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Dealing with Difficult Customers: How to Crack the Code

How to deal with difficult customers

In a world where Karens have sullied the name Karen for all the nice Karens, and we see TikToks where customers verbally abuse employees, how do you know when to attempt to de-escalate your customers or when to cut and run?

76% of consumers say they would stop doing business with a company after two bad customer service experiences — the three-strikes rule doesn’t apply.

But what happens when it’s not necessarily customer service that is lacking? How do you deal with difficult customers when the customer is straight up being difficult?

To help you and your team figure that out, we’ll explore the following: 

  • Types of difficult customers
  • Preventative actions that keep customers happy and reduce your amount of difficult interactions
  • A framework for dealing with difficult customers that you can share with your team

Ready to give your team a proactive plan to follow that sets them up for success when encountering difficult customers? Let’s dive in.

Determine the type of difficult customer

Imagine being face-to-face with an unhappy customer — arms crossed, jaw clenched, and huffing and puffing like the big bad wolf.

Or perhaps, you’re on a call with a frustrated and impatient customer whose tone combines teenage whining and angry dad at a Little League tournament.

Whoever it is, it’s nice to know what your team is up against. First, let’s run through the different types of difficult customers:

The complainer

Nothing ever goes the complainer’s way. 

Let’s say you’re a realtor. Your complainer client finds fault with every property shown. To boot, they claim you ask too many questions and call too often while grumbling you’re not giving them enough attention, and they’re baffled that you can’t find the perfect house.

And they will tell you all about it every chance they get.  

Tactics for turning the situation around

Complainers require plenty of patience. But you don’t have to sit through customer complaints just for the sake of getting through the conversation, you can understand their viewpoint and gather candid feedback. 

Your team might find these helpful when responding to a complainer:

  • That’s helpful feedback. Thank you! It will help us get closer to finding a solution for you.”
  • “Thank you for your feedback. That product or service may not be the perfect fit for everyone, but we do offer a variety of options that could work better for you. If you’d like, I can help you explore those options and find the one that suits your needs best.”

The aggressor

This difficult customer seems mean — and they’re often angry about something else in life that isn’t relevant to the situation. Maybe they’re simply having a no-good, very bad day.  

You monitor the situation — as they loudly say hurtful things or make threats — wondering when they will go full-Hulk. One thing is for sure, dealing with an aggressor puts your employees in harm’s way and causes a scene. 

Tactics for handling aggressive customers

When dealing with an aggressive customer, handle them with care and sprinkle on empathy. Apologize, even if it’s not your fault, to help calm them down. The apology helps you work toward a solution or peacefully terminate the transaction. At the end of the day, it’s worth it to avoid further trouble and diffuse the situation. 

Consider trying some of these lines to help calm an aggressive customer:

  • “Thanks for sticking with me as we get to the bottom of this together. I want to make this right.”
  • “I’m so sorry to hear you’re unhappy with the service you received. I completely understand how frustrating that can be. I’m here to listen and help find a solution that works for you. Could you tell me more about what went wrong, so I can better understand the situation and problem-solve?”

The indecisive

Decision paralysis is the indecisive customer’s middle name. They’re likely just trying to get the best value for their money, but there are too many options. And they’re set on avoiding buyer’s remorse — so the easiest way to do that is to avoid deciding altogether. 

As a result, your team invests precious time that could be better spent on decisive, loyal customers.

Tactics for helping indecisive customers

Who hasn’t been stuck in the toothpaste aisle trying to make a choice while questioning our life decisions? Someone that’s indecisive may have remorse for their uncertainty that you can help alleviate with empathy. They’re likely feeling self-conscious about taking a lot of time and asking a lot of questions.

Help someone waffling on a decision uncover why they’re hesitating through pointed and specific questions about their needs, so you know how to guide them. 

Then, reassure them by sharing helpful information about the product or service. They’ll feel more comfortable deciding because of your confidence, friendliness, and patience. 

Here are some prompts that will help move along the process with indecisive customers:

  • “I understand where you’re coming from. Decisions are tough. Have you read any reviews or researched this product/service? If so, what have you learned so far?” 
  • “Please paint a picture for me of how you imagine you’d use this product/service and how it might be helpful. I’m here to help fill in any gaps and give you all the info you need to make the best decision possible.”

4 effective ways to avoid angry customer situations in the first place

A little extra forethought can prevent a lot of trouble. For managers, that means putting a few more guardrails in place that can help your team. 

1. Train your team to meet customers where they’re at 

While your employees might know a lot about your products and services, your customers might not. That’s where the curse of knowledge can get in your team’s way. 

Unless you have in-depth productive analytics or other clear context that your customer already knows specific information, train your team to act as educational resources for your customers. 

To do this, consider reviewing your existing customer conversations for information gaps that your team needs to address either in external or internal content. For example, you may have something that’s a sensitive subject you don’t necessarily want public but comes up frequently in conversations with customers.  

2. Build out resources that prevent conversations from going sour

Drew Schuffenhauer, Customer Support Team Lead at OpenPhone, says customer service issues often come from misunderstandings and miscommunication. To help avoid these issues, businesses may consider regular employee training in these areas to bolster their teams’ customer service skills:

OpenPhone’s support team also goes through separate training on empathy.  “There we explain some of the main points to keep in mind, language to use, and things to avoid that can make the experience a little better if someone’s having a bad time,” Drew says. 

3. Pick up the phone when they call

What issue has the most negative impact on their experience in the eyes of many folks? 

Slow response times. 

Most customers want an immediate response when they contact a company, and almost three-quarters of customers want that person to have the full context of their customer journey. That’s why businesses should be available and ready to jump on customer interactions as soon as they come in. For example, with OpenPhone, you can ensure calls get picked up and everyone is on the same page. 

With shared numbers, everyone with access to that phone number can have their mobile phones or computer ring when a customer calls. To cut down on the time to resolution, the team member can check your preferred cloud CRM for customer notes and solve problems with the team using OpenPhone’s internal threads

4. Avoid too much back and forth 

Anyone who has watched family members navigate the healthcare industry during a health crisis knows how frustrating months of email chains and phone tag can be. Sifting through complex docs and being passed on to other people takes hours.

Customer interactions come loaded with nuance because humans communicate with more than words. Think about the lost context when you can’t hear verbal cues like tone or pauses. It’s a recipe for conflict. 

To avoid this, make it clear in your standard operating procedures when moving conversations from async to real-time may make sense. Often more can be settled in one quick, 10-minute phone conversation than five emails. Keep interactions brief because the longer the contact window, the more complaints they may toss in.

Now that you’re familiar with the different types of challenging customers, let’s dive deeper into how to deal with difficult customers with grace. We’ll explore practical strategies and preventative measures to help you navigate these situations smoothly and maintain positive customer relationships.

6-step framework for resolving difficult customer situations 

Even when you’ve done everything right, encountering difficult customers is inevitable. For those interactions, we’ve created a framework for you to share with your employees and teammates to use.

Let’s say one of your employees receives an intimidating call from a customer who has escalated from complainer to aggressor. Not only are they getting louder, but they are also using rude language, demanding a refund, and threatening to pull their business.

Your teammate goes into a state of fight, flight, or freeze as their adrenaline pumps. When you expect employees to think on their feet in a tense situation like that, you’ll get a mixed bag of outcomes.

It might be one of those situations where everybody wants to talk like they’ve got something to say, but nothing comes out when they move their lips — just a bunch of gibberish.

To de-escalate situations like that, consider incorporating this framework into your customer service training to help your employees navigate complex customer interactions:

Step 1: Approach the customer with empathy and active listening

Who hasn’t had a customer service experience that leaves you wondering if you were talking to a person or a bot? 

Nowadays, customers crave personalized interactions. Here are ideas for interacting with upset customers so they don’t feel like just another number:

Acknowledge their concerns

Restating or recognizing a difficult customer’s concerns is like throwing a bucket of water on a blazing fire — it helps douse the flames. It paves the way for a cooler, more constructive conversation. Your team can keep these tips in mind as they work towards a solution:

  • Everyone has bad days: Try not to take what the customer says personally, and don’t shoot barbs back.
  • Ground yourself: Take a breath and connect with your emotions. This attempt at relaxing can help you speak slowly in a low and calm voice. 
  • Observe nonverbal cues: A customer’s body language (if you’re in person) and tone of voice can help you gauge their emotional state. 
  • Thank them for feedback: Feedback — warranted or not — helps us grow. Put yourself in your customer’s shoes and imagine how they feel about the time they’re putting into speaking with you.
  • Let them know you are there to help: Sometimes people assume everyone is in it for themselves, so reassure them that you are working together. If a teammate is following up with someone, use notes from customer service recordings to personalize your response to the situation and shape the questions you ask to gather information.

Here are a few empathetic phrases you can use: 

  • I completely understand your perspective.
  • I understand how you feel.
  • I apologize for your experience.
  • I am sorry to hear about this.I can understand how frustrating this is.
  • Thank you for being so patient while we resolve this.

Ask them questions

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking the same old story requires the same old fix, but Drew says it’s best not to assume a fix you used before will work in each situation. 

“Since we’re trying to resolve as much as we can as quickly as possible, sometimes we jump right into things,” Drew says. “Instead, take a second to make sure that you fully understand it, gather all the information you need, and clarify anything necessary.”

Each question you ask should help get to the bottom of the situation so your other customers aren’t waiting longer than necessary. 

Consider asking these questions so you can have a clear understanding of the situation: 

  • “I’m genuinely interested in understanding your concerns. I understand x has occurred so far. Do you mind walking me through anything else I should be aware of?  Your insights will be helpful.” 
  • “I want you to feel confident about what you’re paying for. What steps can I take to reassure you?”
  • “I want you to feel comfortable moving forward. How can I help make this interaction a less stressful experience for you?”

Step 2: Repeat their concerns back to them to show that you understand

Imagine a frustrated customer has reached their boiling point after being bounced around between clueless representatives — each providing different information. In such cases, if the issue has escalated to management, Drew suggests managers and owners review past conversations. Pinpointing exactly where things got heated, they can address the root cause of customer dissatisfaction more effectively when speaking with the customer. 

Call recordings are a single source of truth, providing a reliable and crystal-clear picture of what was said. When you factor in their most recent responses to your questions, you’ll discover that resolving the issue becomes much more manageable.

Once you’ve analyzed the situation, your response can echo the thoughts and feelings you heard back to the customer.

Consider trying that before explaining the company’s perspective to the customer. Sometimes the people who have already helped the customer didn’t do anything wrong. But the next team member might succeed with the customer by finding an alternative way to explain the company’s policy and reasoning.

Step 3: Communicate expectations clearly

Your difficult customer has a busy life: a job, kids, and all the moving parts that make their day-to-day function. If dealing with a difficult customer was an action movie, you’d be the hero running against the clock to jump into the portal of customer satisfaction before time runs out.  

Once you’ve determined what needs to happen to make it right with the customer, share with them the specific steps you plan to take to resolve the issue. You can set expectations at the beginning of a call when you know an issue can’t be resolved over the course of that phone call.  

If this is the case, instead of making them wait on the line, Drew suggests giving them a time frame with the steps you’ll take to resolve the issue and when you expect to resolve it. “Consider gathering the information, get offline or off the phone call, and move forward with an investigation,” Drew says. “Then get back to the customer, either by a phone call or sometimes a follow-up message.”

When a customer situation is a larger issue that will take multiple people to fix, you can pull in your team together in a task management tool or another platform. If you use OpenPhone, internal threads can help your team to problem-solve together out of the customer’s view in context with a specific conversation.

Step 4: Find mutually beneficial solutions

The goal of any perceived conflict is to find a win-win solution. To achieve conflict resolution, brainstorm solutions that hit the sweet spot between your and your customer’s goals and values. By finding common ground, you can work towards a mutually beneficial outcome.

But solving the problem isn’t the end of the road. Once you reach a solution, in some cases, you also need to educate the customer. Drew says to assume the customer is new to the product and provide clear instructions with screenshots and videos for each step as needed. 

Step 5: Follow up to ensure customer satisfaction

Instead of solving their issue and just moving on, go the extra mile to deliver the wow factor. Take the opportunity to leave a lasting impact and build a long-lasting relationship by following up.

Here are the key elements of a supportive follow-up:

  • Check in with the customer to ensure that their issue is resolved. Ask if the solution provided met their expectations. Demonstrate genuine concern and reinforce your commitment to their satisfaction.
  • Provide guidance on related matters relevant to the customer’s situation. Offer suggestions or resources that can further support their needs. Ask if there’s anything else you can do to assist them.
  • Express gratitude for their patience and understanding throughout the process. Acknowledge their trust in your business and the opportunity to serve them. A heartfelt “thank you” goes a long way in building customer loyalty.

Step 6: Know when to walk away

While your customers’ needs are a priority for your business, there are instances where the customer isn’t always right… and they’re being rather ugly about it. 

Remember, your well-being and the well-being of your team matter, too. Recognizing when to take a break or gracefully walk away from a difficult customer ensures you can focus your energy on customers who appreciate you and align with your business values. It’s all about maintaining a positive environment and nurturing mutually beneficial relationships.

Take a break and a deep breath

Let’s say one of your team members is feeling overwhelmed by emotions. There’s still a chance to salvage the relationship with the customer, consider these options to give them a well-deserved deep breath when tensions are high:

  • Put the customer on a strategic hold: It gives you a moment to collect your thoughts and calm any intense emotions in the conversation.
  • Set up a screen share or recording: This lets you visually walk the customer through any tricky troubleshooting steps and explain the complex solution in a more hands-on way.
  • Reach out to a colleague: This helps when you’re confident that your solution is spot on, but the customer needs extra convincing. Their confirmation adds weight to your advice and can build trust with customers who might initially doubt your expertise.

For the occasions that a break won’t do, determine if continued efforts are in your best interests or if your team needs to cut and run.

Cut and run

In Quit, bestselling author Annie Duke points out how deeply ingrained it is in our minds that quitting is the ultimate failure. It causes us to grapple with ending endeavors that simply aren’t working out. Here are some reasons why you might have a difficult time letting go of a customer:

  • Sunk cost: The more time and resources you put in, the harder it is to get out because you don’t want it all to be for nothing.
  • Loss aversion: Similar to sunk cost, this is when a loss’s emotional impact is greater than an equal gain’s. Though losing the customer frees up energy for another, it still hurts.
  • Quit while you’re ahead: When things are going poorly, people often double down to try to improve the situation, even when it’s a losing proposition.
  • Optimism: Thinking things that probably won’t change could change makes you less likely to quit while not increasing your chances.

Ultimately, Annie writes that quitting is usually the better choice if your options are a close call between quitting and persevering. Consider asking yourself, will sticking with the customer be a positive or negative experience in the long run? 

Harry Morton, the founder of podcast production company Lower Street Media,  and his team put this principle into practice. After three actionable solutions have failed, Harry protects his business and team with kill criteria that helps the team know when it’s time to terminate the business relationship.

Harry says, “This ensures that we prioritize healthy and productive customer relationships and protect the company’s culture and employees.”

Here are additional factors that might lead you to consider discontinuing business with a customer:

  • When the customer’s demands or behavior are at odds with your business’s values or goals.
  • If the customer displays abusive or threatening behavior.
  • When the customer is unwilling to collaborate toward finding a solution.

Learn more about research-backed tactics for building rapport in our customer relations guide.

Make customer support effortless with OpenPhone

By following this framework, your team can navigate complex customer interactions with confidence and professionalism. Like most strategies, treat this as an iterative process. And check in with your colleagues to make sure they have what they need, they’re okay, and they feel appreciated for the work that they’re doing.

OpenPhone has your back when it comes to dealing with difficult customers. We simplify the tasks and interactions involved in solving their problems by making it easier for your team to provide a great customer experience. Our modern business phone system includes:

See for yourself why thousands of businesses use OpenPhone to deliver better support. Try out OpenPhone for free with a seven-day trial.

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