Don't Poke The Bear: 8 Tips For Dealing With Difficult Customers

Capability Group
10 min read

Difficult customers have always been a challenge but since COVID-19 first reared its head back in March 2020, frontline employees have increasingly had to deal with upset, angry and sometimes downright abusive customers, both in-person and over the phone.

Rising inflation and the cost of living crisis has made a bad situation worse. The price of everything has increased significantly and it causes some people to lash out at the most convenient target; which in many cases happens to be the anonymous customer service representative or retail assistant.

It’s an issue for staff working in supermarkets, retail outlets, call centres and local councils. First responders, flight attendants, taxi drivers and bus drivers are also bearing the brunt of people’s pain and frustration with the world.

Imagine being confronted by an angry customer. How quickly you can resolve the situation and move on from it depends on how you manage yourself and your own emotions in the moment; how you manage the attitude and aggression of the customer; and finally how you process the interaction in the moments, days and weeks after the incident.

Here are some tips for your frontline employees to help them deal with difficult customers:

1. Manage your self (talk)

You cannot control what other people think, feel or say. The only behaviour you can control is your own. So, remind yourself of that fact before every interaction with a member of the public.

If someone says something mean or hurtful to you, remind yourself not to take it personally. You are a representative for your organisation and in the vast majority of cases, the customer is upset at the organisation, not at you.

2. Be non-defensive

Being non-defensive means staying open minded, receptive, and responsive to other people’s thinking and ideas. This requires noticing your own signs of defensiveness and then managing your physical and emotional reactions as well as your internal dialogue to ensure you stay calm and in control during challenging conversations. The key is to try and stay as open and engaged as possible with the other person.

3. Response (ability)

The way you respond to the customer will often determine the outcome of the situation. You can only control your own behaviour, and this is your response-ability. You cannot control a customer’s responses. If they use offensive language or raise their voice, try to stay calm and don’t react to it — stay focussed on solving the issue at hand. Let the customer air their feelings and acknowledge them. Ask open-ended questions to keep the dialogue going and paraphrase your understanding of their perspective using profession neutral language.

4. It ain’t what you say (it’s the way that you say it)

Try and set a positive example by using professional language and speaking in a calm, respectful tone. Be aware of your body language and adopt a passive, non-threatening posture…normally this is how you would be standing or sitting if you were actually relaxed and alert (in a less stressed situation). It often helps to ensure your breathing is slow, even and deep too, as if you were actually relaxed, as this can help fool your brain into staying calm.

5. Step into their shoes

There are a number of brain triggers that influence our behaviour in social situations. To ensure these triggers aren’t activated we need to ensure we respond appropriately. Here’s some examples of things to do:

• Show the customer their concerns are of the utmost importance to you

• Find a resolution together, ensuring the issue will be sorted

• Provide the customer with some choices wherever possible

• See the issue from the customer’s point of view

• Handle the customer’s issue carefully and judiciously

6. I’m all ears

Listen respectfully. Don’t argue or interrupt. Give the customer a chance to talk. Angry customers often calm down when they feel they’ve been listened to and taken seriously.

7. Surviving & thriving

The key to moving on after a confrontation with a difficult customer is to remind yourself of the very first point we made, i.e. control the controllables. The Circle of Influence and the Circle of Concern is a concept from Stephen Covey that helps with this.

Your Circle of Concern is filled with all the things in the world that we are worried or concerned about. However, some of these concerns we have no control over, e.g. the coronavirus, government decisions, the sharemarket, difficult customers etc.

Our Circle of Influence, on the other hand, is about focusing on those concerns that we can influence and change in some way. This includes our outlook, attitude, emotions, focus, relationships and the decisions we make every day. Don’t waste time and energy focusing on concerns you can do nothing about, focusing on those things you have some influence over.  

Make sure you are aware of your team’s escalation practices and the support available to you within your team if customer interactions become challenging. Also make sure you are aware of support that is available from your organisation to help you process any particularly difficult situations, e.g EAP support services.

8. Keep calm and carry on

Easier said than done, but that old cliché of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ is wise advice when dealing with difficult customers.

Difficult customers can be a challenge but console yourself with the fact that ‘this too shall pass’ and fortunately there are still a lot more good customers than bad ones. Don’t ruminate on the conversation. Reflect on your learnings and then let it go — carry on.

Be there for your fellow team members. All we often want to do after a particularly difficult situation with a customer is tell one of our colleagues and not be judged nor necessarily told how we should have managed it. We just need someone to listen and let us unload. Make sure you have people around you that you can do this with. Also, make sure you are available to your teammates if they find themselves in a similar situation.

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