How to handle a difficult customer

Learning how to deal with angry and upset customers is tricky. Find out how to create a better experience, even in the most difficult customer situation.

By Eunisse De Leon and Erin Hueffner

Published December 5, 2018
Last updated March 21, 2022

Heavy sighs, terse replies, crossed arms - these are telltale signs your customer is upset. Even companies with the best products and services will have dissatisfied customers from time to time. Being able to handle a tough situation can give an unhappy customer a good experience that boosts loyalty. And that translates into a healthier bottom line: the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report revealed that 75% of customers are willing to spend more to buy from companies that give them a good customer experience.

It goes without saying that learning how to deal with angry customers is important for any business owner. Read on for tips about how to handle different types of difficult customers, and strategies for diffusing tough customer situations.

types of customer complaints

The angry customer

This contentious customer is on vacation with her family. She was enraged when she saw that the deluxe room she booked had one large bed inside instead of two smaller-sized beds. She thought that the room she booked was enough for her and her two kids-her daughter who wants to sleep next to her and her son who prefers to sleep in a separate bed.

Instead of asking what happened with her reservation politely, difficult customers will raise her voice to the staff and call them incompetent. Tired from a long day of traveling, she isn't a person who's interested in hearing the manager's explanation. Right now she just wants to express her anger to anyone who will listen. Like, to everyone on Twitter.

How to help an angry customer

Whether it's your fault or hers, an angry customer isn't ready to listen. But there are ways to help. Try to understand the issue on a human level: Why is she frustrated? Let her talk if she wants to. And wait for her to regain composure. When her anger has subsided, take the opportunity to apologize and offer a solution.

The impatient customer

This is a challenging customer who doesn't like to wait. The pair of sneakers he was trying on are too small for him so he ordered a bigger size. It was a weekend so naturally, there are many customers seeking assistance for a problem from the staff. But he doesn't care about the size of your queue. Why would he? He just wants to get his shoes and move on with his life.

How to help an impatient customer

All customers deserve a prompt response and quick action, regardless of how difficult they are, regardless of who's done what in a situation. This is a moment to take a breath.
Do your best to explain to the client why things aren't moving as quickly as he'd like. Through tone of voice, choice of word and phrases (authentic, comforting), and body language if you're in person, assure him that you appreciate his patience. Tell the customer you understand their frustration. It is possible to reach difficult people if you can get across that you are doing your best to serve them as quickly as possible.

The vague customer

This customer plans on having a makeover at a salon. The stylist asks the client what hairstyle he wants. He says "just a little trim," so the stylist does what they thinks the customer wants. But the customer is horrified when he sees how much the stylist has cut his hair and demands to speak to a manager. You're blindsided. Everything was going so well! Or, so you thought.

How to help a vague customer

Difficult customers like this don’t mean to be difficult - it can just be a problem when they're too vague. This can easily lead to misunderstandings between retailers and customers. But there are ways to help in this situation. The client might not actually know what they want, which accounts for the vague answer. You can spark ideas with a quick conversation.
Start with some questions. How short does he want his hair? Is there a celebrity with a similar haircut he’s going for? Point out how small of a difference "a little trim" can make to his hair. It’s best to manage expectations early (and avoid a potentially uncomfortable situation).

The demanding customer

This customer ordered Fresh Mushroom Soup, but in the middle of the meal, an issue arose: He noticed that it tasted like ready-made mushroom soup straight from the can.
Disappointed, he called the attention of the waiter and asked him to explain why the soup is not "fresh" contrary to what was stated in the menu. He’s also started noticing little things, such as the stain on his glass and the dim lights. He’s an unhappy customer and he has a problem. He has very high standards and needs aren't being met.

How to help a demanding customer

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

Try to resolve his complaints in a single transaction. That way, you can meet his needs without ignoring others and winding up with more angry customers. If he is still dissatisfied, seek help from your manager but be sure to offer a solution first. For example, recommend a different soup or offer to subtract the price of the order from his bill.

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The challenging customer

This client tries on different shades of foundation in a cosmetic store when a beauty consultant approaches her. She notices the foundation the client tried was too light for the client, and offers to find a shade that works better. The client insists that it's her skin and she knows what she is doing.

How to help a challenging customer

If you’ve ever worked in retail, you’ve 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 they just want what they want. You can smooth the way by dishing out compliments, as long as they sound sincere. In this case, just say okay, and let her know you’re here to help if she changes her mind. That way you’ve left the conversation on a positive note.

How to deal with angry customers

Stay calm

When an angry customer starts yelling at you or is just downright rude, losing your temper will only make a bad situation worse. If the customer gets louder, speak in a lower tone and more slowly. Your calm may help them to settle down. Remember, even though it feels personal, the customer probably isn’t mad at you - they’re 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.

The key here is to stay calm and professional. Maintaining your composure is one of the most challenging things for a customer service rep, but it’s important. You don’t want to say or do something that could be used against you, or make a promise you can’t keep.

bad customer service

Practice active listening

Maybe your customer was put on hold for an hour before they finally got an agent on the phone. At that point, they’re angry and frustrated - and they need to vent. Sometimes, good customer service means listening patiently and just letting them talk. When they’re finished, you can repeat back what you’ve heard them say and ask if there’s anything else to clarify. And 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 your customer is saying. Active listening means putting your whole focus on the speaker with the intention of understanding their message. The quicker you can pinpoint the problem, the sooner you can find a solution.

Take a moment to breathe

Let’s be real. Working in customer service can be rewarding, but it’s also 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. There is a real emotional tax to service work. You greet a customer with “Welcome, how are you doing today?” and they turn away and mumble “just looking.” They blame you for the rising cost of their cable bill, as if you have anything to do with decisions in the corner office. In service, you’re taught to handle rude customers without complaining.

All of that pressure can wear even the most positive people down. Take a deep breath when you’re feeling overwhelmed. If it really gets aggressive, call on a manager for their help. And once the situation is over, you can vent about it to your colleagues. Sometimes it helps to know you’re not the only one.

It's all in the customer service approach

Handling difficult customers is one of the most challenging things for any business owner. The most important thing you can do is show them respect, patience, and care. It helps to remember that your customers are human beings - so if you can connect with them in a human way, it can make a big difference. With these tips, you’ll be on the path to delivering great customer service that sets you apart.

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Learn how to set your agents up for success.

Agent experience guide

Learn how to set your agents up for success.

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