How to deal with difficult customers

Faced with a bad attitude this holiday season? Keep your cool with these tips.

How to deal with difficult customers

Don't let angry customers get under your skin.

Just hearing the words “customer service” can make retailers and consumers cringe. Yet providing quality customer care is often what differentiates a company from its rivals. And when you have an angry customer, your skills (and patience) are put to the test. Time to pass that test with flying colors.

“With the digital disruption we’re having today, customer loyalty is really dropping for a lot of businesses,” says John DiJulius, a customer service consultant and author of The Relationship Economy: Building Stronger Customer Connections in the Digital Age. “The best differentiator you can make is to form an emotional connection with your customer. And when you think about the great customer service giants that are out there—[companies like] Disney, Southwest, Nordstrom, Apple—those companies do drop the ball on occasion, but when they make a mistake they make it right for their customers.”

Lee Cockerell, former executive vice president of operations at Walt Disney World, says customer service workers can make or break a company. “People go back to businesses where they are treated respectfully and where their problems are resolved effectively,” says Cockerell, author of The Customer Rules: The 39 Essential Rules for Delivering Sensational Service.

Dealing with an unhappy customer, though, can be challenging, since “difficult customers trigger our natural fight or flight instincts,” says Jeff Toister, author of Getting Service Right: Overcoming the Hidden Obstacles to Outstanding Customer Service. “We reflexively want to argue with the customer or get away from them.”

The best approach, though, is to “recognize a customer triggering this instinctive response, take just a second to pause, and make a conscious decision to help the other person,” Toister says.

Difficult customers come in several varieties, and they require slightly different approaches. Here are a few different types of angry customers and how to deal with them as a customer service representative.

Types of difficult customers

  • Angry
  • Impatient
  • Intimidating
  • Talkative
  • Demanding
  • Indecisive

Angry Andy

How he behaves: Irate over an issue, Angry Andy often raises his voice, clenches his jaw, or turns red in the face. (He’s practically blowing smoke out of his ears!)

How to help him: Don’t lose your cool. “Assume the customer has a valid reason for displaying anger,” says Renée Evenson, business trainer and author of Powerful Phrases for Effective Customer Service. “This will help you to not become defensive and will also help you speak to the customer in a professional manner.”

Start by offering a simple apology (“I’m sorry”), “even if you don’t know who is at fault,” says Evenson. Then, assure the customer that you’re going to handle the problem. “An apology can go a long way, and so can a sincere assurance that you will find the best solution,” she adds.

Moreover, don’t take things personally. “People may be going through financial hardship at home, or they’re frustrated with their job, so bear in mind that an angry customer may not be a reflection on you,” Cockerell points out. “Your job is to listen, assess the situation, and figure out what you can do about it.”

Impatient Ian

How he behaves: Visibly agitated, Impatient Ian wants you to resolve his issue pronto—as in, drop everything!

How to help him: Patience is indeed a virtue, but it’s becoming less common. “Today, time is the most valuable commodity for everyone,” DiJulius says. “People want purchases to be easy and quick.” As Evenson puts it, “We live in an impatient world. We want what we want and we want it now.”

The key, when dealing with an impatient customer, is to work as efficiently as possible, while finding the best solution, Evenson says. “It may help to show empathy: ‘I can see you’re in a hurry and I’m working as quickly as I can to….’”

Demanding Debra

How she behaves: Difficult to satisfy, Demanding Debra feels entitled to something that you may not be able to deliver.

How to help her: Overly demanding customers can be the most difficult to deal with, Evenson says, since they may have unreasonable expectations. Fortunately, she says there’s a two-step solution.

First, acknowledge that you’ll handle the situation fairly. (“I’d like to rush your order, but that would not be fair to our other customers who already placed their orders. I’m sure you wouldn’t want me to rush someone else’s order over yours.”) Then follow up with an assurance. (“I’ll make sure we get your order out as quickly as possible.”)

Know-it-all Ken

How he behaves: Know-it-all Ken thinks he’s more knowledgeable about your company’s product than you are, and he’s intent on proving it.

How to help him: Tread carefully—Ken will react negatively if you try to school him or show him a lack of respect. Most know-it-alls are just looking for a little recognition, so stroke their ego. For example, Evenson suggests: “I can tell you are very knowledgeable about ___. I appreciate that.”

“Establishing a rapport with the customer and displaying that you are also knowledgeable will get the customer on your side, and he or she will be more likely to accept your proposed solution,” Evenson says.

Indecisive Ivy

How she behaves: Indecisive Ivy can’t make up her mind, and she’s worried about making the wrong decision.

How to help her: Help Ivy assess her options. “As a customer service agent, your job is to serve as a guide for the consumer,” says Jeanne Bliss, business consultant and author of Chief Customer Officer 2.0: How to Build Your Customer-Driven Growth Engine. “You’re there to provide no-strings-attached information that can help customers understand what they need.”

If a customer is wavering between two products, help the person identify his or her needs. In some cases, the end result may not be a sale. “The best companies teach their employees to educate versus sell,” according to DiJulius. “When I went to buy a new iPad, the Apple employee asked me, ‘Well, what do you use your iPad for? Do you use it to watch games? Do you watch movies on it?’ As it turned out, there was no benefit for me to buy the new product. That kind of customer service builds loyalty.”

Get a job that treats you better

Sometimes, it isn't you, it's them. “There are some customers who are just never going to be happy,” says DiJulius. Pleasing such people is impossible. If you're constantly dealing with a stream of disrespectful customers at work, perhaps it's time to find a job at a company that has a kinder, friendlier clientele. Could you use some help with that? Join Monster for free today. As a member, you can upload up to five versions of your resume and cover letter—each tailored to the types of jobs that interest you. Recruiters search Monster every day looking to fill top jobs with highly talented candidates, just like you. Additionally, you can get job alerts sent directly to your inbox so you can spend less time combing through ads and more time emailing your resume to hiring managers. You owe it to yourself to find a job that treats you with the dignity you deserve.