Difficult customers aren’t just tough on support teams—they’re tough on your company’s bottom line. When customers are needlessly rude or overly challenging, it can be detrimental to the team’s morale, and it can also have long-lasting effects on the business and your team.
No matter how great your product or service, some customers are bound to get upset — and in the age of social media, upset customers’ negative experiences can reverberate and compound. A survey by ClickFox found that over 60% of people feel that a company’s reputation for good customer service reputation is "very important" in influencing their decision to buy:
Consumers also revealed that customer service even plays a larger role than price when making purchasing decisions, and especially in situations where a company meets or exceeds their expectations in handling and resolving customer issues.
In this day and age, when those frustrated customers can take to social media, it’s even more critical for support teams to check any initially defensive reactions and respond with composure and understanding.
I spoke with experts from a range of industries, including media, advertising, and publishing, to get their insights into how to handle unhappy customers and tough customer conversations. While there’s no "perfect" solution to any problem, with a little preparation, you can approach these common customer service challenges with tact and grace, allowing you to keep standards high and make better decisions, no matter what comes your way (or what your customers say).
1. Make It You and Me Against the Problem
"First, I think it’s always important to remember who you are in the ecosystem. Your customers are frustrated, and they are coming from a certain perspective. They have a problem, a challenge, an issue, but they’re not really angry at you. You have to depersonalize the situation. Conflict is naturally me against you, but you need to find a way to be me and you against the problem. Lead with a, ‘I’m so sorry that happened to you, let’s see what we can do to resolve it. What do you need to have happen and what were you looking for?’ With this approach, your energy and attitude are totally different than if you answered from a defensive standpoint.
"To bring in a hypothetical example, imagine you had an upset baby. You wouldn’t spank this baby for crying and expressing unhappiness. A baby doesn’t know any better, they don’t know what they’re doing, and they aren’t doing anything on purpose. You need to be able to bring that same compassion to your customers. They want to use your product, so try to align with your customers instead of being argumentative or against them.
"If you use a compassionate attitude, you’re going to be way more effective and you’ll also be able to manage your own stress much better. If your customers escalate and you continue to escalate in turn, you’re going to have a heart attack within 3 weeks. I always say fight fire with water, not with fire. Put it out and deescalate the situation by keeping your voice low, and staying cool and collected. 9 times out of 10, the irate customer will meet you at this level of calm.
"Remember, you’re in control because you have the information and the knowledge. Your customers are in crisis. When they call your help desk, their problem is down to the wire. Something is due, and they’re completely panicked and stressed. Bring your compassion because these are your customers and they’re why you’re here."
Use positive language. Try focusing on the ways that you’ll fix the problem and stay away from language that could incite defensive reactions from the customer.
Bad: "Sorry, your gourmet lavender tea is no longer in stock. You’ll just have to wait until next month to place a new order."
Better: "Your gourmet lavender tea will be restocked in two weeks. I can place an order for you immediately so that it will be sent to you as soon as our new shipment arrives!"
Don’t be passive-aggressive. As Marketing Strategist Gregory Ciotti shares, "‘We’re sorry that you are having this problem’ is an infuriating phrase for a customer to hear. It is nothing more than the deferment of blame.
"Far too many use this sort of language by accident. The attempt to apologize comes off as dismissive, all thanks to a misuse of tone.
"Just say you’re sorry. Even when the customer is being unreasonable, apologize outright and ask how you might help resolve the issue. If you come across a lost cause, keep it friendly, keep it professional, and keep it moving."
2. Remain Even-Keeled and Try a Different Direction
Marion Bernstein, Communications Manager at LID Publishing
"For the most part, try to remain even-keeled. It’s mostly volatile in the publishing industry because a book is someone’s heart and soul, it’s their pride and joy. They’ve had a 30-year expansive career, they’re writing 300 pages, and some of them have taken two, three, or four years to write their book, so it’s very near and dear to them. As a writer myself, I understand that you put forth so much of yourself into your project so that it becomes your baby. You want to see it thrive, you want everything to be perfect, and you want every single piece of content that goes into marketing the book to be perfect. But I am tasked with needing to stay pragmatic: we’re still running a business. I can’t say yes to every single request that comes into our inbox because then we would be out of money and I wouldn’t have any time to sleep.
"In terms of balancing difficult requests with our business needs, I learned a lot from my two years in Japan. If there’s a request that you just can’t fulfill, rather than say an outright say no, you would say, ‘It’s difficult.’ So while there are times that I do flat out say no, many other times I’ll pivot by saying that their proposed method is just too difficult and then steer the conversation in a different direction."
Ask for clarification. Put on your detective hat and turn a vague response into your opportunity to dig deeper. Ask about specifics and learn how to help customers reach their goal through another route.
Explain next steps and share your team’s process for handling customer feedback. Customers will be comforted to know that their feature requests aren’t just headed to a delete folder.
Be honest. People can smell insincerity from a mile off. Sometimes it’s better to be honest with a hard truth than have a falsehood stretch into awkwardness.
Use positive language. The last thing you want to do is alienate your customers. Staying positive in the face of negativity can help de-escalate a heated situation.
Help the customer feel heard. Even if you can’t grant them their request, you open a door for dialogue when you demonstrate that you respect their viewpoint.
Provide alternatives. There isn’t always one right path, especially when a customer isn’t as familiar as you in the internal workings of your product. Give them a solution that they might not have thought of when they came to you for help or even send them to a competitor. Word of mouth can be a pretty powerful marketing force.
Give customers the "why." If they can understand your company’s reasoning, they’re more likely to be understanding. A little empathy can go a long way!
3. Stay Objective
"We generally say ‘you are not your idea.’ You have to stay objective. I have always gone back to the understanding that I work for the idea. It’s not mine, and I’m going to work towards everyone’s best interest.
"This means you really have to be objective and not take things personally. It’s hard, but you have to continue to push to do the right thing for the problem you’re trying to solve."
Keep in mind that you are your brand’s ambassador, and that everyone makes mistakes. If and when that happens, you’d be surprised how well customers respond when you own up and accept responsibility.
Consider that it might be time for a breakup
Try to think of every mistake as a learning moment and an opportunity to win customers back against all odds. However, if it gets to a point where you are compromising your own business standards to meet a truly abusive customer, it might be time to say goodbye.
As Lance Conzett, Customer Education Manager at Raven Tools, shares:
"The cornerstone of working with customers in a consumerist culture is ‘the customer is always right.’ This usually translates into letting the customer talk at you until they’re satisfied or give up. Anyone who’s ever worked in retail probably has a story about a time when the customer was wrong, but they had no recourse. That doesn’t need to be the case in customer support. You don’t need to accept abuse as part of the job."
Challenging customers are a fact of support life
Support professionals are masters of empathy, but some customers can challenge even the most empathetic among us.
When you feel a strong negative emotion, make sure to triple-check what you’ve written to a customer before you send it. No matter how their message made you feel, it’s your job to keep the conversation productive, so go back and read what you’ve written to make sure your emotions didn’t end up in your reply. Would you use those same words in a conversation with a friend? If not, find new words. Use your team for gut checks — ping your teammate in a note and ask them to review your draft reply to see if they catch anything you might have missed or have suggestions for framing your message more positively.
Angry customers are often just as interested (if not more interested) in hearing that someone empathizes with their situation over getting the actual problem fixed. The next best thing to giving customers what they want is showing them you take them seriously. People want to know someone is listening. Small touches like using the customer’s name and phrases such as "I understand" go a long way. Thank customers for bringing issues to your attention. It was important enough to take time out of their day to contact you. Acknowledge the effort, and your gratitude for it.
People will complain about your product no matter how well it’s built. All we can do is make sure our communication is level-headed, professional, and above all, human.
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Title image by Freepik.