27 Customer Service Experts Reveal the Best Ways to Deal with a Difficult Customer

Hana Mohan

22min read

Despite your best efforts, you can’t please everyone all the time. Unfortunately, that means dealing with difficult customers is something every business must do now and then. Whether you’re starting a business or have been in business for decades, having a process in place for handling challenging customer situations is a must. When customers are unhappy, and you’re unable to resolve complaints, your customer service metrics will suffer – and, ultimately, your bottom line will suffer, as well.

Effectively handling customer complaints is a hallmark of a customer service-focused organization, but it’s not always as easy as it may seem. To help you master the art of dealing with the most challenging customers, we reached out to a panel of customer service professionals and asked them to answer this question:

What’s the single best way to deal with a difficult customer?

Read on to learn what our experts had to say about the best ways to deal with challenging customers.

Ryan Popoff

Ryan Popoff

Ryan Popoff is the founder and CEO of Popov Leather, a company that manufactures bespoke leather goods.

The single most powerful tool for any business is to…

Have empathy for your customers. In my experience, an angry customer isn't angry about the widget you sent them; they are angry because they lost their job or their pet died. Whatever misstep your business took when dealing with this customer suddenly becomes an outlet for their rage. We often turn situations around by simply listening and letting our customers vent – it makes them feel better, and they often become lifelong fans because we're listening when others don't.

Benjamin K. Walker

Benjamin K. Walker

Ben Walker is the CEO for Transcription Outsourcing, LLC.

We have, unfortunately, had a lot of difficult customers in our 10+ years of providing transcription services…

We figured out that when we’re as nice as possible to them, it almost always works out in the long run for everybody. We realize people have bad days or don't understand how things work in our world, so we are as honest and as nice as possible to them for the duration of our relationship. That could be five years or five days; it doesn't matter to us. That works about 99% of the time, and when it doesn't, we send them an email and explain that they would be better off finding a new transcription services provider and that we will stay on board until they find a suitable replacement. Thankfully, we've only done this twice in over 10 years and have helped thousands of others in the meantime.

Amber Henning

Amber Henning

Amber Henning is the Chief Operation Officer at Social Eyes Marketing. With years of experience in client relations and human resources, Amber is well versed in managing difficult situations and is dedicated to sharing expertise and knowledge to help others develop professionally in their chosen industries.

When you are dealing with a difficult client or customer, it's easy to…

Slip into a defensive role and react when they are beginning to become combative. That can cause us to match the customer’s tone and make the situation start bubbling up when it needs to be cooling down. Always remember to keep your tone calm and slow down as you speak to give the customer a chance to reflect. Try to encourage the discovery of some common ground by putting yourself in their place and let them know you understand exactly where they are coming from – this will help calm them down further and make the situation far more manageable.

Vinay Amin

Vinay Amin

Vinay Amin is a Health and Wellness Expert & CEO at Eu Natural.

Remain calm and professional, even if they drag the dispute through the dirt…

Keep in mind that name-calling and other unprofessional behaviors have unfortunate financial consequences for your business that the customer is immune from. You're the only one with something to lose if it gets ugly on both sides.

Spencer Smith

Spencer Smith

Spencer Smith is the CEO of IRC Sales Solutions.

The single best way to deal with a difficult customer is to use a technique called pendulum theory…

It's no secret that people don't like it when sales reps are pushy and aggressive while trying to sell someone their product. It's an instinct for humans to push in the opposite direction when someone tries to push an idea or a product on us. If you imagine a pendulum hanging in a neutral position, the more the sales rep tries to push you (the pendulum) towards a sale – no matter how logical their arguments are – the more the pendulum will swing in the opposite direction and the further away someone gets from buying.

But what does this have to do with difficult customers?

Pendulum theory works the opposite way, too. For difficult customers, imagine that the pendulum is almost all the way to the left. When someone is angry with you, they want that anger to transfer to you – for you to feel the negativity that they're feeling (as a result of whatever issue led you to this situation). So, the best way to combat this and deal with angry customers is to play to the left of the pendulum. Be even more dissatisfied with yourself (or your company or product) than they are.

Start the meeting by apologizing profusely and really beating yourself up about it. Be sincere about it. Tell the customer that if you were in their position, you would never do business with your company ever again.

When you do this, and you put yourself down even more than the angry customer wanted to, once again, the customer will react opposite to the direction you’re pushing them in. But this time, they'll push towards positivity. They'll tell you it wasn't so bad and that they're not going to take their business elsewhere, but they're thankful you took everything so seriously.

Some of my best customer relationships have been forged through fiery situations. If you can handle the worst of times properly, they'll trust you in all the other times.

Pendulum theory is not a sales technique as much as it is a psychology trick. Next time your significant other gets angry at you, give it a shot. You'll be shocked by how well it works.

Emily Porter

Emily Porter

Emily Porter is a digital marketer for House Method with a Master’s in Business Administration. Emily is passionate about creating the best possible customer experience and maintaining top-notch customer satisfaction.

To deal with a difficult customer, you should start by realizing the monetary value of keeping the customer in the long-term…

A loyal customer is beneficial in more ways than one. Not only do they provide monetary value over time, but they also allow your company to experience word-of-mouth marketing, leading to new customers. Keeping that customer happy also helps avoid the unseen impact of negative word-of-mouth marketing – losing potential customers.

Once you fix your mindset, your goal should be to find out what it is that the customer wants and exceed their expectations. Whether it's a free product, a paid meal, or a discount, it will pay off to go above and beyond the customer’s expectations. When the customer realizes you value their business, it is highly unlikely that they will leave and tell their peers something bad. Even if they do, they’re more likely to bring up how you went out of your way to make sure that they were pleased.

Max Prokell

Max Prokell

Max Prokell is the Founder and CEO of Venta Marketing, a full-service digital marketing agency headquartered in Scottsdale, Arizona. Max founded Venta on the core values of boldness, accountability, and professionalism, which have shown to be the key to success over the years of successful campaigns. Looking forward, Max enjoys that Venta has developed a culture of relentless growth and positivity and is excited about the quest for constant improvement.

Hospitality is key when it comes to customer service, especially when the customer is being stubborn…

These situations with customers can be tricky to navigate because the old saying, “The customer is always right,” doesn't apply in every situation. Businesses shouldn't waiver on the policies that make their business run efficiently.

Provide your staff with clear instructions and customer service policies, but don't forget to train them to act with empathy first. By having a polite and proactive approach, your employees can problem-solve more efficiently. The customer will see that your team is their advocate and the means to a resolution.

When customers are being extremely difficult, it's important to listen to why the customer feels this way. It may shine a light on an area of your business that is weak. Take time to re-evaluate your process during serious issues and see how their problems can improve your business. If you notice an area of weakness in your business and make plans to change it for the better, be sure to thank that customer for helping your business improve.

Alexander M. Kehoe

Alexander M. Kehoe

Alexander Kehoe is Operations Director, Co-founder of Caveni Digital Solutions, and author of Navigate the Digital Realm. Alexander is a speaker, writer, and consultant in the fields of digital marketing, web design, search engine marketing, branding, influencer outreach, and social media marketing.

Dealing with a difficult customer requires patience and a firm stance…

If you have a difficult customer, then the first thing you must do is look at their problems as an opportunity to help them. They are not just having problems, and they are not angry; they are unhappy. Make the customer’s problems your problems. Let them vent their anger, and then you can work to solve their issues in the best way possible. Be willing to work with them, make them see that you are not their enemy and that you are working together to remedy whatever wrong they assume your company has committed.

Camilo Atkinson

Camilo Atkinson

Camilo Atkinson is an SEO specialist at GoKapital, Inc. Passionate about continued learning and entrepreneurship, Camilo tries to learn as much as possible from every single person or situation.

You can deal with difficult customers by doing this…

1. Breathe. Understand that you must be professional. Calm down, don't take anything personally, and proceed to talk.

2. Listen actively. Listen to what your customer is saying. What is it that they want exactly? And why are they so passionate about it? Also, ask them what they are looking to achieve or for their preferred solution. While it's not always possible to give customers what they want, you can get a better picture of what would take to solve their issue.

3. Show some empathy. We're all human, and we often act according to how we feel, regardless of what is rational. If an issue has made the customer lose money, you can understand why they are being difficult. So, put yourself in their shoes and let them know that you are aware of how frustrating the situation might be.

4. Offer a solution. After you've listened to your customer, you can evaluate what is possible and what's not. Offer the best possible solution, and make sure you set the right expectations. If they are not satisfied with the solution or if they were promised something and never received it, they might complain again.

Randi Busse

Randi Busse

Randi Busse, President of Workforce Development Group, has been helping employees to delight customers for more than 25 years. Randi is a co-author of the book, Turning Rants Into Raves: Turn Your Customers On Before They Turn On YOU! It’s written for CEOs, business owners, and managers who want to improve the experience they are providing to their customers.

The single best way to deal with a difficult customer is to…

Treat the customer as if they were your grandmother/grandfather, mother/father, sister/brother (assuming you like those relatives!).

You would be patient, understanding, empathetic, and do whatever it took to make that person happy with their experience with your company. Treat your difficult customer that way and see what happens to their state of mind!

Sueanne Pacheco

Sueanne Pacheco

Sueanne Pacheco, a Certified UltimateStagerT and Ultimate Professional OrganizerT, is the founder of New Start Staging serving homeowners and realtors in the Peel Region.

To win over a difficult customer, allow them to feel they have been heard…

This deescalates tensions and allows you to understand the source of their frustrations fully. Avoid bouncing them around to different departments. When you get to this stage, follow up. If you commit to finding a solution for them, even if it can't be resolved at the time of the call or complaint, keep your word. This will reassure the customer that you're going above and beyond. Email or call back with updates, including a free offer for the inconvenience. When they see this, you'll connect with them more favorably. Demonstrate you care. It may even turn the complaint into a positive review for your efforts.

Adeel Shabir

Adeel Shabir

Adeel Shabir is a Content Marketing Executive at Indoor Champ, a media outlet created for indoor game enthusiasts. We believe games like table tennis and chess make people more productive and less stressful at work and have more fun at home.

Customers are the backbone of any business, and making them happy should be the concern of any growing business…

There may be multiple issues that the customer is facing, but they won't be able to say it with a straight face and get frustrated. Frustration leads to anger, and you can picture the rest of it.

Here are a few tips for dealing with difficult customers:

  1. Calmly handle the situation. Take their problem seriously but not personally.

2. Active listening is something that most of us lack based on our past experiences. Make sure you are an active listener and listen to customer problems wholeheartedly.

3. Repeat what the customer said. Doing so will demonstrate that you are listening to the customer’s problems, and the customer will feel more relaxed.

4. Thank them for bringing the issue to your attention. This way, you are not only acknowledging the fact that the problem is there in the first place but also assuring the customer that they have done the right thing.

5. After listening to the issue, set a time to follow up with the customer to solve the issue in a defined time.

Nate Masterson

Nate Masterson

Nate Masterson is the CEO of Maple Holistics.

The most important thing to remember when dealing with a difficult customer is to remain calm…

This may seem basic, but that’s exactly the point. Often, a difficult customer can rattle us and throw us off our game, making us forget the essentials of how to deal with these situations. Yet, keeping your cool is crucial. It lets you think with a clear mind to provide practical, useful suggestions rather than going down a rabbit hole of despair. It also helps you stand your ground so that the customer sees they cannot walk all over you. Lastly, it enables you to avoid becoming too affected by the difficult situation. Once you’re done dealing with the difficult client, you can happily carry on with the rest of your day.

Hannah Laird

Hannah Laird

Hannah started at Edge of the Web as a Copywriter and became the main communicator for their customers as they grew from a startup to an established agency. As the bridge between clients and the creative team, it’s Hannah’s role to keep everyone speaking the same language and working towards the same goals.

The single best way to deal with a difficult customer is to…

Remember that your relationship with them isn’t a battle, but a collaboration. It’s your job to manage that collaboration in a way that’s going to give both your customer and your company a desirable outcome.

You need to have a thick skin and not take anything a difficult customer might say as a slight on you or your company. As soon as you become defensive, your motivation changes from trying to help your customer to trying to win over your customer.

If your customer feels like you’re not on their side, they’re likely to become more distrustful and difficult to manage. But if you can listen to and acknowledge their concerns impartially, you’ll be able to work towards a mutually beneficial outcome.

Not only will that help this interaction, but it also should build trust between you, which could make them less difficult to deal with in the future.

Kathy Haan

Kathy Haan

Kathy Haan is a Retail Specialist at FitSmallBusiness and also a business coach and influencer.

There are times where you'll deal with difficult customers, whether it's by phone, through email, or in-person…

No one likes to hear that they're wrong, and people want to know how you're going to fix their problem. The best way to diffuse a situation with a difficult customer is to:

  1. Use empathy.
  2. Tell them what you can do to help them versus saying, 'No, I can't do that.'

The worst thing you can do is not acknowledge how your company made a mistake. Even something like, 'I am very sorry that we don't have the size you want in-stock. Here's what I'll do to fix the situation for you...'

Polly Kay

Polly Kay

Polly Kay is a Senior Marketing Manager at English Blinds.

The single best way to deal with a difficult customer is simple in theory but hard in practice…

Listen and deescalate. A difficult customer will almost always follow a reasonably set pattern of behavioral escalation, and it takes two people to make that happen. If your customer is angry, unreasonable, or defensive, your responses are likely to mirror this, even if you're trying to keep your cool.

This means that throughout the interaction, both of you will tend to speak faster and be louder and more impatient. You’ll also be more willing to cut each other off and generally become combative in both language and manner.

This type of difficult behavior is fear-based; the fear, in this case, being a fear of not being heard, respected, acknowledged, and so on. Once you can recognize this, you can deescalate such behavior in your customer through your behavior, with some practice.

Keep your body language relaxed and open, nod and give nonverbal cues that you're listening and engaged, allow the customer to finish what they're saying (even if they're talking up a storm!), and pause for a moment or two before you give responses. The latter is a valuable nonverbal communication cue, as it makes it clear that you've taken a moment to digest what was said. It also indicates that you are actively listening, rather than just waiting for a gap to speak.

Active listening and de-escalation are the best ways to deal with a difficult customer because this provides them with a blank canvas. There is nothing there to escalate or be targeted by their ire, and so, continuing to be difficult is both unwarranted and makes them look unreasonable.

Practice it to get things right, and you will soon see how getting on the right track soon sways the nature of your interactions.

Carsten Schaefer

Carsten Schaefer

Carsten Schaefer is the founder and CEO of crowdy.ai, the first Clients-Convert-Clients Marketing platform. Inspired by principles and mechanisms of social proof, Carsten is currently on the way to help businesses become trustworthy and thrive in the digital landscape.

There’s a mantra from retail that I believe is adaptable in the world of internet marketing…

The customer is always right. When someone argues about something, we make it right either by fixing it immediately or giving them a refund. The time we spend amending the issue and figuring out a solution is too expensive to waste, so we refund and call it a day. It’s much healthier for our business that way.

Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin

Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin

Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, M.S., LCPC worked with high-conflict couples for over a decade in a marriage counseling practice. Rabbi discovered that the same process they use with couples is precisely what companies need to do to sort out their workplace and communication differences. Slatkin Communications was born, providing effective communication to corporations needing to enhance their internal corporate culture through workshops, training, and consulting.

If you feel like you can't emotionally afford to deal with customers and it is impacting your business, not to mention your emotional health, it may be time to…

Cut ties. Trust your gut. You don't have to serve everyone. You can tell them nicely that you will no longer be working with them. Obviously, it depends on your business. If you are in retail, it may be more difficult to ask someone not to enter your store. If you are in another industry, it may be easier to say that you cannot continue working together. You don't have to be brutally honest. You can say something more general without revealing all your frustration.

At the same time, it is important to learn how to deal with difficult customers because you may not be able to afford to cut ties. Do your best to understand why they are triggering you. The more you become conscious about this, the less they will bother you. It is likely your own issues that are being activated. You will also want to learn how to listen without

reacting so that they can feel heard. Many times, if your difficult customer feels heard and validated, they will become a little easier to deal with. Some people just like to be dramatic. By calming them down by mirroring them, repeating back what they said without reacting, and validating their perspective, you can calm yourself. Then, the customer will usually be easier to work with.

Andrei Vasilescu

Andrei Vasilescu

Andrei Vasilescu is a renowned Digital Marketing expert and CEO of a money-saving platform called DontPayFull. Andrei has been providing cutting-edge digital marketing services to various international companies and different online coupons of various brands for years.

Let the customer run out of words…

When you face a difficult customer, just let them explain all their objections. Don’t start arguing or engage in conversation until the customer has nothing left to say in their defense. Instead, stay calm and listen to every word the customer says until they stop. When the customer runs out of words after stating all their objections, start explaining your position. Now, you’ll find it easy to make your points, and it’s easier to win over the customer.

Stefan Chekanov

Stefan Chekanov

Stefan Chekanov is the co-founder and CEO of Brosix Instant Messenger, an IM service focused on providing businesses with secure private IM networks.

Difficult behavior from customers almost always comes from an emotional place…

That’s why when dealing with difficult customers, I always follow a relatively simple formula: reaffirm, empathize, and focus on the future. Difficult customers ultimately want someone to confirm that their experience is valid and to show that they care. That’s why it’s important to start by saying something like, “I understand what you’re telling me, and I can see that this has been difficult for you.” It helps you reaffirm their experience and empathize with the position that they’re in. This approach almost always calms the situation down, as the customer sees that they’re not being met with confrontation.

Once the customer is calmer, it’s crucial to focus on practical action. Getting lost in conversations about why something happened will only force the customer to dwell on negative emotions. That’s why it’s important to focus on the future and what you’ll do going forward. It helps to make the conversation more constructive and action-focused, as opposed to endless complaining.

Alexander Yumashev

Alexander Yumashev

Alexander Yumashev is a full stack developer, CEO, and founder of JitBit, a UK-based self-funded startup most known for its customer support software: a help desk ticket system. Alexander writes about bootstrapping, marketing, SaaS, and team leadership.

The first thing to remember is that you must always be patient…

Never argue back, and don’t take comments personally. You can start by admitting that you are at fault, taking responsibility, and seeing how the customer reacts. Be open about your failures and how you're fixing them, but don’t get defensive. Also, NEVER pass an angry customer around from department to department. Take full control and make yourself the one point of contact.

Furthermore, you need to use the right language. Don't sound like a robot; dump the corporate jargon. “I apologize for the inconvenience,” is the worst response ever.

You can also try to go the extra mile. Find a way to WOW an angry customer. Do something crazy like sending them a pizza. Why not? Or, simply fix the problem while you're still on the phone or chat with them (if possible) and always offer a reward at the end. Doing something unexpected always helps. Most importantly, always follow up to ensure that the issue has been resolved.

Michael Green

Michael Green

Michael is the Vice President of Service Now hiring firm Nelson Frank. After spending two decades in the recruitment industry, Michael’s leadership skills and keen focus on employee development now help to grow the company in the U.S.

To a certain extent, the adage 'the customer is always right' should still be taken into account…

Especially when you're first dealing with a demanding customer. Because, at the end of the day, they're spending with your company.

When a customer is consistently difficult for you or your team to work with, that's when you need to step in and think about whether it's worth continuing to work with this client. For me, it's all about measuring the value of a challenging customer.

When you're assessing the merit of a problematic customer's business, try to not focus just on monetary value. Yes, how much capital a client is spending with you is significant to your business, but, when they're making it hard for your team to do their jobs, you must look at other elements of the situation.

Ask yourself what else they are bringing to the table. How are they treating members of your team? Is it in the brand's best interest to work with this client? And will they open doors to bigger and better leads?

Once you've stepped back and looked at the situation from a 360-degree perspective, you can decide the best way to deal with a challenging client like this. You can either sit down with them and develop a plan that works for both parties, or walk away from the situation and spend more resources on the client projects that bring more value to your business.

Dmytro Okunyev

Dmytro Okunyev

Dmytro Okunyev is the Founder at Chanty, a simple AI-powered team chat. This powerful and free Slack alternative is aimed to increase team productivity and improve communication at work.

In the past three years, we had a wide variety of customers…

From really nice customers to those that made us want to close shop forever. Over time, we realized that not everyone is our ideal customer and that some people simply cannot be made happy.

If someone just can’t be satisfied, no matter what, we either give them a full refund or suggest that they delete their account. By using this strategy, we’ve saved lots of time and money. We simply stopped bothering with customers that we cannot make happy, no matter what.

For those cases when someone is being difficult, and we CAN do something, we go out of our way to make them happy. Our customer support team is there to answer all questions, help customers set up our software, onboard their team, start using the chat, and other options. Luckily, we have very few difficult customers, and I hope we don’t get any more in the future.

Sara Dahan

Sara Dahan

Sara Dahan is the Founder & CEO of the community strategy agency Catalyst. Sara has been building communities for 12 years with a Bachelor’s degree in neuroscience from MIT and an MPH in epidemiology from NYU. Sara has given 3 TEDx talks that explore empathetic leadership and the future of communities in business.

People like to feel important…

If you are dealing with a difficult customer, one way to disarm a hostile situation is to make them feel like their opinion is helpful and that you recognize their efforts to improve your brand.

You could potentially say, “Thank you so much for spending this time and energy trying to create a better experience for future customers. These tough conversations that bring about progress are why we do what we do. We are immensely grateful and flattered that you are equally invested.”

Try to mentally frame the situation as the customer being part of the brand – not attacking it. And they are! A brand's audience speaks volumes about the brand itself. If the experience makes you rethink what kind of audience you are attracting, that conversation can and should happen later. In the moment, thank the customer for sharing their experience and emphasize how valuable their input is to the situation and the brand as a whole.

Ricky Regalado

Ricky Regalado

Ricky Regalado is the owner of Rozalado Professional Services, a growing janitorial and maintenance services company based in Chicago. Ricky is also the co-founder and CEO of Route, software built by and for the hard-working people of the service business industry.

We've all grown up hearing that the customer is always right, but anyone in a service industry knows better than that…

Customers can often be unreasonable, difficult, and even flat-out wrong. I don't believe that we should always operate under this illusion of customer infallibility. Instead, our task is to defuse the situation with excellent customer service.

The best way I've always found to deal with difficult customers comes in two parts: the first is to keep your cool and smile when possible. This step comes particularly in handy when dealing with customers over the phone. Without the advantage of seeing body language and facial expressions, you'll be surprised how the simple act of smiling can portray a genial tone to the person on the other line.

The second part is to arm yourself with data and facts. Difficult customers are often acting unreasonably. Presenting the facts of the situation calmly and clearly with a friendly tone can deescalate the situation quickly. Doing so puts you in a much better position to resolve the issue in a way that benefits the customer without detriment to the company. Our team motto at Rozalado is to understand the client's expectations. Delivering on client expectations is a major key to success in the service industry and really anything in life. By managing expectations, businesses can better ensure their success in performing the job at hand.

Louis Carter

Louis Carter

Louis Carter is CEO and founder of Best Practice Institute, and an award-winning social/organizational psychologist and author of the book published by McGraw Hill: In Great Company: How to Spark Peak Performance by Creating an Emotionally Connected Workplace. Louis is the author of over 10 books on leadership and management, including Change Champion's Field Guide, Best Practices in Talent Management, and recent research on "Most Loved Workplaces.”

Observe, mirror, and react accordingly…

When dealing with a difficult customer, mirror their energy and emotion and become their solution. Research shows that when we mirror the words and emotional levels of a person in distress with an equal yet opposite helpful reaction, it disarms them into a sense of well-being. Becoming helpful yet equally as emotional in our help is a form of emotional relief for people in crisis.

Hassan Alnassir

Hassan Alnassir

Hassan Alnassir is the founder & owner of Premium Joy, a toy business selling educational foam playthings for kids.

One effective way to deal with a difficult customer is by…

Maintaining a professional and respectful tone throughout the interaction while showing genuine concern for their needs. Customers who are challenging ultimately want to feel valued, which you can accomplish by letting them communicate whatever issues or problems they have without interruption, then offering to help in whatever way possible. When a demanding customer senses that you care about them and truly want to solve their problem, they’ll loosen up and start communicating with you more reasonably.

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