Article | 12 min read

How to deal with difficult customers: 13 tips + examples

Understanding how to deal with difficult customers is essential in customer service. Learn how to turn a challenging situation into a great customer experience.

By Vivian Lopez, Contributing Writer

Last updated September 7, 2023

Consistently delivering a great customer experience (CX) can turn a casual shopper into a loyal customer. But even companies known for providing top-tier customer service have to deal with difficult customers. The key is to leverage your customer service skills to flip the negative situation into a positive interaction.

The stakes have never been higher: The Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2023 found that half of customers would switch to a competitor after just one bad experience. Learn how to identify common types of difficult customers, and get tips to navigate tough interactions, so you can build stronger customer relationships that reflect on your bottom line.

Table of contents:

5 types of difficult customers (and how to help them)

Every customer has unique wants, needs, expectations, and character traits. Personalizing your customer service can start each interaction on the right foot. Here are five common types of difficult customers, how to identify them, and how to tailor your service to provide the best support.

1. The customer who leaves frequent complaints

This type of customer doesn’t hesitate to express how they feel about any issue they have with your products or services.

  • How to identify them: They frequently reach out to your support team with customer complaints, submit customer feedback, leave negative reviews on your website, or post about issues with your brand on their social media channels.
  • How to help them: Empathize and ask questions to understand the root of their frustrations. Some customers may simply like to vent. Remain calm, listen to what they have to say, and implement their feedback if the complaint is valid.

2. The customer who is hard to satisfy

This customer finds something unsatisfactory about a product or service, no matter the level of customer experience. When this happens, show the customer that you value their insights.

  • How to identify them: They focus on one or many aspects of your product, service, or solution that don’t meet their expectations. There is typically a great deal of back-and-forth communication before they agree to a resolution or compromise.
  • How to help them: Ask them what they want. If it’s doable, you’ve met their expectations—even if they don’t express it. If it’s something you can’t do, be transparent and offer fair, alternative options.

3. The customer who is at risk of churning

This customer is on the verge of turning to a competitor. Successfully navigating this situation is critical to keep your churn rate low.

  • How to identify them: They’ve had one or more bad experiences with your business and have brought it to your attention. They may have expressed their interest in your competitors.
  • How to help them: Communicate clearly and proactively throughout the resolution process. Loop in management early to find a resolution that makes the customer happy. This could mean discounts, coupons, upgrades, and more.

4. The customer who is indecisive

An indecisive customer may not know exactly what they need from you. They might be confused and have difficulty explaining the issue.

  • How to identify them: Their communication is vague, and they push you to fill in the blanks about the issue or offer suggestions for solutions.
  • How to help them: Ask the customer plenty of clarifying questions so you can understand what they truly want.

5. The customer with unrealistic expectations

This customer often has unreasonable expectations from your products or services and often wants them for a lower price. They may refuse to accept the outcome or ask you to do something you can’t do for them.

  • How to identify them: They ask for features or capabilities outside the scope of your products or services and express disappointment that available offerings don’t meet their expectations.
  • How to help them: Identify their concerns as early as possible and address them as best you can. Set boundaries with these customers and communicate what your team is capable of so they don’t have to continue having unrealistic expectations.

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13 tips for dealing with difficult customers

It can feel challenging to achieve customer satisfaction during tough interactions—but it’s easier than you think. We’ve rounded up some tips to help you handle difficult customers so you can turn those frowns into smiles.

1. Remain calm throughout the interaction

If a situation escalates with a frustrated customer, losing your cool will only make things worse. They’re likely not happy with your product or the quality of your company’s service, but because you represent the brand, the customer often directs their frustrations at you.

Remain calm and collected throughout the interaction rather than matching the customer’s energy. If the customer gets louder, maintain an even tone and speak clearly. Staying centered and peaceful can de-escalate the customer.

2. Engage in active listening

Good customer service means listening patiently and letting customers speak. Practice active listening, which means approaching a situation with the intent to understand the customer. Give small verbal queues to let them know you’re listening without interrupting.

When they finish, summarize what they said and repeat it to them. Ask if you’ve understood everything correctly and if there’s anything else they’d like to clarify. Once the issue is clear between you and the customer, you can start discussing ways to resolve it.

3. Pay close attention to tone, intent, and sentiment

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

Pay close attention to their tone of voice and sentiment. If a customer sounds annoyed or disappointed, ask questions to find out what’s bothering them. If someone is expressing their frustrations or raising their voice, be conscious of your body language. Crossing your arms or avoiding eye contact could discourage them from opening up.

4. Communicate professionally and with positive language

When learning how to deal with rude customers, communicating professionally and using positive language can go a long way. When customers use negative language, try to repeat what they said with a positive spin.

Use positive customer service phrases like:

  • “Happy to help!”
  • “Absolutely!”
  • “Thank you for understanding.”

5. Practice empathy

Customers just want to feel heard. They want someone who will take their concerns seriously and care about their feelings. If a customer reaches out and the agent sounds apathetic, it can add to their frustrations.

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

6. Take a moment to catch your breath

Difficult customer situations can take a toll on even the best customer service representatives. It’s okay to take a few deep breaths when you’re feeling overwhelmed if it helps you provide exceptional customer service in the long run.

This could mean asking the customer if they mind being placed on a brief hold while you review the details of the issue. You could also take a break after a difficult call to avoid burning out on the next customer.

7. Provide thoughtful responses with accurate information

Customers expect fast customer service, but they don’t just want you to say what you think they want to hear. Consider the details of their issue and communicate accurate information.

Look into the issue and determine the root cause of the problem before informing the customer. If you begin speculating without confirming information, the customer may hold you accountable for something inaccurate.

8. Personalize the experience

In our CX Trends Report, 74 percent of agents said that having access to more tools and data gave them more opportunities to personalize interactions.

Personalizing the experience for difficult customers makes them feel valued and not like a number in the phone queue. Using AI chatbots with your customer relationship management (CRM) software gives agents access to the data and context they need to deliver the personalized experience customers expect.

9. Identify their ideal resolution and determine if it’s doable

Remove the guessing game altogether by simply asking the customer what they want. Many customers have a resolution in mind before they even reach out to customer support, and having that information can help you determine if you can meet their expectations.

You may need to collaborate with a team lead or manager to ensure you can deliver their requested solution. If the request isn’t doable, tell them their options to see if you can reach a satisfactory resolution.

10. Map out and communicate the next steps

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. Communicate if they need to complete any tasks or if you have everything you need to manage the process.

Let them know when they can expect to hear from you and be sure to follow up, even if you’re still working on the issue. Providing high-touch customer service and proactive, transparent communication keeps the customer satisfied—and prevents another escalated situation.

11. Don’t make promises you can’t keep

In a tense situation, it’s easy to offer customers a solution that you know will make them happy. But if you over-promise, it will only make things worse.

People expect you to follow through, so only provide solutions you can deliver. If you promise a customer they’ll get their money back, you must be able to do so. Otherwise, you will negatively impact customer trust, and they likely won’t return.

12. Loop in management when needed

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 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. They may have experience in similar situations and have access to people or resources that can make things happen. Together, you can brainstorm and offer a solution that may not have been possible on your own.

13. Define customer service SLAs

A service level agreement (SLA) is a business agreement with an individual customer or group that sets a specific standard for support. Defining an SLA provides your customer support agents with goals and objectives to strive for.

SLAs also give customers a reliable standard of service—like response and resolution times—that they can rely on. This helps to build customer trust, boost customer loyalty, and increase customer retention.

Examples of how to handle 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 dealing with difficult customers and the best ways to handle certain scenarios.

Scenario: When a customer asks to speak with a manager

You take a call and the customer quickly asks to speak with a manager. The customer is angry and shouting. They are hard to understand, but you can make out a few words about the same issue never being resolved.

How to handle it:

A common standard operating procedure (SOP) asks customer support agents to try to assist the customer first before transferring the customer to management. A good practice is to address the customer by their name and offer a genuine apology, speaking calmly and professionally. Advise them that you have all their information and are reviewing their open ticket so you can loop in your manager.

If you see an opportunity to offer a solution, do it. You can also ask the customer if they mind being placed on a brief hold and then quickly collaborate with a manager on a solution. If delaying a transfer is agitating the situation further, you can immediately bring the manager in.

Scenario: When a customer asks for a refund

The buyer reaches out to customer support via WhatsApp and says their package arrived and their item is the wrong size. A chatbot understands the sentiment and intent and identifies that the customer is upset. The bot offers self-service resources to help with an exchange, but the customer asks to speak to a human. The bot hands off the customer (and all the context from the interaction) to a live agent.

The customer is angry, saying the sizing chart on the website is confusing, and they need the item by the end of the week. They demand a refund, saying they will buy it locally from a competitor.

How to handle it:

Listen to the customer, apologize, and empathize. You can offer the customer free overnight shipping on the correct item and automatically send them tracking information via their preferred channel, WhatsApp, by the end of the day.

Scenario: When a customer leaves a bad review

An anonymous customer leaves your business a one-star rating on Google with a two-word review that simply says, “Terrible service.”

How to handle it:

Respond to the review with an apology and politely ask if they could provide you with more information about their experience on their preferred communication channel. Once you connect with them, you should have their order number and personal information in your agent workspace.

If there’s no context around their referenced negative interaction, ask them to detail their experience. Determine the root cause of the bad interaction and, if you have approval, offer a discount on their next purchase. If they’re satisfied, politely ask if they could remove the negative review.

Turn an incident into an exceptional experience

Handling difficult customers is one of the biggest challenges for any support agent. The most important thing you can do is show customers respect, patience, and empathy. Knowing how to predict customer behavior based on their communication styles helps you tailor your approach for more effective communication.

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. Now that you know how to deal with difficult customers, you’re on the path to delivering great customer service that sets you apart.

Save time with customer service email templates

Deliver fast, consistent service to customers and increase agent efficiency at scale with our free customer service email templates.

Save time with customer service email templates

Deliver fast, consistent service to customers and increase agent efficiency at scale with our free customer service email templates.

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