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Dealing with difficult customers

Turn a challenging situation into a great customer experience.

Business, Markets | June 1, 2024 | By: Charlene Clark, IFM

Image:© Cagkan Sayin

Every business at some point is forced to deal with difficult customers. Perhaps they are unhappy with the level of service, the product or a member of your team. Or maybe their expectations are just unrealistic. Understanding how to navigate challenging interactions, however, can turn a negative situation into a positive experience that builds stronger customer relationships. While there are many types of difficult customers—angry, indecisive, demanding, know-it-all, critical—following some basic guidelines will help you manage the interactions effectively and professionally. 

Keep your cool

Most irate customers will begin to unload their anger before you can even finish your greeting. Matching their anger will only serve to escalate the exchange further. Often, the customer is angry at the situation, not at you. Stay calm and don’t take it personally. Your behavior and response will ultimately reflect on you and your business. Vince Lombardi once said, “It takes months to find a customer … seconds to lose one.” Approach the customer calmly. Speaking softly is a good strategy to help de-escalate tense conversations. Keep your language professional, friendly and respectful.

You may, however, encounter customers who will cross the line with their anger and use inappropriate language, becoming abusive or harassing. In these cases, it is appropriate to set boundaries and remind your customers that you are willing to listen and help them, but point out that their language is not acceptable, will not be tolerated and is counterproductive if they wish to have their issue resolved. Often, customers will back down when their poor behavior is pointed out. 

However, if the abusive tone continues, you have the right to state that you will be ending the conversation until the person can discuss the situation in a more professional and productive manner. And, while not optimal, in the most extreme cases, you may find it necessary to fire your client. Before taking that step though, consider the following:

  • If you have a contract, check the terms for terminating an agreement to avoid potential legal issues.
  • Determine if terminating the agreement prior to completion will cause more problems than it solves and potentially harm
    your reputation.

Diffuse their anger

As difficult as it can be, take a deep breath and give upset customers time to vent and have their say. Give them your undivided attention, practice active listening and take good notes. If the customer is in front of you, maintain eye contact and use the person’s name when responding. Use verbal affirmations that reflect your engagement in the conversation, such as “I understand” and “Mr. Smith, I appreciate you bringing this to my attention.” 

Asking clarifying questions will help you gain a better understanding of their point of view, but be careful not to interrupt or cut them off. Determining the root cause of their anger and frustration will allow you to better analyze the situation and respond in a thoughtful and meaningful manner. 

Apologize and empathize

Showing empathy, or putting yourself in your customer’s shoes, will help to set a more productive tone to the conversation. Begin by apologizing, even if you are not at fault. Phrases such as “I’m sorry to hear about this” or “I can see how that would be frustrating” will help to keep the conversation from escalating further. Repeat their concerns back to them to ensure that you are clear about their issue and the details. Avoid making excuses or placing blame, as that will only add fuel to their fire. If the error is on your end, admit to it. A little honesty and humility will go a long way toward maintaining your reputation and earning your customer’s respect.

Seek a solution

Once you have listened, clarified the issue and offered an apology, you can then propose a realistic and reasonable solution. Often, simply asking customers what they need or want can help to get straight to a resolution or at least a better chance of meeting their expectations or finding a satisfactory compromise.

When you and your customers have agreed upon a solution, clearly set the expectations for moving forward, including timelines and desired outcomes. Follow up with them until they are satisfied that their problem has been resolved appropriately and satisfactorily.

Learn from the interaction

Difficult clients drain your resources, energy and money, but they can also provide valuable learning opportunities. Bill Gates once said, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” 

Take a step back and ask yourself and your team these questions:

  • Why did this situation happen?
  • How could it have been prevented?
  • What lessons have we learned that we can apply in the future?

The solutions may simply be clarifying workflow processes, improving communications or providing additional training. Or
they may involve more complex solutions such as using formal contracts or letters of engagement. Regardless, understanding what went wrong and why and, more important, correcting the issues immediately will ensure that the mistakes are not repeated in the future.

Provide a great customer experience

Not every customer will be right for your business. Understanding what your “ideal” customer looks like will help you avoid working with those who are not a good fit and will allow you to focus your time and effort on your most profitable work. Here are some additional tips to help ensure a positive experience for your team and your customers:

  • Manage expectations: Be realistic about what you can and cannot do. Under-promising and over-delivering is a great way to impress your customers.
  • Avoid burnout: Setting realistic timelines and expectations with your customers will result in lower stress levels on your team and increase productivity.
  • Increase prices: Consider charging additional fees for things like rushed deadlines, out-of-scope work and delays caused by the customer. Making customers aware of these charges up front will prevent difficult conversations later.

Dealing with difficult people can certainly be challenging. But learning how to apply appropriate techniques and guidelines will help to diffuse the situation, calm even the worst offenders, earn their respect and preserve your reputation. 

Charlene Clark, IFM, is the CEO of Signature CanvasMakers LLC in Hampton, Va., and chair of the Marine Fabricators Association Advisory Board.

Do’s/don’ts when dealing with difficult customers


  •  Let them vent
  •  Stay calm
  •  Ask clarifying questions
  •  Be empathetic
  •  Thank them for their feedback
  •  Follow up proactively


  •  Allow them to be abusive
  •  Take things personally
  •  Assume the reason for their anger
  •  Use empty statements (“It’s our policy”)
  •  Dwell on negative interactions
  •  Forget to follow up

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