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4 types of difficult customers (and how to deal with them)

Types of difficult customers

From the Goldilocks homebuyer to the enraged person in front of you at the grocery store, different types of difficult customers pop up in every business. What matters is how you respond to them. For instance, a few months ago, I was standing in the checkout line at At Home when the woman in front of me started shouting. The cashier had told her she would get a discount on her large purchase if she applied for a store credit card, but the system promptly denied her automatic approval.

“You told me the approval would be instant!” she yelled at the cashier. “I told you I only wanted to do this if I could get a discount right now!” 

The cashier apologized profusely, called her manager over, and offered the customer a future discount once she was approved. Though the cashier skillfully de-escalated the situation, 59% of American customers say they feel like most businesses need to improve the training of customer service agents. 

This article will cover: 

  • Four types of difficult customers — complainers, aggressors, indecisive folks, and nitpickers
  • Strategies for turning the situation around with each type of customer
  • Verbatim lines your team can use in difficult situations

Let’s dive in.

1. The complainer

Some complainers have valid concerns. For example, Drew Schuffenhauer, Customer Support Team Lead at OpenPhone, says these types of difficult customers often complain when they don’t receive a thorough explanation or it’s taken a long time to get a response. Then the burden is on the company to clear things up and streamline their customer communication.

But the pessimistic complainer who whines, gripes, and can never be fully satisfied — those are the people who start to eat away at your resources. Trying to please them is a time-intensive task without a sure payoff. 

For example, a realtor may have a client who’s never content with the houses they tour. Working with them is like a drawn-out episode of House Hunters — the house is either in the wrong suburb, has a slightly out-of-date style, doesn’t have a big enough yard, or doesn’t have the right type of kitchen sink.

Tips to win over the complainer

  • Thank them for their feedback, listen, and make a mental note of what might work.
  • Assure them you’ll go through all the available options together and help them find the right choice.
  • Ask clarifying questions to identify their values and priorities.

Try resolving their complaints by saying this: 

  • “I really appreciate your feedback. Thank you for sharing your concerns with me. I’ll do everything in my power to find the best option for you.”
  • “I think I understand. You’re concerned that … [restate what they’ve told you]. I’ll try my best to accommodate your request and find a good solution for you.”

2. The aggressor

In many cases, angry folks are upset about something unrelated to the situation at hand. For example, the woman in At Home was likely stressed about the high costs of furnishing an apartment. The delayed credit card application was just what set her off. Aggressors make threats, loudly hurl insults, or cause a scene that can put your employees in harm’s way.

Drew says the key to dealing with aggressive customers is to put yourself in their shoes: “Empathy is super important for all customers, but especially anyone that might be expressing frustration or indicating they’re not having a great experience.”

While it’s natural to get defensive when someone sends a rude message or shouts at you, try to keep emotions out of it. Remember, their anger likely has nothing to do with you. Ask clarifying questions to get to the bottom of the misunderstanding and maintain a professional and positive tone.

Strategies to calm down an aggressor

  • Empathize and apologize even if they’re upset based on a previous interaction that’s not your fault — kill ‘em with kindness.
  • Remain calm and hear them out; they likely are frustrated by unmet expectations.
  • Assure them you’re going to fix your mistake through a discount, refund, or another perk.

Prepare your team for handling angry folks with these lines:

  • “What happened? It sounds like we messed up. Do you mind if I investigate a bit and get back to you?”
  • “It sounds like we’re at fault here for what we did and I’m not happy about that. Let me see how we can make it right.”
  • “I’m so sorry that you experienced this. We’re going to fix it and do what we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

3. The indecisive

Indecisive customers try to avoid buyer’s remorse by going back and forth with their options. Though they may not be aggressive or high maintenance, they do waste your team’s time. Instead of closing deals with more decisive people, they’re running the clock with wishy-washy folks.

For example, if you run a gym with each location being a small studio, you may only have one person at the front desk at a time. A customer who can’t decide if they want a gym membership or just to attend drop-in classes might spend a long time looking at pricing and different class types. Meanwhile, a line is forming with people who need to check in for a class or ask a question.

Here’s how to help indecisive people

  • Empathize with the customer and listen to their concerns — they’re likely self-conscious about asking so many questions.
  • Ask clarifying questions about their needs to help them decide on the best option.
  • Give them a copy of all the options available so they can study it on their own time.

Gently nudge these types of difficult customers with these lines:

  • “What are your reasons for hesitating? Is it the price? Concerns that there aren’t the right features you need? Here are a few ideas for solutions that may work for you.”
  • “I’ll send you some additional information so you can make an informed decision. Feel free to look over it when you have time and ask any additional questions.”

4. The nitpicker

Similar to the complainer, nothing is ever quite right for the nitpicker. They will always find something wrong with your service or product because their expectations are often too high. Let’s say you have an agency that pairs executive assistants with CEOs. A nitpicky CEO might go through five different assistants and find something wrong with each — too timid, asks too many questions, too bossy — the list goes on. 

How to please the nitpicker

  • Get to them as quickly as possible — time to resolution is a recurring theme for nitpickers.
  • If they ask for things outside your power to provide, assure them you’re listening and will do what you can.
  • Tell them you’ll look into their request but can’t promise specifics.

If your team often handles demanding requests, you can equip them with responses like these:

  • “I completely understand your frustration, and I’m sorry the service didn’t meet your expectations. While we don’t offer refunds, I’d be happy to offer you credit towards another service that better fits your needs. Would that work for you?”
  • “I want to help you, but unfortunately, I don’t have the authority to give you what you’re asking for. I’d be happy to bring my manager into the conversation. They have the authority to make decisions like this. Would that be okay with you?”

Be gracious, but don’t be a doormat

Dealing with different types of difficult customers requires clear communication, empathy, and patience. Encourage team members to tag a team lead if they’re not sure how to handle a tricky situation — especially if they’re new. A small business phone system like OpenPhone makes communication between team members easy when situations arise.

It’s also important to know when to cap it. While you should be solution-oriented in your approach, you won’t be able to please everyone if you want to keep your business running. Harry Morton, founder of Lower Street, a podcast production agency that has worked with notable brands like Booking.com and Pepsico, suggests stopping at three actionable solutions. 

“The three solutions we present are usually mutually beneficial. If the customer has issues beyond this, it’s likely that the company will have to make a compromise that makes the transaction unprofitable,” he explains. 

Finally, be committed to fixing issues as soon as possible. When people have to wait for hours or even days for a response, they’re more likely to get aggressive, become nitpicky, indecisive, or complain. 

To learn more about how your team can handle tough interactions, keep reading about this topic: Dealing with difficult customers: How to crack the code.

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