightforward question like ‘are you finished being rude yet?’ or calmly state that you understand their frustration but you can’t help them if they continue with such antics. Letting go of such clients may turn to be beneficial for your business, as you’ll boost your productivity and get rid of an emotional drain.

If the circumstances are right, granting small favors or gifts to difficult customers that can leave them with long-lasting positive impression may be a good solution. If you have to say ‘no’, however, show empathy and willingness to find an alternative.

If everything else fails, you can openly ask a dissatisfied client what will make him happy if you’re unsure of that. Also, remember that being able to help can be a rewarding feeling. Put yourself in their shoes to understand the situation better. Your task as a business is to find a solution and not to argue.

Online customer support solution

There’s a number of factors important to any client looking for immediate answers. Getting an instant reply and the confirmation that someone is working on a solution, the human factor of talking to an actual individual with his photo and name clearly visible or not having to pay for a phone call and be put on hold for indeterminate amount of time are definitely some of them.

Live chat removes the pressure of answering a question the very moment it was asked but still provides real-time communication. It allows for better word choice and keeping emotions in check. It also allows difficult customers to do multitask while talking to a CSR and send through files that make up the basis of a claim they’re making.

Thus, live chat can be an easy to implement and affordable addition to the array of tools that a business uses to communicate with and provide support to their clients.

Final word

The best thing you can do as a business is try and prevent crises by providing the best service you can. Bad reputation goes a long way and may cause a lot of damage. The person who complains to you will most likely complain to their family and friends too.

Depending on how serious the issue was, a well-managed crisis may strengthen your relation with the client. In any case it’s ok to have difficult customers, your business will move forward regardless. Make sure you use the situation to learn from it and improve on weaknesses. You can’t and won’t please everybody.

Treat a difficult customer as an opportunity – keeping a loyal client is less expensive than gaining a new one. Address the flaws in your product/service/staff functioning and move on. The client is doing you a kind of a favor – he could’ve just moved on to your competition but instead he chose to find a solution with you.