A Game-Changing Tip for Dealing with Difficult Customers

Last updated: Jan 17, 2023

Somewhere between “buyer beware” and “the customer is never wrong” is the sweet spot of customer service where you concede that the people you serve are never wrong but gently allow that they are not always right. Whether you are serving a hotel guest or working with a team to serve a particularly particular business client, mutual satisfaction is the goal, with one caveat: Your customer’s happiness is the source of your satisfaction, and your satisfaction is defined by your company’s success, which depends on your customer’s happiness. Yes, it’s quite circular. You protect your company’s interests by making your clients’ legitimate demands paramount, which is much, much easier said than done. To that end, we share a game-changing tip for dealing with difficult customers.

client strategically listening to their customers

Listen and Respond Appropriately

Everything that needs to be said about dealing with difficult customers can be abridged to a three-word sentence: Listen; respond appropriately. It takes a long time, however, to unpack that wee sentence.


“Listen” equals “communicate.” Effective communicating begins with finding common ground and expanding it:

  • Make sure you understand exactly what the customer is saying and wants.
  • Make sure the customer understands what you are saying.
  • Make sure the customers/clients know the rules that bind you and affect them.

Chron, an online Hearst Newspapers publication, cites three barriers to effective business communication:

  • Not recognizing what the audience knows and needs to know.
  • Not using the proper method of communication. (Blast your message by email or teleconference or go more one on one and personal?)
  • Not ensuring the intended message was the one received.

Responding appropriately to a difficult customer.

Respond Appropriately

Listening is a two-way process, a matter of give and take, and you can’t respond appropriately if you don’t truly listen. Too often, responses are based not on what you actually heard but on expectations shaped by experience. The customer presents a familiar issue in a familiar way, so it’s easy to shift to autopilot and address a type of problem and not necessarily the one at hand.

The proper response is the one informed by good communication that identifies the problem and enables you to present a solution informed by your expertise.

Does it help to know the “11 Types of Difficult Customers and How to Handle Them” and  the how-to of “Dealing with Rude Customers,” which addresses “managing your emotions in a hostile confrontation”?

Sure, having textbook responses can help, but there’s a risk of defaulting to canned solutions that don’t apply. So, you can memorize the 11 types of difficult customers and how to handle them, or you can develop and employ a protocol that deals with people as respected and valued individuals.

Your customer service protocol, however, whether driven purely by experience, a customer relationship management platform, the golden rule, or a mix of the aforementioned, will be useless if your people aren’t empowered to execute it.

Are Your People Empowered to Respond Appropriately?

Sir Richard Branson, co-founder of the Virgin Group Ltd., relies on a business model that puts employees first. The result, theory and practice indicate, is a well-served customer. Branson is big on empowering his people, which includes giving then the authority to push the envelope on problem-solving. That doesn’t mean no boundaries, just flexibility.

In an article titled “Avoid Dissatisfied Customers by Empowering Your Employees,” author Brian Greenberg, founder of True Blue Life Insurance Inc., says, “I give my employees the authority to incur a company loss of up to $500 in order to resolve a service issue. If a customer is upset, an employee can offer a refund of $500 without even asking. As a result, I deal with far fewer headaches, and both the customer and the employee have a better experience when resolving issues. Everybody wins.”

So, let’s say you’ve created a culture of excellence where empowered employees are skilled at identifying and resolving customer service issues. What does that look like? Here’s a fictional example of a customer service rep listening and responding appropriately:

  • Irate customer calls to complain that the clothes dryer he bought is pure junk sold by crooks.
  • Service rep keeps it professional, listening patiently and getting the facts behind the anger:
    • Dryer lint trap snagged and ruined an expensive set of sheets.
    • Dryer is out of warranty by almost five months. Problem surfaced within weeks of the purchase, but the first time it didn’t involve a 1,500 thread-count, Egyptian-quality cotton sheet set costing $157.99.
  • Rep sympathizes and responds appropriately, ordering delivery of a $17.10 (retail) lint trap.
  • Customer walks away happy without walking away from the brand.


USF Teaches the Ins and Outs of Customer Service

Whether you’re a business leader intent on elevating your company’s training and talent development or a professional looking for Lean Six Sigma Green Belt or Black Belt certification, USF has programs that can show you how to deliver customer service worthy of five stars.

See what the Office of Corporate Training and Professional Education is offering, from on-site corporate training to programs ranging from project management to situational leadership for executives.

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