10 Tactics for Dealing with Difficult Customers

It’s 6:45 pm on a Friday… 

Most of your team has packed up and left for the weekend… 

Jeff the new guy is the only support agent still in the office… 

Suddenly a call comes in…  

It’s one of your biggest customers, utterly furious about an issue with his latest bill. Still in training, Jeff is unprepared for the verbal abuse that is hurled at him and quickly becomes flustered. He snaps at the customer to calm down as he struggles to pull up the account on his computer. 

Before you know it, the customer has demanded to speak with a manager. Jeff tells him that no managers are present but he can have one call him back first thing Monday morning. 

It’s too late. The customer says he wants his service cancelled immediately and hangs up.  

Horror stories like Jeff’s are far too common in the customer support world. Without the right training, agents can quickly get offended and lash out at already-frustrated customers. 

The thing is, no one enjoys dealing with difficult customers. Even at the best of times it’s… well, difficult. Unfortunately though, the customers who give you the biggest headaches are also the most important ones to keep happy. 

Studies show that 87% of potential customers won’t even consider choosing a business with low online review scores. That means every unhappy customer whose frown you can’t turn upside down has the potential to irreversibly hurt the reputation of your business. 

As a company with an award-winning support team, we wanted to share some of our expertise to help you better deal with their own difficult customers. 


1. Practice Active Listening

Active listening is one of the most important skills for any support agent to master. It ensures your difficult customers know you’re giving them your full attention, no matter how angry or coherent they are at first. 

Let’s go through an example of how active listening can help you identify and solve a difficult customer’s problem without needing to frustrate them with numerous questions. 

Customer: “I never had any problems with my last cable provider, but now that I switched to you party clowns and installed a new gosh darn satellite dish, I can’t watch any of my sports channels!” 

In this example, the customer is obviously calling because they can’t access cable channels they could before. However, looking deeper and reading between the lines, we can see that the real problem is with the new satellite dish they had installed when they changed services. 

We can also deduce that the source of their current frustration is they’re missing a big game they were excited to see. Another factor is that we were the ones who recommended a new satellite dish. Therefore, it makes sense that they would feel betrayed and expect us to fix their issue immediately. 

Based on our active listening findings, let’s make a response that both confirms the customer’s problem and also makes sure they know we’re taking their frustration seriously. 

You: “I totally get why you’re frustrated. I would be home watching that game too if I wasn’t working, so let’s get that fixed for you as quickly as possible. Just to confirm, you said this only started once your new satellite dish was installed?” 


2. Empathy Goes a Long Way 

It sounds cliche, but always take a moment to put yourself in the customer’s shoes. If the customer is taking time out of their day to call, you can usually assume that they are frustrated and that they need help. They aren’t calling because they enjoy yelling and screaming. Something happened that made them upset, something that you are probably the best person in the entire world to help relieve their problem AND their frustration. 

Instead of responding harshly or judging the customer for being difficult, take a minute to think about how you would react if you were in the same situation. How would you feel if the same thing happened to you? How would you react? It seems obvious, but remembering to take a full pause to think through their situation goes a long way to creating a sense of empathy.

One of the things we’ve found helpful is before troubleshooting the exact issue, it can be helpful to ask frustrated customers questions to help you understand the root of their frustration. Questions like: when did you first notice the issue?, how often does that issue occur?, is this issue affecting anyone else too? or similar questions help you understand the level of frustration and how you can work to alleviate it. 

Once you understand their frustration, alleviating it can sometimes be as simple as expressing a shared feeling of empathy. Saying something like: “Wow, that is annoying, but it might be an easy fix. Let me check and get your issue fixed right now” goes a long way towards making a customer feel heard, less frustrated and on the path towards being a happy customer again. 


3. Stay Calm 

Staying calm while someone is yelling at you might be the hardest thing ever. If ever there was a superpower that a customer support agent needs, it would be this one. 

I challenge anyone who has spent time on the phone to disagree. 

But the thing is, anyone who has spent time on the phone knows that while it’s hard to do, it’s not impossible and there are lots of little tricks to help you stay cool without putting ice on your head (which, FYI, does not work).

Trick #1: Be aware of your tone. 

If someone is yelling, their tone is probably super high. When you respond, make sure that you keep your tone even-steven. If you can keep your tone at a manageable level, you’ll find your anger will be manageable as well.

Trick #2: Breathe deeply 

Kind of an obvious one. If you feel that you aren’t being calm enough, just take a deep breathe. 

Trick #3: Match their questions with appropriate responses

If a situation is escalating, be methodical with your response. Focus on providing value and appropriate responses and you’ll feel your anger subside. 

Trick #4: Be consistent in your responses

Machines don’t get angry. Be machine-like and consistent with your responses and you’ll be able to control that rising hot flame of anger. 

Bonus Trick: 

Something that our own support team recommends when dealing with especially angry or verbally-abusive customers is to pretend you missed what they said and ask them to repeat themselves. Being put on the spot will often make people reconsider the language they were using and allows those angry customers to take a moment to gather themselves. It's surprising how often it works. 


4. Don’t Take It Personally

When you’re passionate about your business, it’s difficult to not take it personally when a customer complains about your product or service. Especially when they do it loudly and/or insultingly.

In these situations, it’s crucial to keep in mind that they aren’t actually angry at you. They’re angry about an issue, and you are not the reason they experienced that issue. Fortunately for both of you, the issues that make customers the angriest are usually much simpler to fix than they realize. 

So no matter how personal a customer gets with you, do your best to remain focused on finding solutions. Regardless of what they say, you are a representative of your whole company. Always reply as though all your other customers were listening to the call. 


5. When All Else Fails, Recap the Situation

When a customer lets their emotions take the wheel of a conversation, the exact details of their complaint can get cloudy. To keep everyone on track, it’s usually helpful to go through all the information you’ve been given with the customer. 

Not only does this give them an opportunity to fill in any gaps, it also reminds them that you aren’t just there for them to vent at. You’re there to actually solve their problem. 

Like a hardboiled detective, ask questions, listen carefully, and cross-examine your “witness” to make sure you have all the information you need to crack the case. 


6. Know When to Let Your Customers Win 

Anyone who’s worked in support (or been in a long-term relationship) knows that some fights just aren’t worth winning. If enforcing a rule or proving your customer wrong is going to take multiple hours and a stiff drink when you get home, there’s nothing wrong with throwing in the towel. 

Now, in this case, “throwing in the towel” doesn’t mean doing anything and everything to make your belligerent customers happy. It means finding a compromise that feels fair to both parties and shows you care more about people than policy. 

Allowing difficult customers to at least feel like they’ve won is nearly always better for your business in the long run. Unhappy customers are likely to take their grievances online and leave your business a scathing review. Meanwhile, customers who believe you did whatever it took to keep their business are likely to tell others about their positive experience and give you some referrals. 


7. See If There’s a Bigger Issue to Solve 

Especially in customer support, your first instinct when connected to an angry customer is to solve their problem as quickly as possible so everyone can relax and go about their business. 

Unfortunately, if the issue they called about is a symptom of the problem rather than the cause, they’ll call you right back the next time it happens. And this time they’ll be even angrier. 

Before you even start looking for solutions, take the time to ask clarification questions. Check to see if the customer is experiencing any other issues, even ones that seem unrelated at first. Not only will you make sure you get to the root of the problem (even if it’s just what it seemed to be), you show your customer that you aren’t just trying to get them off the phone. You truly care about their problem and are doing everything you can to make it right. 


8. Say No Without Saying No

Sometimes compromise isn’t an option. Sometimes customers are being too difficult to even deal with at their current emotional level. In times like these, it’s okay to say no. You just have to do it without using the word “no.” 

Rather than admitting what you can’t do for your customers, try to keep the conversation heading towards different solutions that you can do for them. Try some “no” alternatives like these: 

“That does sound frustrating, here’s what I could do for you right now…”

“I’m not usually supposed to offer this, but…”

“I totally understand where you’re coming from, and that’s why I’m willing to…”

The list goes on, but the important thing is for your support team to find the ways of saying no without saying “no” that work for them. 

Speaking of your team, another issue is that sometimes support agents can feel like they don’t have the authority to give customers a negative response. It’s important to make sure your agents feel valued, and even though they’re expected to skillfully handle difficult customers, there are limits to how much they have to put up with. 


9. Provide a Summary of Your Next Steps 

Before you get off the phone (or chat, or email ticket) with a difficult customer, make sure to review all the steps necessary to get their problem solved. 

There’s nothing worse than putting in the work to calm a customer down, only to infuriate them all over again by seeming like you don’t have a coherent action plan. Let them know as you type that you’re putting everything you discussed and everything you still need to do into their ticket notes. 

That way, even if another support agent answers their next call, they’ll be able to get an accurate update instead of being forced to re-explain their entire issue. 


10. Always Follow Up 

Once the problem has been resolved to your customer’s satisfaction, it’s always a nice cherry on top to follow up with a phone call or email that thanks them for their patience and asks if they need any further assistance.  

This follow-up communication is also a fantastic time to request a review or offer a reward for referrals. The way you turned their complaint into a compliment is still fresh in their mind, and you never know how much a bit of positive buzz can bolster your business. 

Even if you don’t yet have the answers or solutions you promised, make sure you’re getting back to the customer by the scheduled time. Even if they’re still frustrated that their issue isn’t solved yet, they’ll appreciate the clarity and know you aren’t trying to avoid them. 

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