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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.
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.
Imagine you helped a customer who faced a challenging situation.
You worked hard and left them better off at the end of the interaction.
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:
The next steps are very important:
Read your thank you letter at the start of every day for 21 days.
Serve each customer the way you describe in your letter.
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.
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?
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:
Recognize the fight or flight instinct
Pause briefly to collect yourself
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.
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.