Managing ‘Difficult’ Customers

Customers behaviour

Why today’s customers complain more:

These days, customers are far more capable and confident to complain than they ever were before and there are lots of reasons for this: legislation and support groups which protect customers’ rights, more focus within the media on poor service, programmes which show ideas on ‘how to complain’, increased competition and customer choice. And of course, a customer can easily make their complaint known to thousands with a click of a button.

This is totally different to the research completed in the late eighties, which showed that only 4% of customers would complain. Those days are definitely gone.

Today’s customers know how to use their power and they don’t always complain in a way that seems ‘reasonable’. Debbie Barrow, Managing Director of Virada Training, a leading supplier of sales and service training, says: We’re hearing a lot about the stresses that staff have when it comes to handling customers’ anger and the way this is expressed.

The impact on business

Now despite this, look at the following research compiled by the Institute of Customer Service’ about members of staff who interact with customers:

Only 1 in 3 have had training in handling customer’s anger.

Only 1 in 4 feel qualified to handle customers complaints.

Add to that the fact that customers will pay more for excellent service, and that four out of five customers have said they would spread the word if complaints were handled badly, and that nearly all customers would recommend a business if their complaint WAS handled well.

The impact on a business of ineffective complaint handling is huge. Aside from the negative impact on company reputation, there is the loss of repeat business and referrals, loss of productivity, poor use of managers’ time when complaints are escalated, poor staff motivation as well as the risk of a higher staff turnover. And there’s decreased margin too, as customers are often offered gestures or price discounts as compensation.

Types of ‘difficult’ customers

So, training in managing and reducing complaints is key, as well as handling ‘difficult’ customers. You know the ones; they may complain in the following ways: loudly, swearing, threatening, being sarcastic, making it personal (to the staff member), manipulating or trying to take control using different tactics.

It’s important to mention that it’s not only ‘complaining’ customers who can be difficult to deal with. Some of your new, loyal or favourite customers may try to assert their power e.g. by asking (nicely) for a discount or pulling forward the delivery date. These customers are often tricky to manage.

Developing the right ‘mindsets

So if training is to be carried out, what should it cover?

Firstly, as Debbie says: When training staff, it’s not just about developing the ‘skills’ of handling complaints or difficult customers; it’s the ‘mindsets’. This includes sessions on how to avoid negative judgements about difficult customer behaviour and creating the most productive ways to think about the situation and the customer. This involves looking ‘beyond’ the customer behaviour and focusing instead on attempting to relate to the customer, being proactive and not taking any of it personally.

“Mindsets are also key because customers who complain want to feel understood and it’s not easy to demonstrate this with any credibility if the stress or the negative mindsets are getting in the way. Complaint-handling often requires creative thinking and stress can be a barrier to creative thinking.


Staff should be trained to focus on key emotions that all customers need: confidence, reassurance and peace of mind. Everything a staff member asks, says or does will either give or take away those emotions. This does not mean giving the customer everything they ask for, but staff need to be conscious of triggers that will help the customer to either feel positive emotions or to feel even more wound up.

For face-to-face interactions when stress is high, sensitivity to body language is also high, so the wrong facial or body movement can give the wrong message.

The power of every word

Every word can impact on the customer, so language bad habits are important to be aware of. Very few staff know that certain words are unhelpful e.g. jargon, corporate phrases (e.g. company policy, process), parental talk (e.g. if you had…., what you need to do is…., sir, madam, I’m trying to tell you), weak and woollies (not sure, can’t say, might be, probably, I’ll have to ask), devaluers (all we can do is, we can only) and confusers (too many words or conflcting messages).

Debbie continues, “Instead of these negative words, we train staff to use positive and proactive words and phrases. Not all staff want to empathise or apologise. Pride can get in the way when a staff member is witnessing negative behaviour. However, customers who feel that they’re understood, validated and NOT being judged are less likely to escalate the problem. There is the right way and WRONG ways to apologise.”

 Effective problem solving is a way to show urgency and commitment. Words that help include: “I’ll find out right now, I will do this, Yes I agree, it’s a priority, Here is what I can do”. This helps the staff member to BE in control and, in turn, this helps the customer to FEEL in control. Everyone wins.

Saying no to the customer

Naturally, it’s not always possible to say yes to everything the customer wants. Sometimes we need to be creative; other times, it’s important to learn the ‘can’t but can’ or the ‘broken record’ approach. Body language and the six elements of voice can have a great impact when you need to stand your ground, but maintain the relationship.

Handling difficult customers – is it easy? No, but it’s both possible and important for your customers, your business and your staff.