How do you identify the root of a difficult customer’s problem? Who knows for sure? Your job isn’t to be a psychologist that psycho analyzes every irate customer, nor is it the job of your manager. Through reviewing over 100 companies, 200,000 managers and 1 million employees worldwide, 10 characteristics of difficult customers have been identified.

Difficult customers often:
1. Enjoy making situations toxic
2. Are mean, nasty and rude
3. Have caustic personalities
4. Are demanding and confrontational
5. Don’t recognize or see themselves as a problem
6. Are difficult because of underlying issues, personality disorders or learned behaviors and motivations
7. Are always difficult
8. Are difficult based on circumstances
9. Are honest
10. Can be our neighbors, friends and family

Your job, though, is to take care of the customer regardless of your job. With this in mind, always remember the adage, “You can’t change other people, YOU can only choose and change how you respond to them.” This is the essence of the customer service edict we discussed in part 1 of this article: You Earn Customer Loyalty One Customer at a Time. To preserve your principles and your sanity consider these strategies to protect yourself with strength and power while also handling difficult or irate customers effectively.

Respect, courtesy and helpfulness reign.
Deal with any and all people with the utmost respect, dignity and care even if they don’t seem to deserve it. Do not get into a shouting match and treat them poorly just because they are in a diatribe. If you call them out on their poor behavior they probably won’t understand what you are talking about. Take responsibility for your part in the relationship.

Make sure you start by listening.
Listening is the foundation of courtesy and respect. Tell the customer, “I want to help, sir. Tell me about it and let me take a few notes. Go ahead.” This gives them the stage to air their grievances. In other words, let them vent. This makes the customer feel like they are being heard while also giving you control of the conversation in a positive, constructive way.

Try not to get defensive.
You need to work on building a thick skin. Remind yourself it’s not about you, it’s about them. Whatever they are going through as a person, is their business. The only problem you need address is their problem as a customer. They may attack you and accuse you of things you haven’t done. You are only guilty of being the face of the company you work for. It’s your job to take it. (There is one exception, which we will talk about later.) Learn to control your emotions through relaxation. To better prepare for these difficult interactions, know your product, procedures and options for solutions. This arms you with immediate knowledge of what to do and how to do it. Invest time in learning more about your role and company. This will serve you well and help you stay calm in difficult situations.

Deal with the person first before trying to solve their problem.
They may blame you, yell at you and say unkind things. Acknowledge their difficulty, empathize and apologize. For example, “I am so sorry this happened to you Mrs. X. I am sure this was an incredible inconvenience.” Words from you expressed like this sincerely have a way of calming down even the most irate person.

Be careful not to get angry.
If you get angry you are giving the customer fuel to act out even more. It also justifies their case. You end up making an almost impossible situation worse. They will add you to their list of grievances and probably will want to talk to your manager immediately. If you feel anger coming on, take a deep breath. Mentally, disassociate yourself from the situation by quickly reminding yourself of a pleasant memory to refocus. Use a paraphrase, “What I hear you saying is…” Or, apologize again. This will give you a little time to regroup your emotions. Finally, encourage yourself. This isn’t personal even though the customer may act that way. Remind yourself that you are competent, confident and have a commitment to doing the right thing. Keep in mind that you are dealing with a customer and you want them to remain loyal to the company.

Deal with the problem.
When the customer’s anger slows or at an appropriate pause, recap the situation and the customer’s concerns. Then, begin to focus on solutions. Tell the customer, “I am sad this has happened but I am happy you brought this to MY attention. May I ask a few questions…Here’s what I can do …” Note that asking questions helps you navigate what really happened. Then, give them options. By doing this, you are giving them evidence of their power by providing the options that will lead them to an appropriate result. while also maintaining the chance to keep them as a customer.

Use perspective questions to keep the customer honest and on track. For example:

  • “What I said was…”
  • “That’s not what I said…”
  • “What I can do is…”
  • “Please let me finish…”
  • “I think we are saying the same thing…”
Notice we are using “I” statements and not “YOU” statements. If you say to the customer, “YOU didn’t follow our policy”, it comes across as an accusation. Instead own the situation, “I believe this is a different circumstance than our policy. Let me share a few options.”

Remember, the secret to handling difficult, negative and irate people is to manage yourself effectively. Customers have freedom of speech and they will express their views, whether they are right or wrong, because they can. With nearly seven billion people in the world, you will have customers with contrary views. By controlling your own emotional response and learning better techniques and skills you will be well equipped to handle any situation professionally if not brilliantly. If the above steps don’t take care of a particular difficult customer and you are still talking to him or her, then kindly include your manager as a next step.

One final note: we mentioned an exception above. These approaches work; they are time-tested over years with many employees, customers and companies. However, some customers can be just plain wacko. If a customer threatens you through violence or a verbal barrage, it’s time to end the conversation. If you are on the phone, end the conversation succinctly by saying, “Mr. Customer, when you are ready to talk rationally I, or someone here, will help. I am ending the conversation now. Good bye.” Then report to your manager what happened and with whom. In person, say a similar statement and then go get help immediately. Yes, there are crazies out there. Don’t risk your potential safety or your employees over a threat.

Finally, know your company’s approach. Make sure you have conversations with your supervisor about these kinds of situations and what your policies and procedures are. Role-play and practice with voice and video recordings are great ways to learn how to deal with difficult situations effectively. Prepare so you can learn to get in the “zone” when confronted by difficult people. The “zone” is a word used in sports for the place you go under pressure to perform your best without thinking. That’s what superstars do best!