How To Deal With Difficult Customers: Your Guide To Salvaging and Re-Building Relationships

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Do you have a plan for how to handle a very dissatisfied customer?

If not, it’s time to create one so you can retain your difficult customers when things don’t go as expected. While your customer service hopefully doesn’t bump into difficult or irate customers very often, having a plan ensures your team is equipped to handle these challenging interactions and conversations.

It’s key to understand what makes customers upset and have a system in place that advises which strategy to use for different situations and personality types to smoothly address customer issues.

Identify The Type Of The Difficult Customer

Every difficult customer is unique, but there are a few archetypes that you can use to think about how you should respond. Each of these archetypes is based on the type of conflict style that the customer uses.

The Competitive Customer

The Competitive Customer speaks as though they know your business better than you do, and thinks that the perceived failure of service that they’re angry about is a personal slight against them.

They’ll likely threaten to terminate their relationship with your company, and they’ll bring every piece of leverage that they can find to make sure that they get their way. This type of customer wants to be compensated for their troubles.

The Competitive Customer is probably a bit heated, but not overtly irate or verbally abusive– they’re interested in communicating their discontent so that they can get what they want.

It’s important to keep in mind that the Competitive Customer feels that things should be done in a certain way, but isn’t too concerned with policy or logistics. They just want things done.

The Combatant Customer

The Combatant Customer is one that is likely to make a scene by raising their voice and refusing to communicate normally.

There’s a good chance that they’re having a bad day, but the only inkling you’ll get is that they’re too worked up to provide a cogent explanation of what went wrong and how they think it can be fixed.

These kinds of customers are the hardest to deal with because they can be abusive.

Even once they’ve calmed down, they’re typically defiant and difficult to communicate with because they’ve made up their mind: Your company is in the wrong.

The biggest thing you can do to make your communication with the Combatant Customer easier is to give them some time to cool off, which may not always be possible.

The Cooperative Yet Complaining Customer

The Cooperative Yet Complaining Customer is a customer that’s difficult, but not at a high risk of terminating the relationship with your company because they’re interested in finding a solution that allows them to continue the relationship.

This archetype of difficult customer is the most important to understand because they’re the easiest customer to retain by making a serious effort. That doesn’t mean solving their problem will be easy, though.

Customers that have complaints that have made it through your customer service without having those complaints adequately addressed likely require special treatment that you may or may not be able to provide easily.

If this is the case, you should be upfront about it with the customer and offer something else in return. Cooperative Yet Complaining Customers want to find a consensus solution, and they’re willing to give up a few of their initial demands to get a little back from the company. They’ll appreciate being addressed as an equal.

Don’t let the Cooperative Yet Complaining Customer’s politeness or empathetic tone throw you into complacency, though.

Remember, they can be cooperative and still decide that it’s better to take their business elsewhere after they complain. They may not necessarily let you know if the solution you implement for them is a letdown, so be sure to follow up consistently.

The Fed Up Customer

The Fed Up Customer likely had a bunch of smaller complaints pile up without seeking help before having a major mishap.

You can spot the Fed Up Customer right away by their clear list of complaints which they’ll provide you without being prompted. Each of the issues they experienced leading up to their confrontation with your customer service will be fresh in mind.

The Fed Up Customer may be the most difficult type of customer to retain because they’ve had time to simmer and build up resentment.

Unfortunately, customers who have had enough time to grow a list of complaints long enough to become fed up are likely customers who were loyal at one point and feel that your company hasn’t respected that loyalty.

This means that you need to try your hardest to retain your Fed Up Customers by taking swift action to show them that they’re valuable to your company.

The conflict style of the Fed Up Customer isn’t naturally abusive, and they may be swayed by your promise to rectify each of their issues in addition to a few gifts.

The Unreasonable Customer

The Unreasonable Customer may not be overtly angry or even dissatisfied–they’re difficult because their expectations are totally out of step with reality.

In a nutshell, the Unreasonable Customer may not know your product very well, and they may not be able to articulate their problems with it or goals for reaching out to you.

The result is that it can often seem like you and the Unreasonable Customer are speaking in different languages. It’s possible that the Unreasonable Customer may be so confused that they aren’t a good fit for your company’s product or service.

But you can’t know that until you go through the process of clarifying their thoughts and their issues via dialogue.

Follow The Tough Customer Relationship Repair Protocol

Knowing the types of difficult customers is the first step, the next step is knowing how to approach the situation.

There are a few tips that will make dealing with difficult customers easier:

  • If you suspect that your personality is clashing with the customer’s, substitute someone else as early in the process as you can; sometimes a little bit less friction can make all the difference.
  • Don’t interrupt your customer during the first three minutes of your conversation; this is the framing time that sets the tone for the rest of the dialogue.
  • Cultural miscommunication may interfere with conflict resolution and the relationship mending process. As soon as you suspect that this is the case, do some quick research on the norms of the customer’s culture so that you can identify why the miscommunication is happening.
  • Don’t restate company policies to the customer if they prohibit something the customer wants– it’s invalidating, and doesn’t move the conversation forward.
  • You may need to educate the customer substantially before you can move on in your relationship with them.

With these tips in mind, it’s time to communicate with the difficult customer.

Step 1: Reframe The Discussion’s Tone

As soon as you are in contact with the difficult customer, you need to build the foundation for a successful interaction.

If your customer is shouting, your response should not match their volume or verbal abuse. Talk more quietly and slowly than usual. If you are consistent, they may eventually match your tone.

For less overtly irate customers, stay positive and calm.

Take the lead in the discussion by advising your customer that you’re aware that they’ve had issues that haven’t been addressed and that the purpose of your conversation is to figure out how those issues can be resolved. Try to be brief. 

Finish this step by asking your customer to state their issues.

Step 2: Actively Listen But Don’t Cave

As your customer is describing their issues, don’t be passive.

Use active listening techniques and empathize with your customer’s concerns. Respond to each of your customer’s thoughts with “I” statements like “I understand how that would make you frustrated.”

Don’t let these statements be in agreement or disagreement with the customer, however. Your objective is to show the customer that you’re listening while privately identifying possible solutions early on in the process. 

The exception to the active listening practice is if you’re dealing with a Fed Up Customer– let them sound off without interruption, because they have a deck of complaints that needs airing out, and they’re impatient to unload.

Step 3: Clarify The Customer’s Complaints And Goals

Once your customer is done speaking, it’s time to start asking questions if there is any ambiguity about what they’ve said.

Get very specific about what the customer’s complaints are. Request examples. This doesn’t mean that you should be pushing back against the customer, the purpose of getting specific is to have customers state their own complaints concretely so that you will have well defined problems to solve.

If the customer has arrived at an impasse with previous layers of customer service, this is the time to expose the impasse and ask your customer what they think your company should do.

This is the most important step when you’re dealing with the Unreasonable Customer because you need to pin down exactly where the customer’s expectations weren’t met, which is tough when your customer’s expectations are impossible to live up to or merely misinformed.

With a Cooperative Yet Complaining customer, this step may be tough if the customer’s goals aren’t something that you can offer. It’s okay to come back to this step if the next step isn’t progressing.

Step 4: Assess And Implement Solutions

If there’s an obvious and easy solution to your customer’s issues that previous layers of customer service didn’t have the jurisdiction to implement, now is the time to consider using it.

If your company is at fault, admitting it is a good step to take, so long as you can rectify the mistake.

Suggest solutions that you can realistically do based on the problems you and the customer defined in the prior step, and see what the customer thinks.

This step can take a while, as you may need to bounce ideas against the customer, who may repeatedly shoot the ideas down. You can gently push back against the customer if their reasons for shooting down your proposed solutions are misinformed. 

On the other hand, if there is clearly no possible solution to the customer’s problem and the customer hasn’t come up with any useful ideas about how to rectify the situation, now is when you need to start planning the steps you’ll need to take to retain the customer anyway.

Remember that you need to look out for your company’s well-being, too–don’t give too much if the customer is refusing to accept the reality of what you’re capable of doing because you’ll almost certainly have to deal with them again in the future.

Don’t take the customer’s implacability personally during this step. The more effort that you put into making a good solution that addresses the customer’s needs, the easier it will be to mend the relationship. 

Step 5: Follow Up And Don’t Give Up

Your work isn’t over once you and the customer have agreed on a solution.

Follow up with the customer over the course of the next days and weeks to make sure that the solution is working and that it has addressed their issues. Be sure to pay extra attention to the customer during their next purchasing experience or interaction with customer service.

This step is where healing of the customer relationship begins.

There’s no way to accelerate your customer’s trust in your company again, but consistently following up will help you retain the customer and let them know that your company truly cares about their experience.

Remember that the goal should always be to find the best possible outcome.

In some extreme cases, that may be to cut ties and let the relationship end. But, most customers that are upset have a specific problem that’s driving their anger. Empathizing with them and working to understand the root issue will often help to diffuse even the most caustic situation.

Being prepared to deal with the situation is the best way to resolve issues without escalating them further.