Article | 12 min read

How to deal with difficult customers: 10 tips (+ examples)

Learning how to deal with difficult customers is tricky. Here’s how to create a better experience, even in the most challenging situations.

By Vivian Lopez, Contributing Writer

Last updated June 21, 2022

Heavy sighs, terse replies, crossed arms—all are telltale signs your customer isn’t happy. Even companies with the best products and services have difficult customers from time to time. It’s up to you to turn negative customer experiences into positive ones people will remember. And the stakes have never been higher: The Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2022 found that 61 percent of consumers will leave a company for a competitor after one bad customer service experience.

When you find a way to deal with difficult customers, you’ll likely see it reflected in your bottom line. Our CX Trends Report also found that 81 percent of consumers are more likely to buy again from a company that delivers a good customer experience. And 74 percent of respondents said they would forgive a company for its mistake after receiving excellent service.

Master the art of navigating tough interactions, and you’ll build stronger relationships with your buyers—and drive customer loyalty and business growth along the way.

Types of difficult customers (and how to help them)

Not every customer is the same. They all have unique wants, needs, expectations, and character traits. Tailor your customer service approach to the type of person you’re dealing with.

The contentious customer:

This customer is likely to come into the conversation ready to argue about something—whether that’s a billing error or a recurring technical issue. First, try to understand what’s bothering them. Get to the bottom of why they’re frustrated and use that to recommend solutions.

The challenging customer:

This is someone who—for some reason or another—doesn’t trust your suggestions or thinks they know more than you do. When this happens, show the customer that you value their insights.

The impatient customer:

This type of customer wants a solution immediately and may become angry if an issue can’t be resolved right away. Ease friction by communicating often and clearly. Do your best to explain why things aren’t moving as quickly as they would like.

The vague customer:

This person may not know exactly what they need from you. They might be confused and have difficulty explaining the issue. Ask the customer plenty of clarifying questions so you can understand what they truly want.

The demanding customer:

This customer is hard to please. They may refuse to accept the outcome or ask you to do something you’re unable to do for them. Get ahead of the game by identifying their concerns as early as possible and addressing them as best you can. Set boundaries with these customers, too. Let them know what your team is capable of so they don’t have unrealistic expectations.

The best way to handle difficult customers depends on the particular scenario. Keep these suggestions in mind while also being adaptable. And of course, regardless of the situation, treat every person with empathy and respect.

Free customer experience guide

Find out how to create great customer experiences that will lead to loyal customers, improved word-of-mouth promotion, and increased revenue.

Examples of handling difficult customers

Challenging customer interactions present themselves in many ways. No matter the industry, support agents must be ready for anything. Here are a few examples of difficult customer experience scenarios and ways to handle them.

Scenario: A family vacation booking error

Picture this. A couple becomes irate on a family vacation when they discover that the deluxe room they booked has only one large bed instead of two beds. There isn’t enough space for them and their two young kids.

Instead of politely asking what happened with their reservation, these customers raise their voices to the staff and call them incompetent. Tired from a long day of traveling, they aren’t interested in hearing the manager’s explanation. Right now, they just want to express their anger to anyone who will listen—including their friends on social media.

How to handle it

Whether it’s your fault or theirs, angry customers aren’t ready to listen. But there are ways to remedy the situation. Try to understand the issue from their perspective. Why are they angry? What might cause them to react this way? Let them talk without interruption, and wait until they regain composure. When the anger subsides, take the opportunity to apologize and offer a solution.

Scenario: The unexpected makeover mishap

A customer schedules a makeover at a salon. The stylist asks the client what hairstyle they want. They say, “Just a trim,” so the stylist does what they think the customer wants. The customer is horrified when they see how much the stylist has cut off and demands to speak to a manager.

You’re blindsided. Everything was going so well! Or so you thought…

How to handle it

Customers like this usually don’t mean to be difficult; they just don’t realize they’re being too vague. This can easily lead to misunderstandings between staff and customers. In this particular scenario, all you can do is apologize for the mistake and offer the customer a discount or refund for the haircut.

Luckily, there are ways to avoid this situation in the future. If the client isn’t quite sure what they want and provides a vague answer, you can spark ideas with a conversation. Ask some probing questions like: How short do you want your hair? Is there a celebrity with a similar haircut you’re going for? Get clarification from the start to avoid a potentially uncomfortable situation.

Scenario: An impatient sneaker aficionado

A customer finds a pair of sneakers they love, but the shoes are too small for them, so they need to request them in a bigger size. This is a person who doesn’t like to wait, but it’s a weekend, so naturally, there are many other customers seeking assistance.

The impatient customer doesn’t care about the number of people in line, though. Why would they? They just want to get their shoes and move on with their life.

How to handle it

All customers deserve a prompt response and quick action, regardless of how difficult they are. This is a moment to take a breath.

Do your best to explain why things aren’t moving as quickly as the customer would like. Assure them that you appreciate their patience and use the right tone of voice, phrasing, and body language. Tell the customer you understand their frustration and are doing your best to serve them as fast as possible.

Scenario: Mushroom soup mayhem

A customer orders fresh mushroom soup, and an issue comes up in the middle of their meal. The diner notices the soup tastes like ready-made mushroom soup straight from the can. Disappointed, they get the attention of the waiter and ask him to explain why the soup is not “fresh,” as stated on the menu.

They also started noticing little things, such as the dim lights and a stain on their glass. They’re an unhappy customer with high standards, and their expectations aren’t being met.

How to handle it

Perhaps the restaurant ran out of mushrooms and resorted to serving canned soup. Maybe this demanding customer just has an odd palate. Either way, the best way to diffuse the situation is to apologize for what happened and avoid excuses.

Address all their complaints at once. If they’re still dissatisfied, seek help from your manager, but be sure to offer a solution first. For example, recommend a different soup or offer to remove the item from the bill.

Scenario: The customer knows best (or do they?)

A customer is trying on different shades of foundation. You notice the foundation they’re applying is too light for them and offer to find a shade that works better. The client insists that it’s their skin so they know what they’re doing.

How to handle it

If you’ve ever worked in retail, you’ve likely been in this situation before. It’s frustrating when a customer doesn’t want to hear your advice. And it can feel personal, especially if they’re rude or dismissive.

Maybe this client is in a hurry, or maybe they just want what they want. In this case, simply say OK and let them know you’re here to help. That way, you leave the conversation on a positive note.

10 tips on how to deal with difficult customers

It might seem impossible to achieve customer satisfaction during tough situations, but it’s not. We’ve rounded up some strategies to help you handle difficult customers so you can turn more frowns into smiles.

1. Keep calm throughout the interaction

When a rude customer starts yelling at you, losing your temper will only make a bad situation worse. Remember, even though it feels personal, the customer isn’t mad at you. They’re likely not happy with your product or the quality of your company’s service. Telling someone off might feel good in the moment, but it can ruin your brand’s reputation—not to mention your own.

It’s important to stay calm and professional, no matter what the customer says or does. If the customer gets louder, speak in a lower tone and more slowly. This may help them to settle down.

2. Engage in active listening

Engage in active listening with difficult customers, phone in hand

Good customer service means listening patiently and letting customers talk. When they’re finished, you can repeat back what you’ve heard them say and ask if there’s anything else to clarify. Once they’ve had a chance to blow off some steam, they’ll be in a better state of mind to work on a resolution.

It sounds obvious, but the key to active listening is…listening. You aren’t waiting for a chance to defend yourself or refute what the customer is saying. Active listening means focusing on the speaker with the intention of understanding their message. The quicker you can pinpoint the problem, the sooner you can fix it.

3. Practice empathy

Sometimes, all difficult customers want is to feel understood. They want someone who will take their concerns seriously and actually care. There’s little more frustrating than taking the time to reach out to someone only to realize that the person isn’t listening or interested in helping.

Empathize with your customer by saying something like, “I can see this has been really frustrating for you. I’m sorry that you’re going through this.” Validate a customer’s feelings to show them they can trust you.

4. Don’t make promises you can’t keep

When it comes to difficult customers, don’t make promises you can’t keep, handshake

In a tense situation, it’s easy to tell customers what they want to hear. But if you can’t deliver on the promises you’re making, that will only make things worse.

People expect you to follow through, so only provide solutions you’re authorized to make. If you promise a customer they’ll get their money back, you have to be able to do so. Otherwise, people won’t trust you (or your company), and they likely won’t come back.

5. Take a moment to breathe

Let’s be real. Working in customer service can be rewarding, but it can also be emotionally exhausting. Some days, you feel like you’re just there to be someone’s emotional punching bag, and you have to take it with a smile. Over time, this can wear down even the most positive people.

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a few deep breaths. If the customer gets aggressive or abusive, call on a manager for help. Once the situation is over, you can vent about it to your colleagues. Sometimes, it helps to know you’re not the only one.

6. Provide quick responses and solutions

Provide difficult customers with quick responses and solutions, hourglass

Consumers have more to do in a day than contact customer support, so they want fast solutions. According to our CX Trends Report, 76 percent of shoppers expect to engage with someone immediately when they reach out to a business for help.

While it’s not always possible to respond immediately, you can do the prep work to address queries and deliver solutions promptly. Compile a list of frequently asked questions or common concerns, and create default answers you can use. You can also talk to your manager about using AI chatbots for simple inquiries and building knowledge bases that customers can use to find information after business hours.

7. Pay close attention to tone and body language

You can tell a lot about a customer by their tone of voice and body language—they can tell the same about you. During in-person interactions, be aware of customers’ body language (and your own) so you can tailor your approach and offer a positive experience. You should pay attention to their tone of voice, too.

If a customer sounds annoyed or disappointed, find out what’s bothering them. If someone is expressing their frustration, avoid body language that would discourage them from opening up—whether that’s an eye roll or a raised eyebrow.

8. Personalize each experience

Personalize each experience for difficult customers, magnifying glass over laptop

People don’t like to feel like just another problem to solve. Your customers want to be treated like human beings, and they want you to understand them and their needs. 68 percent of those surveyed in our CX Trends Report said they expect companies to deliver a personalized customer experience.

While it’s OK to have answers and solutions ready to go, you should personalize your interactions with individual customers. When speaking with a buyer, pull up their profile in your CRM to reference key details—such as past support requests, purchase history, and contact information. This will save the customer from repeating information and enable you to personalize their support experience.

9. Request backup when you need it

Dealing with difficult customers is no simple task, and you won’t always have all the answers and solutions—but your manager might. When you need extra support with tricky or more complex customer interactions, don’t be afraid to reach out for help.

Your managers are there to guide you, and they expect you to ask for assistance from time to time. Together, you can brainstorm and offer a solution that may not have been possible to do on your own.

10. Map out and communicate the next steps

Map out and communicate the next steps, writing on notepad

Once you’ve got a good grasp on a customer’s problem, clearly outline the next steps with them. Tell them what needs to happen to find a solution, and offer a time frame for doing so. That way, they aren’t blindsided by any unexpected actions they need to complete.

It’s all in the customer service approach

Handling tough customers is one of the biggest challenges for any support agent. The most important thing you can do is show customers respect, patience, and care.

Remember, your customers are human beings. If you can genuinely connect with them, it can make a big difference in providing a positive, memorable experience. Follow the guidance in this post, and you’ll be on the path to delivering great customer service that sets you apart.

Free customer experience guide

Find out how to create great customer experiences that will lead to loyal customers, improved word-of-mouth promotion, and increased revenue.

Free customer experience guide

Find out how to create great customer experiences that will lead to loyal customers, improved word-of-mouth promotion, and increased revenue.

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