Difficult customers and how to deal with them.

Office worker

Stressed office worker


What makes a difficult customer?

The old adage of ‘the customer is always right’ in my experience should be followed up by ‘but it doesn’t always mean they know what they are talking about’.

Many a time I have come in contact with customers who insist that they are correct and know exactly what  you should do and how you should do it, in spite of your industry knowledge, years of experience and the fact that you do this job each and every day.

People do not like to be told they are wrong, or that they owe you money.  These are two of the main bug bears I find I have to deal with on a day to day basis.

Of course these are valued customers who you want to please in order to keep their business, so turning around and telling them exactly what you think of them and what they should do with their suggestions is not a good idea.

Difficult customers are the bane of my day, but realistically; being in a rush, expecting a higher level of service, paying what they believe your service is worth and expecting you to be at their beaconed call at the drop of a hat is really their prerogative. And lets face it for every difficult and demanding customer you have, you are equally the same way to at least one of your suppliers. Don’t deny it, if you think hard enough you’ll be able to find an example of an occasion where you have been just as difficult and demanding as they have, often with less justification.

Which brings us to the question of justification of behaviour.

My boss always says,  ‘don’t treat the customer how you would like to be treated as this is often not how they want to be treated’. Strange I know, the first time he said this he had to explain it to me.

‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ also known as the ‘Law of Moses’ may be a biblical idea but it is one which has become popular from a moral and ethical point of view, it is also how I live my life as do many others, but it is not the right way for business.

Just because you wish to have a chat about your weekend does not mean that this is how the customer wants to spend their time, most of the time they want to place their order and get on with their day. Alternatively, they may need 5 minutes out of their day for a chat about the weather, and it is up to you to provide that service.

Every customer is completely different, some are a breeze to deal with, others can ask for so much from you that it feels like they want blood, sweat and tears. Your job is to deal with ALL of their requests in a timely and appropriate manner, regardless of how ridiculous they seem. And believe me I have had some ridiculous requests and demands from customers over the years.

Below are some of the tried and tested methods I have found for dealing with the ‘difficult customer’.

1. Handouts

This may seem a little ‘back to school’ but I have found that often the ‘difficult’ customer is just the ‘uninformed customer’. Spending a half hour out of your day, when you are already swamped with work, explaining to a customer how to read an invoice, or that your product won’t hold what they expect it to, always seems like a waste of time.

However, the customer is clearly uninformed or uneducated about your product or service and merely they are requesting help to understand. It is your job to educate them, they rely on you for knowledge of your products and procedures.

A quick way to handle these calls or emails and get them off your desk without eating into your valuable time is to have a set of hand outs prepared. It is best to have these available in an easy to email and printable format and available for all members of your team. It’s always a good idea to ensure you are all ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’ as they say. No point you putting all this hard work in if your team members are telling customers completely different information.

I find that these hand outs can be about any area of your business; products, procedures, dates and times for cut offs of orders, instructions on how to order products and what to do with them once you have them. Any area can be explained in a simple hand out.

These can also be useful for training new staff members, so are a multifunctional tool.

If you are unsure how to make easy to understand hand outs then check out pinterest for ideas, I have found it very valuable for collecting resources and ideas as well as viewing templates of other peoples handouts.

Of course when giving these handouts to clients it is very important to be careful how you suggest they might benefit. I find that mentioning how they have been of benefit to other clients is a great way of getting them to accept your help in this form. Telling them that they are stupid and making them feel like they are back at school is not a great idea, so subtlety is key.

2.  Template emails

When dealing with the ‘difficult customer’ it can often be hard not to let emotions run high, especially if there is a complaint involved. Not everyone can deal with criticism, even it if is constructive. If emotions are running high on the customers side then it is hard not to take any criticism personally.

It is imperative that you DO NOT send a snotty email to a client under any circumstances!

Therefore having a set of template emails to deal with queries, complaints and issues that arise regularly is a good idea. These should be written in a professional manner, preferably by a manager who has experience in dealing with this topic. They should be easily editable and interchangeable between customers so that even the ‘newbie’ in the office can utilise them.

3. Smile at all times when speaking to a difficult customer on the phone

My boss always reminds me of this little tit bit and do you know what, as strange as it sounds, it actually works. It makes your voice sound instantly pleasant even though your eyes might be scowling.

It is now one of the first things we train our staff to do when picking up the phone.

There is also evidence to suggest that a smile can actually increase those all important endorphins in the brain and actually make you happier. That’s right, those smiley happy people are are genuinely happier. Check out the link below:


4. Always leave yourself with some wriggle room.

Strange that you would need wriggle room with a client but stick with me on this one. If a client has a list of issues or demands then it is always best not to give them everything up front.

I have found in the past that giving the customer everything they want straight off the bat causes a form of ‘cause and effect’, the next time they have the slightest issue they will expect you to give them the same discount or concession as when they made the first complaint. This is just bad business. Not all issues or complaints should be dealt with in the same way.

Using the phrase ‘…as a good will gesture..’ Can often help you in these circumstances. You want to refund the transport charge or give the client a discount to make up for an error caused by you or your staff then this is the phrase for you. It allows you to give them a discount or concession without setting the president. The next time they say ‘well so and so did it for me last time’ you have the perfectly legitimate answer of ’that was a gesture of good will and not our standard practice’.

These are just a few of the tools I use to deal with difficult customers. These are of course suited to office work rather than retail. Retail is a whole different ball game as you are dealing with difficult people face to face rather than with the added distance of the phone or email. Often people are harsher and more likely to say things in an accusatory manner over the phone or via email as there is a perceived detachment from the actual person they are being difficult to. This is of course not always the case and in a later post I will discuss my tools for dealing with difficult customers face to face.

My aim is to give you ideas of what to do in difficult situations. Sometimes I find that speaking to other people or seeking out advice on the internet or forums has helped me through some of my more difficult issues with customers has been invaluable. If any of these ideas help you then please feel free to share and comment. If you also have any tit bits of advice that might help others muddling through their first management position then please feel free to share them here.