We have all heard the reasons why providing a great customer experience is the secret sauce to business success. It requires less effort to retain existing customers than to acquire new ones, unsatisfied customers are more likely to tell others about a bad experience than satisfied customers, and it’s easier to sell new products to existing customers. But providing a great customer experience doesn’t just happen on the front-end of a transaction—it also happens when we successfully resolve an issue for an unsatisfied customer.

The business of being in business involves dealing with the occasional unsatisfied customer, and most of the time, customers are just as eager as we are to resolve an issue. But how do we handle a customer who is being particularly challenging, combative or even downright nasty?

Dealing with difficult customers can be one of the most draining situations both employees and leaders are faced with, and if ill-equipped to handle, can cause tension, stress and actually harm the business through customer attrition. Almost all instances can be traced to one of two scenarios:

  • The customer has a need that isn’t being met. Unmet needs are often caused by a lack of communication between customer and provider. Complacency can build in customer relationships—we as providers can sometimes take customers for granted by not checking in as often as we should on their business. An unmet need can also arise when we simply aren’t delivering what was agreed upon, and we may or may not be aware of the situation.
  • The customer has an ideal or expectation that may not be correct—and this leads them to doubt the quality of what we are providing. Inaccurate ideals and expectations may stem from a customer having a blind spot to some aspect of their situation, resulting in unrealistic beliefs. Or there may be a disconnect between what they think is happening in their business and what is actually happening. Inaccurate expectations also become an issue if changes are constantly made to the original agreement or plan. These customer induced changes can lead to unavoidable rework and delays which are likely to upset the customer, even though they can often be the source.

Both of these scenarios should be treated with care, and best resolved in a calm, clarifying conversation with the customer. Below are some tips to help deal with the situation without inciting drama and getting them back on the satisfied list.

1. Just ask questions. Customers will appreciate being asked questions pertaining to how they are experiencing the issue and likely launch into a diatribe about their unmet needs. Some questions to consider:

“You are clearly passionate about this issue—what do you think is the cause of the issue?”

“Do you have a need for us to pause and talk about the ways of working?”

“What is working and not working?”

Asking questions allows the opportunity to practice active listening, making sure we are clear on what they are expressing and digging to the root cause of the issue. Also restating the narrative, i.e. “So what I heard you say was…” shows the customer that we are present in the conversation and demonstrates an attempt to resolve the issue.

2. Let them be heard. Giving a customer time and space to vent is often all they need to help us move forward towards resolution. After they have finished expressing the issue (without interruption), apologize for their unhappiness towards the service they have received, even if we do not feel they have legitimate claims for their unhappiness. Now is not the time to state our case or be combative—demonstrate emotional control and show them that we care about their business by allowing them to express their grievances without a rebuttal.

3. Show empathy. Even if we don’t agree with why they are unhappy, acknowledge the situation. Deliver a response that shows we respect their opinion and want to resolve their frustration. By showing a willingness to make things right, customers are more likely to embrace our support (even if we know there will have to be a compromise on solutions) and not begin looking at alternative providers. Also show empathy through body language and eye contact signaling genuine concern.

4. Objectively summarize the current state. See if we can align on the issue we are trying to solve—don’t begin with the solution. If the customer thinks they are rowing their boat in a stream, but the reality is that they are in the Atlantic, beginning with a resolution fit for ocean rowing won’t resonate. Gently educate using data. Encourage a voyage of self-discovery rather than directly pointing at the solution.

5. Leverage trust to gain some room to work. If the voyage to self-discovery is not successful, use existing trust to allow for room to solve the issue. Use data (again) to support an alternate point of view and remind them of why they chose us to solve their issue in the first place—because they had a need that was not being met and their previous solution was not up to par. Be prepared with previous situations where the ideal they are employing did not work in case you have to play hard ball. Some potential responses:

“I’m respectful of the fact that you don’t believe me. I’m not trying to change your mind, but we’ve done this many times with success.”

“Can you give us some space and trust the process?”

“If you aren’t seeing evidence of improvement after a defined period of time, we can agree to regroup.”

6. Utilize proactive protection mechanisms. Save a lot of potential headache by clarifying what is doable and what is not from the start, both verbally and in writing. Agree on a timeline, adding due dates for decisions and if decisions slip, notify the customer of the impact this has on the entire timeline. Throughout the project, document changes and additional requests so we can show the consequences of having to course correct.

In general, people don’t just misbehave because they’re jerks. Most people in business do not act in a disruptive way just because they want to be disruptive. They want something and either see something that we are doing, or not doing, as getting in their way or don’t have enough information to see things clearly. Navigating the situation with patience will produce a more positive outcome for our customer—and for ourselves.

With contributions from Bob Landis & Amy Lazarus