How to Deal with Difficult Customers: 10 De-Escalation Steps

While deciding how to deal with difficult customers, remember we’ve all been the angry customer at some point. Think back to the times you yelled on the phone, or pounded a desk, or demanded to speak to a manager.

While you’re recalling the experience, take the time to pinpoint what worked (or didn’t work) for you during that encounter. Did the rep you talked to win you back over? Or did you swear off the company forever?

With any upset customer, the goal is to turn the encounter into a win for your business. You can’t control what the customer says or does, but you’re in complete control of how you react to the customer. It’s  your chance to show that customer he/she was right to choose your company. Remember that by quickly resolving your angry customers’ concerns, you stand a chance of retaining up to 70 percent of them.

Not everyone shows anger the same way.

It’s important to recognize that not all customers express their frustrations the same way. We all react differently to stress. These differences in anger can influence what steps you take to manage irate customers. Here are a few personalities you may encounter.

#1. The Talker

These customers aren’t sure what they want. They don’t know what a resolution to their problem looks like. They just want to be heard, so don’t zone them out. Practice your active listening skills. Once they’ve had their say, make sure you restate their concerns. This can help guide them to what they want from you.

#2. The Executive

These customers don’t care what it takes. They want results! They expect you to automatically know who they are, what their problem is, and how you can fix it for them. Getting information out of them may be like pulling teeth, and they may resent all the questions (“Why are you interrogating me? Can’t you just look it up in your files?”). Be patient, explain when you can what you’re doing and why you need the information you’re requesting.

#3. The Venter

These customers are a lot like the Talker, but they’re ready to let you have it! They’re the screamers, the shouters, and the foot-stompers. Brace yourself for a tantrum on the phone. With the venter, all you can do is ride them out. If you have to, mute your phone so you aren’t tempted to snap back at them. Whatever you do, don’t interrupt. Once they’ve had their say, swoop in with some empathy (“That sounds terrible!”) so they feel that you share their outrage. Then start steering them towards some solution language (“Let me see what we can do for you,” or “Let’s see how we can fix this.”).

#4. The Intimidator

These customers like to whip out the phrase “or else.” (“You fix this, or else.”) It gets old, and can even sound silly. (“You fix this, or else I’m leaving the nastiest Yelp review you’ve ever seen. It’ll make your head spin. It’ll bring your whole company to its knees!”) Understand that the threats only reflect their strong feelings on the matter. Don’t take it personally (unless the threats get personal or specific, and then you’ll want to pass the customer on to a manager—or the police). Like the venter, let them have their say. Repeat their concern back to them and let them correct you if you get something wrong. Then steer the conversation toward a solution.

#5. The Sufferer

No matter what you offer to do, it won’t be good enough for this customer. They’ll never be whole again, and it’s all your fault. In this case, there may be no easy resolution the customer will accept. You’ll simply have to tell him or her, “I’m sorry, but that’s the best I can do. Thank you for understanding.”

We make a little fun of these customers here, but realize that their problems aren’t at all funny—not to them. They deserve attention, sympathy, and redress. Remember, we’ve all been on the other side of the aisle. Odds are, we’ve been one of the people listed above. Can you pick yourself out of that lineup?

Try to recall what it was that really had you angry. Were you disappointed in the company? Did you feel like you’d been tricked, badly treated, or that you deserved a better experience? By figuring out why a customer is angry, you’re that much closer to finding a way to hopefully repair their relationship with your brand.

Tips How to Deal with Difficult Customers

There is no one-size-fits all solution to difficult or angry customers. Nevertheless, you should prepare in advance before one of these situation arrives. You can’t control whether a customer leaves the encounter happy or not, but there are subtle ways to influence how a customer responds to your overtures. Here are 10 tips to help.

#1. Prepare in advance.

Don’t “wing it” when you run into an angry customer. Have a plan in place. Practice responding to different concerns. It might even help to have a script prepared, but realize that the customer will hear it in your voice if you’re giving him or her a “scripted” response. A script should only be a set of guidelines to help direct your exchange. Keep your replies real and genuine, or the customer will notice and probably won’t like it.

#2. Keep emotions out of it.

What’s worse than an exchange with one emotionally charged participant? An exchange with two emotionally charged participants. It’s important that you stay calm throughout the conversation. Don’t let the customer bait you into retaliating. Always watch your tone. Speak slowly and softly. Remember that the customer isn’t attacking you personally. Any anger or abuse is caused by a core problem, which you’ll need to uncover before you can start on a solution.

#3. Listen, listen, and listen some more.

The best way to find the core problem is let your customers have their say. Don’t interrupt, don’t ask for clarification. Take notes if you need to follow up on anything. Let them get it all out. But never make the mistake of tuning them out. The stories your customers tell you drove them to reach out to you. To them, these are animating issues that provoked them to take action. They’re expecting a similar reaction from you. If they feel like you’re dismissive or not paying attention, that’s all it takes to lose them as a customer.

#4. Identify and understand their anger.

It isn’t always clear what made your customers so angry. What the customer complains about isn’t always the actual problem. This is where you have the chance to play detective. In many cases, the customer started out with certain expectations for your product or service, and that expectation wasn’t met.

#5. Sympathize with them.

Besides a fix to their problem, most customers are also looking for someone to tell them, “No, you’re right. This shouldn’t have happened. Your reaction is entirely reasonable.” What they don’t want is someone asking them, “What’s the big deal? Why are you so upset?” Be sincere when you express sympathy. Make sure you don’t use empty phrases that could backfire, like, “I know how you feel.” Odds are, that won’t go over too well. Instead, try something along the lines of, “That sounds like a terrible experience. Let’s figure out a way to make this right.”

#6. Find a solution.

In many cases, the solution may seem pretty obvious. The customer may want a refund, a replacement product, or an apology. But don’t just assume the solution you see immediately is everything. Run it by the customer and make sure they also see this as a complete resolution. Sometimes it helps to make the customer part of the solution. You can ask to have them call you back with additional information, or to let you know when their new product has arrived. It may seem awkward at first, asking them to do something for you, especially if they’re upset. But for some customers, it prevents them from feeling helpless, like they’re stuck waiting for you to get it done.

#7. Don’t make any promises you can’t keep.

Never lie to the customer. You may be tempted to tell them whatever you have to so you can get them off the phone. Don’t do it. You’ll get found out eventually. And don’t make promises that are above your pay grade. It’s as true for customer care as it is in sales: under promise, over deliver. You can tell a customer you’re trying to work out a nice solution for them, but help them understand it isn’t entirely up to you.

#8. Avoid the hold or transfer button.

Everyone hates waiting on hold. Getting transferred and having to repeat your problem again to someone new isn’t too high on the list either. Only put them on hold if you absolutely have no other choice. Only transfer them if the problem is beyond your ability to solve. If you can, perform a warm transfer. Talk to the person you’re transferring the customer to and tell that person what the problem is. That way, your customer doesn’t have to repeat themselves. You can also relate what you’ve already done for the customer and what you think could solve the problem.

#9. Imagine you’re performing in front of an audience.

If you find yourself growing frustrated, imagine you’re not alone talking to the customer. Picture an audience of future customers listening in, watching you at your desk. Feeling judged? Good. Because the customer you’re talking to now will relate your exchange to between nine and 15 other people. It’s on you whether they praise your customer service or trash your company for not caring about its customers.

#10. If all else fails: fire them.

Some customers are simply too toxic to help. You know who I mean. They’re the ones you can never satisfy. They take up more and more time on the phone and only become more demanding. You have to accept that you can’t solve every problem and please every customer. For those customers who become too much of a drain, you may have to simply fire them. Keep it polite and tell them that this obviously isn’t a good fit and that they ought to look elsewhere for a service that meets their need.

Will that mean a negative review and word of mouth? Yes, and that’s the price you pay for not having to deal with that customer again. And chances are, those that read that customer’s review or listen to him or her trash your company will likely wind up sympathizing with you.

They’re not angry customers: they’re opportunities.

Angry customers aren’t necessarily a sign of failure. They represent an opportunity for you to communicate how much you value them. And a solid strategy outlining how to handle difficult customers improves your chances of retaining those customers.

Still have questions about how to handle customers, whether in person or online? Check out these related articles.

It’s also important to let your remote workers know how much you value them. Check out our ebook on how to effectively manage remote workers.


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