Keep calm and in control: How to deal with difficult customers

Nick Darlington,

Writer

1 March 20220 min read

Dealing with difficult customers isn’t easy. They can be demanding, aggressive, and downright rude. But if you arm your team with the right skills, knowledge, and tools, you’ll make their life just a little easier.

Handling difficult customers is a part of working in customer-facing teams. Of course, knowing this doesn’t make the job any easier.

Not only do teams have to handle many different types of difficult customers like those who are demanding and aggressive, but they have to cope with feedback that can feel like a personal attack.

The truth? It’s often not a personal attack but a customer venting their frustration and the perfect opportunity to turn them into a loyal customer for life.

In this post, you’ll learn more about:

  • Four strategies for handling difficult customer conversations you can teach your team

  • The different types of difficult customer conversations and how to manage them 

  • How to stop tricky customer situations from happening to begin with

     

How to deal with difficult customers: 4 simple strategies

No one customer conversation will be the same, and your team will need to use their discretion when handling each one.

That said, the end goal remains the same: solve the customer problem, so they’re happy (bonus points if your team handles it so well that customers become raving fans who recommend your company to others).

There are also universal strategies your team can use regardless of the customer conversation they find themselves in. Here are four.

1. Stay calm—it’s not a personal attack

For the most part, customers are never mad at someone in your team but the situation. Your team needs to understand this and constantly remind themselves of it—even if it means taking a step back to regain composure during the heat of the moment. 

It’s only through actual practice and constant reminders that your team will be able to remove their emotions from the process to deliver better service.

Take note: If your team is dealing with an abusive customer who is personally attacking them, then they should feel comfortable acting swiftly (after all, verbal abuse is never, ever okay).

For example, they could say: “The way you’re talking to me is not okay. If you want me to help you, I’m going to have to ask you to please speak politely. If you don’t, I really won’t have any other option but to disconnect the call.”

2. Listen to the customer—they want to be heard

Let the customer explain the situation fully without interruptions. Customers often just want to be heard. They want to feel like their problems matter and that they’re not just a number.

Something your team can practice is reflective listening (more on that next).

3. Respond with empathy—it shows you care

Your team can do the following things to help them respond with empathy:

Practice reflective listening. Reflective listening involves listening to an idea or problem and repeating it back to the person to confirm you understand it. For example:

  • Customer: “I’m frustrated because every time I call to query an amount on my account, I’m transferred from one department to the next. And, just as I’m getting somewhere, the call drops, and I have to repeat the process and explain myself all over again.”

  • Customer success team member: “What I’m hearing is that you’re frustrated for two reasons. First, you want to query an amount on your account but can’t because you’re being transferred between departments, and the line keeps dropping. Second, you’re frustrated because you repeatedly have to explain yourself, which becomes emotionally draining. Is this correct?

Reflective listening will help your team properly understand the customer’s problem while reassuring them your team cares, actually understands their issue, and wants to sort it out.

Address customers personally. Addressing customers by name helps build a personal connection and makes customers feel like their problems are being heard.

4. Apologize and provide a solution—customers want action

Once your team has listened to the customer’s problem and understands the issue (they should ask further questions if they don’t), they should apologize and let the customer know what they can and can’t do to fix their situation.

This “fix” will vary depending on the situation. Maybe the team can issue a refund immediately or connect the customer with the right person. If they’re unable to solve the problem immediately, they should be upfront and mention that but also make it clear they’re working on the issue and will get back to the customer shortly. 

For example, the team could say: “Unfortunately, I cannot help you with that right now as it is not within my authority. But please provide me with your number, and I will get back to you within the [insert time frame] after I have spoken to my manager.”

Take note: Your team needs to actually get back to the customer within the specified time frame, even if they don’t have a solution. Often customers just want to be kept in the loop and feel like their problem is being worked on. Silence for days makes it seem like no one cares and only aggravates the situation.

As your team works to resolve any issue, they should keep the following in mind:

  • When communicating over email, don’t just send a link to an FAQ page where the customer has to search for answers to their problem. Instead, explain the answer over email as it pertains to their situation and share a link that the customer can click on for further information.

  • If someone has to pass the customer off to another department (over email or a phone call), they should make sure that department understands the situation first. Otherwise, the customer will have to explain the problem all over again, which will just lead to further frustration and anger (as you’ll learn later, a shared inbox can help).

Related reading: 6 excellent apology emails to send your customers.

6 different types of difficult client conversations

Having a basic understanding of how to handle almost all difficult customer conversations will provide a good foundation for most customer-facing teams. 

However, because customer-facing teams will encounter many tough conversations, it pays to have a basic overview of some common types and the nuances in dealing with them. 

Here are six of the most common types of difficult customer conversations and tips to deal with them.

1. Customers who are unhappy about a slow response

Customers want fast responses. If the customer received a slow one, then your team should own the situation, apologize and mention they’ll use the feedback to improve response times in the future. 

Your team should also make a note to contact the person and ensure they reach out to show them how they’ve improved response times.

Take note: It’s essential to define what constitutes a slow response. Some customers believe anything beyond a few hours is “slow” while others are comfortable with 24 or 48 hours.

Your team needs to manage expectations from the first email by informing customers that it’s company policy to respond within a specific time and then actually stick to that. 

If your team breaches the timeframe they told the customer they would adhere to, then the customer is well within their rights to feel frustrated. Your team should immediately own the problem. 

If not and the customer has been informed, your team should politely respond and tell the customer to refer to the email and mention the reason for these response times. E.g., so that all complaints get the attention they deserve. 

2. Customers who are demanding and have unrealistic requests

Some customers will have unrealistic requests that cannot be met. In these instances, your team may want to consider a compromise to keep them happy, e.g., provide a partial refund if a full one is not possible. 

And if someone in the team is not authorized to handle such a request, they should feel comfortable passing it on to someone who is.

3. Customers who are vague about their problem but want help

Some customers have a problem but struggle to articulate it for whatever reason. Instead of dismissing this problem as unimportant, probe for clarity by asking specific questions.

4. Customers who want a refund

The desire for a refund usually stems from total dissatisfaction with the service or a product that isn’t working as it should. Often customers will get to this point after lots of back and forth. 

While companies have different refund policies, the best plan of action is to apologize and offer a full or partial refund—together with timelines of how long the refund process will take.

5. Customers who are angry

There can be various reasons for this anger. Maybe the customer is constantly being transferred from one call department to the next. Perhaps the customer has been sending back and forth emails to resolve an issue for months without a resolution. Or maybe, the customer is just generally short-tempered. 

Regardless, the key for your team is to remain calm, never raise their voice, and reassure the customer the problem is being attended to. 

If the customer becomes abusive, your team should act swiftly (refer to the last few paragraphs of “Stay calm: it’s not a personal attack” for more information).

6. Customers who are know-it-alls

These customers know everything and love showing off their importance and knowledge. For example, they may reach out to companies whose products they use, mention how the product would benefit from certain new features, and add that if the company doesn’t build them, they will switch to a competitor.

In dealing with know-it-alls, remain patient, don’t take things personally, and don’t try to get them to think a different way. Simply give them attention and compliment them. 

Tell them their ideas have been well-received, ask probing questions to learn more about their suggestions and be honest about what the company can realistically work on right now.

Related reading: The right way to respond to feature requests.

How to stop difficult customer conversations before they happen

Difficult customer conversations may be part of working in customer-facing teams, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try to stop them from happening. After all, it will save your team a ton of unnecessary headaches later on.

Here are four ways to improve overall customer service and stop those difficult conversations from happening in the first place.

1. Improve employee experience. 

Employee experience directly affects the customer experience. This means that if employees are unhappy at work or on the brink of burnout, they may underperform, which hurts customer service and leads to unhappy customers and difficult situations.

A few ways to improve employee experience, include:

  • Implementing strategies to prevent burnout, like setting up regular check-in meetings.

  • Addressing the challenges around remote work like implementing a hybrid work approach.

  • Implementing training programs, so employees have the tools and knowledge to do their job properly.

2. Set up automated workflows with the right software

Automated workflows reduce unnecessary touchpoints and improve efficiencies to deliver faster and better service. 

Workflows you can implement include:

  • SLA workflows so your support team always responds on time. For example, suppose your team has 24 hours to respond to a complaint. In that case, you can apply tags like “SLA breach” to emails approaching breach to escalate them and ensure they get prioritized.

  • Workflows for better message routing. You can apply tags to certain messages to ensure they get routed to the right people. For example, if someone is responsible for handling all requests about a certain product, you can use a rule that ensures all emails tagged with that product name get automatically sent to that person.

3. Use a shared inbox

Shared inboxes provide better visibility, accountability, and collaboration, which improves overall service.

Visibility

Everyone has access to the same inbox and one email copy instead of several. Your team can see who’s responding to emails at a glance so they can jump in when their input is required—without lengthy conversations behind the scenes. 

The ability to see who’s replying also stops multiple responses, which occur when people assume others haven’t responded. 

Everyone also has access to a complete history of interaction with clients, so they don’t waste time searching for information or contacting colleagues who previously handled a request for updates.

Accountability

You can give emails a clear owner, so everyone understands their roles and knows who’s responsible for replying. This prevents miscommunication and confusion between teams, stops emails from slipping through the cracks, and, ultimately, ensures customers get faster responses. 

Collaboration

Shared inboxes also let teammates collaborate directly on email without sifting through long email threads that waste time and slow down customer response times. 

Your team can chat internally on emails without forwarding or cc’ing individuals, loop others in with a quick @mention instead of creating a new email, and share email drafts with one another to work on what to say to customers.

4. Monitor important customer support metrics

You can’t improve what you don’t measure because you won’t know that you may be underperforming on specific metrics. 

Important metrics to track include email volumes, response times, and time to resolve. Using a shared inbox like Front, you can measure these individually and across your team by accessing customizable analytic reports.

Related reading: 10 biggest challenges of customer success (and solutions).

Become better at dealing with demanding customers

Knowing that difficult client conversations are part of working in a customer-facing team doesn’t make the job any easier. 

But, equipping your team with the right knowledge, skills, and tools will undoubtedly help in dealing with them to turn customers into loyal fans and even prevent them from happening in the first place.

Written by Nick Darlington

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