How to handle difficult customers effectively

Editorial Team

4 min read
Employee at outdoor cafe

Difficult customers are a fact of life for small business owners. You can’t please every customer every day. Even with great customer service staff, you’ll end up with a few dissatisfied customers. Whether it’s because someone on your staff made a mistake or because that customer just happens to be having a really bad day, your business needs a strategy for dealing with demanding, impatient, or cranky customers.

Here are 5 tips for dealing with difficult customers, from small business owners like you:

1. Set clear expectations.

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. Show empathy.

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

3. Do whatever you can to make things right.

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

4. Stay calm.

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.

5. Learn from the interaction.

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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