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5 things to remember when dealing with difficult customers

Editorial Team

4 min read
Customer ordering at BBQ restaurant

Every business encounters difficult customers. Even with excellent customer service and an all-star staff, you’re still bound to have a dissatisfied client every now and again. Unfortunately, you can’t please every customer. The person could just be having a bad day, or perhaps a mistake was made by someone on your staff. Regardless of the reason behind their difficult behavior, your business should have a protocol in place to effectively deal with demanding, impatient, or cranky customers.


Below are 5 suggestions to help your small business deal with difficult customers:

1.   Set your team up for success

Two-way communication is key in establishing a good relationship with a customer. Train your staff to listen for moments when customers are communicating their needs. If a couple walks into your restaurant and says they’ve got tickets to a movie later, your waitstaff should not be trying to upsell them into appetizers and dessert. At the same time, clear, up-front communication about your policies can go a long way towards preventing complaints after the fact.

  • “We do not consider any customers difficult. We try to find out what our customers’ final needs and wants are before we start a project so we can work back from that, and can begin on the correct path to achieve and exceed their expectations.”—John Stampone, Major Printing Company, Union, NJ
  • “We have been pretty lucky in the fact that we have some really awesome customers! On the rare occasion we do have someone who is rude, we still treat them with the same courtesy as we do with the other customers—and remind them there are no refunds and say have a lovely day…”—Magnolia Emporium, Charlotte, NC

2.  Handle the situation in a calm manner

Never allow anyone on your staff to argue with an unhappy customer. If you see a member of your staff having a heated discussion, step in, send them away, and apologize for their behavior. The same goes for you, of course—if you’re called in to speak to a difficult customer, keep your voice calm and even. If you get a negative review online, do not respond right away! Give yourself time to cool down so you can simply apologize and reach out to offer a solution privately.

  • “Listen and put yourself in his or her shoes—it makes a difference. Most people want to react, but the most important thing is to fully understand the problem and see it from the customer’s point of view before reacting. It’s easy to truly care about them. And once you truly care about them, it’s a lot easier to solve their problem.”—Dan Price, Gravity Payments, Seattle, WA

3.  Empathize with the customer

Often, a difficult customer just wants to be heard. Try to show them that you understand what’s bothering them. Use the reflective listening technique: If they say, “I’ve been waiting for twenty minutes just to take care of a simple return!” then you say, “I hear that you’re frustrated about how long you’ve been waiting.” Reflecting their concerns back to them makes them feel like you understand—the first step to establishing a better relationship. It also gives them a chance to correct you if you haven’t quite understood, helping you zero in on a solution that will work for them.

  • “I think of some of the worst days I’ve had and how small acts of kindness and understanding from an employee at a store made things feel a little better.”—David James, Pioneer Pet, Seattle, WA

4.  Do your best to correct the situation

When something has gone wrong for a customer, or an employee has made a mistake, apologize. Even if you can’t fulfill their specific request—say, if they want to return an item that’s been damaged for a full refund—make an effort to make amends in some way. Maybe you can offer them a partial refund, or a discount on a future purchase. Remember you’re trying not just to defuse this specific situation, but ideally, to keep this person as a customer in the future.

  • “Apologize for and explain the situation, issue a refund (if applicable), and offer an additional benefit for sticking with you. Have a set strategy for specific problems, but personalize each response. Great customer service can turn unhappy customers into brand advocates; poor service does exactly the opposite.”—Carlo Cisco, FoodFan, New York, NY

5. Remember that every interaction is a chance to learn

Sometimes a customer complaint can clue you in to a real problem that needs to be resolved. Be open to hearing what even the most difficult customers have to say. Once you’ve dealt with the specific issue, see if any of your company policies need to be updated. Make sure you’re training customer-facing staff to be patient and take the initiative to solve customer problems before they escalate.

  • “Unhappy customers can be a goldmine for how you can improve your product or service. Listen to them, and see it as a gift.”—Suzanne Smith, Social Impact Architects, Dallas, TX

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