How to Deal with Difficult Customers

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Difficult customers are frustrating.

They can be angry, demanding, or even rude. They expect us to go the extra mile, but rarely show us any appreciation. We might make 99 people happy per day, but it's the one difficult customer that we go home thinking about.

The top request I get as a customer service trainer is for techniques to better serve these difficult people.

You might be surprised at my advice—I won't tell you to not take it personally.

A person berating you over a service failure you didn't cause or demeaning you because of this insane idea that customers are superior to the people serving them is personal.

We still have an obligation to help them, because that’s our jobs. But let’s not pretend it’s not personal, or that we’re not human. Serving difficult customers is not easy.

What I can give you is a step-by-step guide you can use right away. 

Each step comes with a specific, hands-on activity that you can use with the very next difficult customer you serve. These are proven techniques gained from over 25 years of experience training thousands of customer service professionals.

A frustrated and tired server trying to help multiple difficult customers.

Who is a difficult customer?

A difficult customer is someone who takes an unreasonable amount of effort to serve. They take up extra time, time that could be spent serving other customers who now have to wait longer to be helped. These customers also have a tendency to infect customer service employees with negative attitudes.

In my experience, difficult customers typically fall into one of three categories:

  • Angry customers upset about a real or perceived service failure.

  • Demanding customers who want more than what's fair.

  • Rude customers who are condescending or mean.

Some customers can be all three together.

I once witnessed an angry customer in the post office who unfairly demanded compensation for a mistake that wasn't the postal service's fault. He was extremely rude to the manager as he berated her for something she had no control over.

How to help difficult customers

The proven techniques in the step-by-step guide below will help you defuse angry customers, de-escalate tense situations, and get more people to treat you with respect.

It starts with changing your mindset.

Step One: Change Your Mindset

I have a small confession to make.

The phrase "deal with difficult customers" bothers me. I only used it as the title for this blog post because that's what people tend to search for.

I don't like the idea of "dealing with someone" because it means trying to get them out of your face. This creates a naturally combative relationship with customers where we instinctively become dismissive of their issues.

That only makes things worse.

The best way to help your most difficult customers is to change your mindset from "dealing" with them to this:

Help customers through challenging situations.

This isn't easy!

  • Customers sometimes treat us as a human punching bag.

  • Their frustrations about personal problems add fuel to their anger fire.

  • We're not often empowered to do what the customer wants, or even to do what's right.

You can't fix every issue or make every customer happy. What you can do is try to leave each customer better off at the end of the interaction than they were at the beginning.

Here's your first skill-building activity: the Thank You Letter Challenge.

  1. Imagine you helped a customer who faced a challenging situation.

  2. You worked hard and left them better off at the end of the interaction.

  3. Write the thank you letter you'd like to receive from that person.

I do this exercise on a regular basis. Each week, I talk to many customer service leaders who are overwhelmed by all the advice out there for improving service. I try to make things simple and actionable.

Here's the latest thank you letter I wrote:

Sample thank you letter

The next steps are very important:

  1. Read your thank you letter at the start of every day for 21 days.

  2. Serve each customer the way you describe in your letter.

  3. Try to receive the same feedback from a real customer.

Here's the feedback I received from a CEO who had read The Service Culture Handbook. He had contacted me for advice on implementing some of the concepts.

Dear Jeff,

There is no question in my mind that we are becoming a better company in part because of your teachings. Thank you very much.

This is a powerful visualization exercise that helps you see things from your customer's perspective. It helps you change your reaction from "dealing with a difficult customer" to "helping a customer facing a challenging situation."

I have a bonus resource for you to make this even easier!

It’s a free daily email reminder. You'll receive a reminder each day for 21 days, along with tips and suggestions for making your thank you letter come to life.

Step Two: Recognize your fight or flight response

We have an instinctive reaction whenever we encounter an angry, demanding, or rude person. Our fight or flight response kicks in and we feel a powerful, natural urge to either argue with the person (i.e. fight) or get away from them (i.e. flight).

Obviously, neither is a good idea in customer service.

You may recognize some of the most common symptoms. Think about a recent time when you served a difficult customer. Did you experience any of these?

  • Tunnel vision

  • Flushed face

  • Increased heart rate

You can get a list of more symptoms here.

In my book, Getting Service Right, I share a story about Paul, an experienced customer service professional who struggled with the fight or flight instinct after a customer called and falsely accused one of Paul's coworkers of stealing his credit card.

"I could feel my blood pressure going up. I could feel my face get flush. I got to the point where I was so done with him. I started doing everything I could to get him off the phone."

Paul fought the urge to give in to this instinct, but it was a struggle.

You can see an example of a customer service employee experiencing the fight or flight instinct in this short video. Watch what happens when the coffee shop barista first encounters an angry customer who accuses him of screwing up her drink.

Here's your second skill-building activity: recognize the fight or flight instinct.

Try to do the following the next time you encounter a difficult customer:

  1. Recognize the fight or flight instinct

  2. Pause briefly to collect yourself

  3. Refocus on helping the customer be better off at the end of the interaction

Step Three: Use the LAURA technique

This is a technique you can use to defuse angry customers and refocus on finding a solution. LAURA is an acronym that outlines specific service steps, but it also serves as a quick reminder. 

Picture a kind and patient professional named Laura who never seems to get rattled by a difficult customer. She's an empathetic listener, and always finds a way to make customers feel better. 

These are the specific steps outlined by the LAURA acronym:

L = Listen. Our instinct is to jump into action and solve the problem, but you'll get a better result if you take a moment to listen. Let the customer talk or vent, and try to understand what's really bothering them.

A = Acknowledge. Customers can be extra difficult to serve when they are experiencing strong emotions. We can help them feel better by validating their emotions with a sincere acknowledgement. For example: "I apologize for this error." Or, "I'm sorry you've had such a difficult experience."

U = Understand. Customers often do a poor job of telling their story, so try to understand what they really need. For example, in technical support, studies show the thing customers need even more than fixing their issue is to feel relief about whatever problem that issue was causing.

R = Relate. Empathy comes from understanding what someone is experiencing and being able to relate to their emotions. You don't have to agree, or even think the customer is right, just try to imagine a time when you experienced something similar and show your customer that you get where they're coming from.

A = Act. It's time to take action once you've addressed your customer's emotions. Avoid getting caught up in the blame game and instead re-focus on working with your customer to find a solution.

Here's a video example of both good and bad way to help a customer facing a difficult situation. If you'd like, you can skip to 2:45 of the video to see the barista using the LAURA technique.

Your third activity: Practice the LAURA technique.

Use the LAURA technique the next time you encounter an angry, demanding, or rude customer. Start with the first step, Listen.

Our instinct is to avoid listening when we encounter someone who triggers our fight or flight response. We try to skip all the way ahead to finding a solution, which can make matters worse.

Just taking an extra moment to really listen to a customer can work wonders.

How to prevent difficult customers

Wouldn't it be great if you could prevent customers from becoming angry, demanding, or rude in the first place? The good news is there are techniques you can use to help customers avoid difficult situations.

Well, sometimes. 

The techniques below won't prevent all customers from getting angry. After all, some customers will get mad at anything. I've seen customers get mad at Ben & Jerry's on free ice cream day. 

Here is a short list of techniques, along with a link to more information on how to use it.

  1. Manage customer expectations to avoid demands (video)

  2. Use the iceberg technique to solve problems (article)

  3. Prevent outbursts with the pre-emptive acknowledgement (article)

The Unexpected Way to Improve Self-Service

We've all experienced a self-service fail.

Perhaps you've found yourself yelling "Human! Human! Human!" into a phone. 

Maybe you've sat at a parking garage exit trying to get the machine to read your ticket while an impatient line of drivers behind you honk to signal their displeasure. 

Surely you've spent an eternity exploring a website to find the answer to the simplest of questions. When you couldn't find it, you spent another eternity finding the "contact us" page.

Or you might have angrily muttered under your breath, "I did place the item in the bagging area!" while using the self-checkout lane at the grocery store. 

Those terrible experiences are all designed to save costs by taking human employees out of the equation. Self-service is fine when it works, but it often doesn't.

Customers really hate when it doesn't.

Many will take their business elsewhere, buy less per visit, or spread negative word-of-mouth. Studies have found widespread theft among self-checkout customers at grocery stores.

There is a counterintuitive solution. 

Researchers have found companies can improve self-service customer satisfaction, increase sales, and keep costs low by making a human readily available.

A passenger using a self check-in kiosk at an airport.

The solution to self-service problems

Harvard researchers Michelle A. Shell and Ryan W. Buell conducted a series of experiments to test how human contact can reduce customer anxiety. They discovered that merely giving people the option to connect with a human while using self-service increased customer satisfaction and improved sales. 

Here's a summary of two of the experiments.

Experiment 1: Retirement Planning

In the first experiment, participants engaged in a retirement planning simulation. They were asked to allocate investments in a fictitious retirement portfolio over the course of several rounds using a simulated online portal.

Participants were divided into two groups: low-anxiety and high anxiety. 

  • The low-anxiety group experienced normal returns on their simulated portfolio.

  • The high-anxiety group experienced returns that were far worse than normal.

Participants in both groups were given an assessment to evaluate their anxiety levels at several times during the experiment. As expected, participants in the high-anxiety group with lower than expected returns experienced much higher levels of anxiety.

The participants were further divided into three groups, with each group receiving different types of self-service support: 

  • Group only had access to a list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) for support.

  • Another group had access to FAQs and could chat with an expert.

  • The third group had access to FAQs and could chat with a peer investor.

The high-anxiety group that had access to an expert reported 20 percent higher satisfaction with their investment choices than the group that had no access to a human:

Chart showing the results of a study of the effects human contact has on consumer anxiety.

The surprising discovery? Only 16 percent of the group that had access to an expert actually contacted the expert for help!

Experiment 2: Credit Union Loans

This experiment was conducted with real customers. A credit union tested whether loan applicants sms text updates throughout the approval process impacted whether customers ultimately accepted the loan once they were approved.

Loan applicants were divided into three groups. The first group received no updates. The second group received updates via text like this one:

Hi John, my name is Rachel and I will be working on your loan application. A decision will be returned to you by Wednesday and I’ll text you updates along the way. Thank you for working with us!

The third group also received updates via text, but these updates contained the loan officer’s phone number and an invitation to contact them. Here’s an example:

Hi John, my name is Rachel and I will be working on your loan application. A decision will be returned to you by Wednesday and I’ll text you updates along the way. Feel free to contact me at 555-5555 with any questions. Thank you for working with us!

Once again, a more personalized approach yielded better results. The third group had a far higher percentage of approved customers accept the loan offer:

Credit union loan acceptance rate by type of update members received.

How to get customers to like self-service

The key to helping customers use and enjoy self-service is making a human readily available. Keep in mind that many customers prefer self-service for simple tasks, and they won't contact a human unless they feel it's necessary.

It's just comforting to know someone is there.

The payroll provider, Gusto, sets a great example by making contact information very clear and obvious on its help page. Notice the phone number and “contact us” link in the top right corner:

Gusto help center page with obvious contact information in the top right corner.

The wine tracking app, Vivino, has a clear "contact us" link on its in-app support page.

Screen shot of help page in Vivino app.

Side note: there’s a small fail here, because the "contact us" link takes you to a chat bot. Research from CGS revealed that 86 percent of consumers prefer humans over chat bots.

Airlines, grocery stores, and other businesses often station an employee near a bank of self-service machines to provide help when needed. Here’s an example from the self-checkout line at an Ikea:

An Ikea employee stands ready to help customers in the self-checkout line.

One word of caution: make sure employees who help customers with self-service kiosks follow these steps to avoid sabotaging the experience.

Subscribers can sign themselves up to receive my Customer Service Tip of the Week email. Many receive the email without ever contacting me, but I'm still easy to reach. 

Subscribers can reply to any email and it goes straight to my personal email address. My phone number is also included in every message.

Screenshot of Customer Service Tip of the Week email.

Executives sometimes worry that customers will inundate them with contacts if they make a human readily available. In reality, the contact rate is very low. Less than one percent of Customer Service Tip of the Week subscribers email me each week, and rarely do I get a call.

I even include my phone number and email address in every book I write. It makes me look like a generous guy, but very few people actually contact me.

Take Action

Conduct a review of any place where you offer self-service, whether it's online, on an app, or in-person. You can use this guide to look for opportunities to make connecting with a human even easier.

As a bonus tip, try personalizing all of your communication channels.

Phone and in-person are easy, but its helpful to make the name of the employee clearly visible in written channels like email, chat, text, and social media.

T-Mobile provides a great example of personalizing contacts via Twitter. The support team personalizes each message with a card that humanizes the individual agent:

You can learn a little more about Amanda when you click on the card:

T-Mobile Twitter support rep card for Amanda Cross.

Customers want convenience, but they also want friendly, helpful service from a live human when things get tricky. Strike the balance between the two and you'll keep costs low and satisfaction high.

Lessons From The Overlook: Be Flexible

Note: Lessons from The Overlook is a monthly update on lessons learned from owning a vacation rental property in the Southern California mountain town of Idyllwild. It's a hands-on opportunity to apply some of the techniques I advise my clients to use. You can find past updates here.

It's been awhile since I've shared an update about The Overlook.

A lot has happened since we put the cabin up for sale at the end of May. The summer is typically our slow season, yet we had our busiest July and August ever. Then there was a small fire that closed us down for all of September. 

The one thing that did not happen was a sale. We still own the cabin and now we think we have an even better plan (more on that in a moment).

The biggest lesson from the summer is you have to be flexible.

The Overlook vacation rental cabin

Beware of solution jumping

Solution jumping occurs when you instinctively identify a solution without fully understanding the problem. The danger is you could miss better opportunities or fail to solve the problem at all because your solution did not address the root cause. 

We initially jumped to a solution when we decided to sell The Overlook.

The problem we thought we were trying to solve was the cabin was too big:

  • It has four bedrooms, which is too much for us personally.

  • Damage increases and utility costs go up when we have more than six guests (our maximum is eight).

  • Larger cabins typically rent less often than smaller cabins.

Our plan was to sell The Overlook at a profit, buy a smaller cabin, and pocket the difference. We ran the numbers and found that a smaller cabin with a lower nightly rate would likely bring in more revenue per month.

It looked like a good plan on paper, but several factors made it hard to execute:

  • The market softened shortly after we put the cabin up for sale.

  • A high number of rentals made it hard for our agent to show the cabin to buyers.

  • We didn't find any smaller cabins that we really liked.

And then there was the fire over Labor Day weekend. 

A guest was using the grill and had it positioned against the side of the house. Some grease caught fire inside the grill and ignited the wood siding. The fire spread into the eaves before it was extinguished.

Photo credit: Idyllwild Vacation Cabins

Photo credit: Idyllwild Vacation Cabins

It could have been a lot worse, but there was enough damage that we had to take The Overlook off the rental market for the month of September. 

This is where flexibility comes in.

We could have made a bad decision if we locked in on selling the place. We might have slashed the asking price to sell The Overlook quickly and then found ourselves losing a lot of money trying to upgrade the next cabin to our standards.

How flexibility can create new opportunities

You can often discover unexpected solutions if you maintain your flexibility and resist the urge to jump to a solution. It is important to understand the problem first.

We initially thought our problem was The Overlook was too big. We now realize our maximum capacity of eight guests was the issue. 

  • There are just six seats at the dining table.

  • The living area is comfortable for four to six, but not eight.

  • Damage and utility costs go up when we have eight guests.

Advertising The Overlook as a four bedroom cabin for eight guests also limited our market.

Almost all of our renters are groups: large families, groups of friends, or several couples traveling together. These groups travel almost exclusively on weekends. Smaller cabins get more rentals during the week because a smaller party requires fewer people to make plans together.

The Overlook still had a number of advantages that other cabins we saw for sale did not have. The biggest one we could not replace was the view:

Sunset view from The Overlook

This thinking opened up another possibility. What if we reduced the capacity at The Overlook from eight to six? 

Our property manager has another cabin that has two bedrooms and a large game room downstairs. It rents extremely well. We know we can do something similar at The Overlook.

So that’s our plan.

We'll reduce our capacity to six by turning the large master bedroom into a game room and entertainment space. This should allow us to create an even better guest experience while reducing damage and utility costs. 

The changes should also increase our revenue as we expect to pick up more rentals during the week and throughout the summer.

The changes will take several months to implement. 

We're heading into our busy season, and there are already a number of rentals on the book for guests who expect four bedrooms. The good news is we have a clear path forward towards a better solution than we originally imagined.

Take Action

You can use flexible thinking to make similar strides in your own business.

The next time you face a challenging problem, resist the urge to jump to a solution. Take time to truly understand the problem you are trying to solve. Come up with alternative approaches, even if they don't seem feasible at first. 

And above all else, stick to your vision.

Our vision at The Overlook is welcome to your mountain retreat. We think these changes will bring us even closer to fulfilling that vision for our guests.

When micromanagement is the right way to lead

I once reviewed every email my employees wrote to customers.

It wasn't my idea. My boss insisted that I do it. 

A customer had forwarded a poorly-written email sent by one of my customer service reps, and my boss's knee-jerk reaction was to institute a blanket policy.

I was resentful at first. My employees were, too. People bristle at the thought of micromanagement, and suddenly I was required to micromanage.

Like many leaders, I had tried a hands-off approach. The theory was you trusted good people to good work and that's what they did. Monitoring every email ran completely counter to that.

But I quickly made a surprising discovery.

A lot of the emails were poorly-written. An estimated 50 percent needed corrections. Examples included:

  • Spelling and grammatical errors

  • Unanswered customer questions

  • Unnoticed opportunities to prevent additional contacts

The experience taught me there's a counterintuitive drawback to being a hands-off leader: micromanagement is sometimes absolutely necessary. 

The key is timing.

Here's what micromanagement really is, when you need to use it, and when you should avoid it.

A senior leader mentoring an employee.

What is micromanagement?

There are two popular definitions of the term micromanagement. The difference between these definitions is the key to understanding when micromanagement is a useful leadership style, and when it is not.

Let’s start with the negative definition. This one comes from the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

to manage especially with excessive control or attention to details.

Notice the word "excessive.” The problem with micromanagement is not the focus on details, it’s when a boss goes overboard and does it too much.

Here’s a more positive definition of a micromanager from Nina Angelovska’s article, 7 Reasons Why Micromanagers Are Good For Teams and Companies:

bosses who closely monitor, provide detailed guidance and corrective feedback when needed

This type of micromanagement can be very positive. Looking back on my experience as a manager, I realize I had failed my employees when we started responding to customer emails. I did not monitor their work, provide enough guidance, or give them any needed feedback.

  • Reps hadn't received any training on writing to customers.

  • We didn't have any standards describing a "good" email.

  • I had previously reviewed zero emails reviewed for quality.

My boss forced me to become the bad type of micromanager by requiring me to review every email my team sent to a customer. This was frustrating and unproductive for both me and the reps, but it was brought about in part because I hadn’t practiced the good type of micromanagement. 

It also became unnecessary as reps improved their writing skills.

When is micromanagement useful?

There are times when employees need to be micromanaged. They key is identifying when the situation calls for it, while avoiding the negative type of micromanagement that's characterized by excessive control.

There are at least three times when it is important for a leader to closely supervise their employees' work: 

  • When employees learn new skills.

  • When employees are new to the organization or team.

  • When an employee is struggling.

New Skills

We don't typically equate training with micromanagement, but that's exactly what it is. 

A good trainer should closely monitor learners to ensure knowledge is acquired and skills are developed. People often struggle at first when they learn something new, and a trainer should be right there to encourage them and give feedback.

This is what my customer service reps needed, but didn’t get, when we first started emailing customers.

Employees need increasingly less monitoring and feedback as they gain confidence and capability. This is when a manager or trainer should adjust their style and begin taking a more hands-off approach.

New Employees

It's a good idea to trust your team, but new employees haven't yet earned that trust. 

We don't know how someone will work, what decisions they will make, or how they will treat others until we see them in action. That's why new hires need close supervision until they demonstrate good habits and performance.

New employees are also learning new skills, and training is an appropriate time for micromanagement.

Struggling Employees

There are times when employees struggle to do a good job. This is when employees may need extra observation, coaching, and encouragement. 

This was the case with my customer service reps. While I disagreed with my bosses 100 percent monitoring edict, the reps did need extra monitoring, guidance, and feedback until things improved.

The challenge for bosses is to recognize when employees improve performance and micromanagement is no longer required.

When is micromanagement a bad idea?

Micromanagement is the wrong leadership approach when employees already know what to do and how to do it, and have proven themselves through good performance. Micromanaging in the wrong situation frustrates employees, slows down their work, and takes up too much of a leader's time. 

In particular, you should avoid any type of micromanagement when your employees:

  • Can demonstrate their competency

  • Perform consistently well

  • Get no benefit from additional monitoring or coaching

For example, I relaxed the monitoring policy once my reps demonstrated the ability to consistently write good emails. I still reviewed them periodically, but there was no longer a need to examine all of them.

Can you keep a secret? I never told my boss about this. As far as he knew, I was still monitoring every email. Fortunately, he didn't ask and I didn't tell.

How to Discover and Use Customer Preferences

The Westin Portland was once quite a place.

A long-term consulting project brought me to Portland, Oregon every week for several months. It was tough being away from home so often, but the hotel staff went out of their way to make me feel welcome.

Ali would greet me by name at the entrance, using my first name rather than calling me Mr. Toister since I prefer a more informal greeting. I'd chat with Liza at the front desk for a moment as she checked me into my preferred type of room. Once I got settled, a room attendant would arrive at my room with a glass of my preferred Scotch.

It was an awesome arrival experience.

Perhaps you'd expect this type of service at a nice hotel like a Westin. But I'll let you in on a secret: you can easily give customers the same type of treatment without breaking the bank!

It's all about learning their preferences.

A customer is searching for their favorite paint color.

Why customer preferences matter

Using customer preferences to tailor your service allows you to serve customers with less friction, offer them a better experience, and ultimately drive more revenue. 

Friction is anything that makes a customer's experience difficult. 

You can use customer preferences to eliminate friction and make service easier. For example, Amazon now lets Prime members pick their preferred delivery day. This can make receiving packages more convenient (while also reducing Amazon's delivery costs). 

Preferences also drive better experiences.

In-N-Out Burger has a pretty simple menu: hamburgers, cheeseburgers, fries, milkshakes, and drinks. It also has a "secret menu" of different ways you can customize your meal based on your preferences. (I like my cheeseburger animal style.)

Preferences ultimately drive revenue. 

Guess what Amazon, In-N-Out, and the Westin Portland all have in common? I'm a loyal customer. These businesses understand my preferences, so I choose them over other options.

(Sadly, the Westin Portland closed its doors a few years ago when the building owner decided to do something else with the property.)

The danger of ignoring customer preferences

It can be frustrating to customers when their preferences are ignored. This creates extra friction, makes the experience less pleasant, and can ultimately drive customers to competitors.

Here are a few common examples:

  • Ignoring your customer’s preferred communication channel

  • Ignoring your customer’s preferred options

  • Asking for a customer’s preferences, then doing the opposite

I once took my car to a new car wash and the employee writing my ticket recorded the services I requested. After he wrote the ticket, he "upgraded" my wash to include air freshener without my knowledge. 

The big problem? I really don't like the air freshener scents they use at car washes. 

Instead of a pleasant surprise, the employee created a service failure by making an assumption about my preferences. He added air freshener after I had specifically declined it. Even worse, I was reminded about my poor experience every time I drove the car for the next few days.

Three ways to discover customer preferences

There are a number of ways you can discover and act on a customer's preferences. You can use these techniques to keep an eye out for anything from preferred communication channels to what options your customers prefer when using your product or service.

Ask Directly

The easiest method is often the direct one. Ask your customers directly what they prefer.

  • How do you prefer to be addressed?

  • What's the best way to follow-up with you?

  • What time do you prefer I call?

This is how the Westin Portland discovered my favorite Scotch, the type of room I prefer, and even how I like to be greeted. When I started staying there a lot, I was simply asked.  


Pay attention to the way your customers act and communicate. This will often reveal subtle and not-so-subtle cues about how they prefer to be served.

  • Is your customer formal, or informal?

  • What kind of mood are they in?

  • What do they ask a lot of questions about?

My wife and I went out to eat on a hot day, and it seemed like we were asking for more water every few minutes. Our server noticed this and brought a carafe full of water that she left at our table. We were so relieved!


Repeat customers often order the same product or service, or go with the same options. Knowing your customer's "usual" is a great way to use preferences.

Computers can make this really easy.

I'm a big fan of Mountain Mike's Pizza. I've gotten into the habit of calling to place an order rather than doing it online. It's probably because when I call, the employee recognizes me by my phone number and immediately asks if I'll have my usual order. I love it!

You probably remember a few things about your repeat customers without a computer.

This past spring, I had to go to physical therapy for a shoulder injury. My physical therapist quickly learned that I like to document all of my at-home exercises, so I remembered how to do them. So each week, he’d either give me a printout or remind me to film him demonstrating my assignments. This helped me stay on track and sped up my recovery.

Take action

You can start by figuring out what preferences would be helpful to know. These are just a few examples:

  • What are your customers' preferred methods of communication?

  • What aspects of your service can you customize?

  • How can you adjust the way you interact with people based on what they like?

Next, think about what you can do with that information.

  • How can you store it?

  • How can you access it?

  • What can you do with it?

Interview with Annette Franz: Why Journey Mapping is the Backbone of Customer Experience Management

Annette Franz, Author of  Customer Understanding

Annette Franz, Author of Customer Understanding

Advertising disclosure: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.

Many things impact your customers, but are outside of your control.

Let's say you run a coffee shop in a strip mall. You do your best to offer great coffee, friendly service, and a welcoming environment. Yet you don't control:

  • Traffic

  • Parking

  • Weather

All of these things can impact your customers' experience. Your customers will be far happier on a sunny day with no traffic and ample parking than they will on a rainy day with traffic congestion and a snarled parking lot.

Annette Franz has some great advice for handling this challenge. She's a customer experience expert who writes the popular CX Journey blog. Her new book, Customer Understanding, provides a great overview of ways companies can put customers at the heart of their business.

Franz recently joined me to discuss how journey mapping is essential to elevating the customer experience. Here are some of our conversation topics:

  • What is the difference between customer experience and customer service?

  • What exactly is customer journey mapping?

  • How can journey mapping break down silos?

  • What can you do to mitigate problems outside of your control?

  • How do you get started with journey mapping?

You can watch the full interview here.

7 Free Customer Service Training Ideas That Really Work

Advertising disclosure: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.

Tell me if this situation sounds familiar.

Your boss tells you to organize customer service training for your team. You don't have the time or resources to quickly create something in-house, so you consider bringing in an external consultant. 

Unfortunately, the boss is like one those couples looking for houses on HGTV shows—million dollar taste, thousand dollar budget. You shop around for a few consultants and realize you don't even have enough funds to cover their travel expenses.

How do you keep your boss happy without spending too much?

I've put together seven totally free customer service training ideas you can use right now. These are all proven approaches that will get you great results. 

Why should you trust me? I'm a Certified Professional in Learning and Performance (CPLP), a past president of the Association for Talent Development's San Diego chapter, and I've authored multiple courses for trainers on LinkedIn Learning, including How to Design and Deliver Training Programs.

In fact, I'll admit something to you I probably shouldn't. These ideas are more effective than hiring me or anyone else to come in and do the training for you.

I'll back up that claim in just a moment. But first, let's define training so we're all on the same page.

A customer service leader facilitating a training class.

What is training?

Training is any activity that helps people build knowledge, skills, and abilities they can use on the job. It can be a formal process like an instructor-led class or an eLearning program, or it can be informal like working side-by-side with a more experienced employee.

It's helpful to think of training as more than just a class. 

Years ago, a client of mine was getting reimbursed by the State of California for training her company did. It was part of a special program designed to help companies invest in employee development to keep jobs in the state. My client only documented formal training until she had a lightbulb moment: there was a lot more training going on!

Here's the definition of the verb "train" from the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

a: to teach so as to make fit, qualified, or proficient

b: to form by instruction, discipline, or drill

Applying that definition, my client realized a lot of other activities counted as training:

  • Team meetings to discuss a new process.

  • Product briefings from one of the company's experts.

  • One-on-one instruction to show an employee a new technique.

My client started documenting all of these activities as training. And guess what? The State of California agreed with her, and reimbursed her company for the time spent on those activities as well as the formal classes!

So let's start thinking about training in the broadest sense: helping people develop new knowledge, skills, and abilities to do their jobs.

Free customer service training ideas

Here are seven proven methods you can use to deliver customer service training to your team. Some are unconventional, while others might be ideas you are already using but didn't realize they qualified as training. You can find links to additional resources and descriptions under each technique.

While none of these cost a dime, I have provided links to a few additional low-cost resources that can help you enhance the training without breaking the budget.

Idea #1: Create a customer service vision

A customer service vision is a shared definition of outstanding customer service that gets everyone on the same page. There are a few benefits to writing one with your team:

  • Everyone will understand their role the same way.

  • Employees will come up with ideas to deliver outstanding service.

  • The team will make a commitment to excellent customer service.

For example, the customer service team at the online grocer, HappyFresh, met to create a vision to guide their work. Timothy Chan, the team's manager, emailed me to follow-up on how it went.

"I helped the team develop this vision by following the step-by-step guide provided in The Service Culture Handbook

"The presentation was attended by representatives from the customer service and logistic team as well as the heads of Field Operations and HR. After the presentation, everyone was divided into 2 groups to draft their visions. By comparing the visions, we then decided on certain words that we felt simply could not be left out from the finalized vision and from these words our vision was born.”

The HappyFresh customer service vision.

Here are step-by-step instructions for creating your own customer service vision. You can also read more about HappyFresh's story here.

Bonus resource: I took my entire process for helping companies become customer-focused, and packaged step-by-step instructions in The Service Culture Handbook. The book costs less than $15, which is far less than hiring a consultant like me!

Idea #2: Hold daily huddles

A huddle is a short, focused meeting that typically lasts between 5 and 15 minutes. It's alternatively known as a stand-up, pre-shift, or tailgate. 

The power of a huddle is it is short, yet consistent. Huddles can be used to:

  • Quickly re-train employees on small issues

  • Introduce new procedures

  • Reinforce essential skills

  • Keep employees focused on important updates

  • Facilitate team discussions around challenging situations

The UPS contact center in Las Vegas, Nevada uses daily huddles for each of its teams. The meetings are highly choreographed and take just nine minutes. Team leaders gather their employees around a whiteboard where they discuss key metrics, review challenges, and share success stories.

You can learn more about harnessing the power of huddles here.

Idea #3: Subscribe to weekly email reminders

A common challenge for customer service leaders is employees know what they should do, but they fall into bad habits over time. 

This is where reminders can be helpful. The idea is to remind employees of specific skills and techniques so they maintain good habits. For example:

  • Building rapport with customers

  • Using listening skills to understand customer needs

  • Empathizing with customers to resolve service failures

You can subscribe yourself and everyone on your team to a free email reminder system called Customer Service Tip of the Week. 

  1. Share this link with your team:

  2. Ask everyone to subscribe.

  3. You'll receive one tip per week via email.

See examples of different ways that customer service leaders use these tips here.

Bonus resource: While the weekly email is totally free, you can get over 52 ideas in one paperback book for less than $10. Amazon is best for single copies while Porchlight Books offers quantity discounts.

Customer Service Tip of the Week logo.

Idea #4: Create a "quick hit" training program

A "quick hit" training program is an ad-hoc session that focuses on just one issue. These training programs are relatively easy to put together. Here are some common characteristics:

  • Short: one hour or less, sometimes just 15 minutes

  • Focused: addresses one specific issue

  • Ad-hoc: these training sessions are only called when needed

Major League Soccer's Chicago Fire uses quick hit training sessions, called "spark training," to keep stadium employees sharp on game day.

Session topics come from guest feedback. 

For example, there might have been a few guest complaints about a particular concession stand during the last match. The Fire's fan services team will investigate the issue and identify a solution. The solution is then shared with employees at that concession stand via a 15-minute spark training session immediately before the next match.

Need ideas for quick hit training?

You can get a workbook with 10 customer service training activities when you subscribe to this blog. The activities all focus on different issues and are perfect for quick hit training sessions.

(Note: if you're already a subscriber, you can find the workbook here.)

Idea #5: Practice while you shop

Did you know you can build your customer service skills while you are a customer?

Think about the fundamental service skills for a moment. All of them are based on principles of human-to-human interaction:

  • Rapport

  • Listening

  • Empathy

You can practice these skills when the tables are turned and you are the customer. It's a low-risk situation where you can experiment with new techniques, since a customer or your boss isn't evaluating your performance.

The added bonus is you often receive better service!

Here's a free video that explains three exercises for developing your rapport skills while you are a customer.

Bonus resource: You can find many more practice while you shop exercises in my training video, How to Get Great Customer Service. You can take the course using your LinkedIn Learning subscription

If you don't have a LinkedIn Learning account, you can get a free 30-day trial to the entire library or purchase the individual course. Many local libraries also offer free access to LinkedIn Learning.

Idea #6: Conduct an after action review

Our experiences teach us far more customer service skills than a training class. One way to help employees learn from their experience is an after action review. 

Contact centers already do this on a regular basis. A call, email, or other communication is reviewed by the agent and their supervisor, and the two discuss what went well and what can be improved.

You can do after action reviews in other industries, too. It can be one-on-one, or a team discussion.

  • A library staff could review a special event.

  • A restaurant staff could review a busy lunch rush.

  • An IT service desk could review an unexpected outage.

A good after action review should do two things:

  • Identify what worked well, so people keep doing that.

  • Identify what could be done better, so people improve the next time.

Be careful that you don't let these reviews get too negative. An after action review should give an individual or team confidence in how they will perform the next time around.

Max Yoder, CEO of the training software provider, Lessonly, shared some great advice for focusing on what's already working in this interview.

Bonus Resource: Yoder wrote an excellent book called Do Better Work that's full of practical suggestions for bringing out the most in people.

Idea #7: Film short videos

A simple video can be an incredibly helpful learning tool.

In fact, you probably know this already. Chances are, you've gone to YouTube to find a how-to video on something, whether it's a household chore or a work-related task. Many of those videos are homemade using simple equipment like a cell phone.

You may have seen my training videos on LinkedIn Learning. Those are filmed in a studio and produced by a professional crew. But I've also created far simpler videos without all those resources that have been incredibly effective.

Here are a few examples:

  • A welcome video for new hire orientation.

  • A product training video to enhance associate knowledge.

  • A video that explains how to set SMART goals.

You can see that last one here. I must warn you in advance that the quality is embarrassingly bad, but that's okay. The video still gets the job done.

Video is also a great way to film short messages or reminders for employees. John Peek, owner of Peek Brothers Painting, uses short video clips to share weekly reminders with his painting crews.

Here's one example.

Bonus Resource: If your company already has a LinkedIn Learning subscription, you have access to an enormous library of training videos, including my customer service courses. Your local library may also provide access to LinkedIn Learning at no charge.

Why are these techniques more effective than hiring a trainer?

There are two big reasons why the techniques I've shared can be more effective than hiring someone like me.

  • The "forgetting curve"

  • The 70-20-10 rule

Let me explain each one, starting with the forgetting curve.

The Forgetting Curve

Various studies have found that we quickly forget new information unless we use it.

This is called the Forgetting Curve. The original term comes from studies conducted in the 1800s by Herman Ebbinghaus. His research was extremely limited—he was the subject of his own memory experiments—but it showed how difficult it is for us to retain information that we learn.

For example, think of the very last training class, seminar, or conference you attended. What are your honest answers to these questions:

  • What specifically do you recall?

  • What specifically did you implement?

Now think of those answers in comparison to all the content that was covered. Chances are, you've retained and implemented less than 10 percent of what was covered.

Here's another test:

Think back to when you were in high school and had a combination locker for your books or PE class. Do you remember how fast you could open your locker back then? 

Chances are it was a matter of seconds. That's because you knew the combination from daily repetition. You could open that locker without even thinking about it.

Now imagine you are standing in front of the same locker today. The combination is still the same. Could you open it? (More than 95 percent of people could not.)

Forgetting is a huge challenge with long training classes.

There's simply too much content to remember. That's why the techniques outlined in this post can work so much better. They are all examples of microlearning, which is learning delivered in small chunks that's immediately useful.

The 70-20-10 Rule

This model was first developed by the Center for Creative Leadership more than 30 years ago. It refers to how people generally learn skills they use at work:

  • 70% comes from experience, particularly challenging assignments

  • 20% comes from a boss or mentor

  • 10% comes from formal training

There are a couple of important caveats here. First, the 70-20-10 rule was originally applied to leadership development, although it’s been found to be broadly applicable. Second, the term "rule" is a bit misleading because the percentages aren't fixed. It's better thinking of these percentages as rough guides.

Even so, think about what the 70-20-10 rule tells us about our training programs. Here's an example from a customer service leader:

She had hired customer service trainers in the past. Each time, the team improved for a week or so, and then lapsed back into old habits. The leader explained she was looking to hire a trainer again because she didn't have the time to coach or train her team.

Can you see what the training repeatedly failed?

The formal training covered the 10%, but she didn't reinforce the training (20%). Eventually, the employees' old habits took over (70%) and they went back to doing things the way they used to do them.

The training ideas shared above help prevent this.

  • There's still training going on (10%)

  • The techniques rely on you, the leader, to facilitate learning (20%)

  • They help employees draw from their own experiences (70%)

Take Action

My hope is this post is more than a one-time read. I encourage you to bookmark it and refer back to it as you try the various training ideas.

I'd like to offer you two more training resources.

The first one is me. Feel free to contact me or leave a comment with your questions. I'm happy to help.

The second resource is my LinkedIn Learning course, How to Design and Deliver Training Programs. It will walk you step-by-step through creating training programs that are fast, inexpensive, and highly effective.

In the spirit of this post, I'll share three ways you can get the course without spending an extra dime!

Here's a preview of the course.

How to Improve Customer Service with Process Mapping

Elisabeth Swan, Managing Partner of

Elisabeth Swan, Managing Partner of

Process is more important than training.

That's tough for me to admit as a trainer, but it's true. You can give someone the best training and then give them a lousy process, and the results will be poor. Give that same person minimal training but a fantastic process, and they'll likely do just fine.

So if you want to improve customer service, look at the process you're using to serve customers before you send anyone to training. The root cause of many service failures is a process that isn't working, or people aren't following it.

Elisabeth Swan thinks about process a lot.

She's the managing partner of, a company that provides Lean Six Sigma training and certification. The company's mission is: Revolutionize the way people learn process improvement–making it easy for everyone everywhere to build their problem-solving muscles.

Swan is also the co-author of The Problem-Solver’s Toolkit, which is a wonderful reference guide full of immediately useful process improvement tools.

We recently had a conversation to talk about how process mapping can be used to improve customer service. (You can find more information about swimlane mapping, one of the concepts we discussed, on page 64 of Swan’s book.)

Here are some of our discussion topics:

  • Creating an interactive process map with post-it notes.

  • Using swimlane maps to prevent issues from "falling through the cracks."

  • Maintaining customer-focus throughout the process.

  • Verifying processes are working as expected.

  • Identifying pain points in a process.

You can watch the full interview here.

How to Be an Authentic Customer Service Leader

Advertising disclosure: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.

There's a scene in the cult-classic movie, Office Space, where a character named Peter is chided by his boss, Lumbergh, for not including the new cover sheet on his TPS report.

Peter quickly acknowledges his mistake, but Lumbergh continues his lecture. He asks, "Did you see the memo about this?"

Peter points to the memo on his desk, again acknowledges his mistake, and assures his boss there's still time to fix the error. But Lumbergh again bulldozes through Peter's clear understanding and agreement and continues to awkwardly lecture him.

He ends with, "I'll go ahead and make sure you get another copy of that memo."

This scene really hit home when I saw the movie in 1999. It was uncanny how it resembled my actual work environment at the time. Our vice president even acted suspiciously like Lumbergh!

When I started my own company a few years later, I named it Toister Performance Solutions to incorporate the initials TPS. I never wanted to forget that soul-sucking management style, and vowed to help customer service teams prevent it.

Here's how you can do your part and be an authentic leader.

Customer service leader facilitating a team meeting.

What are the characteristics of authentic leadership?

Let's start by getting a glimpse of an inauthentic leader. Give yourself a treat and watch that brief scene from Office Space where Peter is chided about his TPS report.

Unlike Lumbergh, authentic leaders are perceived as genuine, committed, and passionate. An authentic leader is easy to get behind because you know exactly where they stand.

In The Service Culture Handbook, I profiled how leaders can act authentically as stewards of their organization's customer-focused culture. These leaders do three things in particular:

  1. Model the culture

  2. Use the culture to guide strategy

  3. Communicate the culture

Model the Culture

Authentic customer service leaders walk the talk. They demonstrate the culture in the way they treat people that provides an example for others to follow. 

My first boss, Christie, provided a great example at the retail store where I worked in high school. She was a consistent presence on the sales floor, demonstrating the right way to serve customers. Christie also treated employees with the same respect and kindness she showed to customers. She was quick to praise employees for doing a good job and was always helping us learn how to do even better. 

The way she consistently modeled the right way to do things made it easy for me to follow her lead. 

Use the Culture to Guide Strategy

Authentic leaders make strategic decisions that are aligned with the culture. They make it clear that "culture" isn't a part-time pet project. It's a way of doing business.

Catherine was a customer service leader who used her company's culture to guide every decision. It influenced how she hired employees, trained them, and empowered them. She was guided by the company's culture when setting goals and prioritizing initiatives.

The result of this consistent decision-making was that the strategy always reinforced the culture and made it easy for employees to do the right thing.

Communicate the Culture

Authentic leaders constantly communicate the culture. This helps employees understand that the culture is extremely important, and ensures no one is confused about the right way to act.

Mike was a CEO who communicated the culture at every opportunity. He reinforced company values at all-hands meetings each quarter. He discussed the culture at every executive team meeting, when having regular lunches with different employee groups, and even in informal conversations. 

Mike talked about the company's core values so often that everyone in the company understood them and knew they were important.

Alternative models of authentic leadership

There are a few other popular authentic leadership models that are slightly different than my own research. 

The most popular comes from Bill George, who identified these five traits of authentic leaders in his book, Authentic Leadership:

  1. Pursuing their purpose with passion

  2. Practicing solid values

  3. Leading with their hearts as well as their heads

  4. Establishing connected relationships

  5. Demonstrating self-discipline

I discovered George's research after publishing my own in The Service Culture Handbook. While the components are slightly different, there are a lot of similarities.

Model the Culture

  • Pursuing their purpose with passion

  • Practicing solid values

  • Demonstrating self-discipline

Use the Culture to Guide Strategy

  • Pursuing their purpose with passion

  • Leading with their hearts as well as their heads

  • Demonstrating self-discipline

Communicate the Culture

  • Leading with their hearts as well as their heads

  • Establishing connected relationships

  • Demonstrating self-discipline

The last trait, demonstrating self-discipline, is essential. It takes a tremendous amount of will to consistently stay on course when leading a team, a department, or even an entire organization.

Take Action

This post outlines a framework for authentic leadership based on my research, observations, and experience. You can do a few things to put this into action.

How to Improve Performance by Focusing on What is Working

Advertising disclosure: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.

Max Yoder, Co-Founder & CEO of Lessonly

Max Yoder, Co-Founder & CEO of Lessonly

Some solutions are counterintuitive.

When employees aren't doing their best, the instinctive approach is to try to identify what's wrong and fix it. Max Yoder's counterintuitive advice is to focus on what the team is doing really well, and help them do that more often.

Yoder is the Co-Founder and CEO of Lessonly, a company that makes easy-to-use training software. He's also the author of Do Better Work, a book full of practical tips that can help yourself and others find "clarity, camaraderie, and progress in work and life."

It's an action-oriented book and I highly recommend it.

Yoder and I recently had a conversation about improving team performance. Here are just some of the topics we discussed:

  • Taking personal accountability for your own performance

  • Finding clarity at work

  • Overcoming your natural instinct to focus on what's wrong

  • Helping employees recognize their peers

  • Asking two questions that can help identify best practices

Do Better Work is available on Amazon.

Here's our interview.