A Prescription for Dealing with Difficult Customers

bandageI’m regularly asked to provide tips for dealing with difficult customers. You know the type – irate, demanding, and practically impossible to please. No matter how good your service is, you are guaranteed to encounter someone who just isn’t happy. Every business has them and employees dread waiting on them.

So, how do you handle these “difficult” customers?

The answer, I think, begins with understanding why the customer is upset or demanding in the first place. You see, most people don’t want to be difficult. They don’t want to be regarded as a problem customer. On the contrary, most of us want things to be easy. We want to get along with others and exist in harmony.

But sometimes this harmony is disrupted. Somewhere along the way, the customer’s trust in the organization is broken. The relationship is damaged. Perhaps a mistake was made, or perhaps something was miscommunicated. It may not even be your organization’s fault. But nevertheless, there they are, standing in front of you and being “difficult.”

Once you realize that your customer’s behavior is most likely the result of broken trust than a personality trait, it changes your perspective. You can focus on rebuilding trust vs. defending your position. You can stop dealing with difficult customers and start mending the relationship. Here are four steps to help you DEAL with these situations.

DEVOTE your full attention to the customer. Before notifying you of the problem, your customer spent rehearsing the interaction in their head. They practiced what they were going to say and probably anticipated excuses or denials of responsibility. This puts them on edge and causes them to act in ways that are perceived as “difficult.”

As service providers, we need to let the customer say what they have to say. Avoid interrupting – even of you quickly ascertain what needs to be done to make things right. The customer needs the problem fixed; but just as importantly, they need to express themselves to someone who will listen. Even if you quickly ascertain what needs to be done, avoid the temptation to short-circuit the process by interjecting. Ask questions to clarify, but give them the chance to tell their story.

EMPATHIZE with their situation. Empathy is the ability to understand another’s position. It’s important to let the customer know that you’ve heard what they have to say and respect their feelings. This validation is a critical step in the healing process because it lets the customer know you are on their side.

Remember, the reason your customer is acting aggressively is because they have anticipated a struggle in receiving the service they feel they deserve. When you empathize with their situation, you establish yourself as their advocate. This simple step is often all it takes to change the customer’s behavior. Once they feel they have someone who understands their plight, they relax and allow you to go to work on their behalf.

ACT quickly and decisively. Now that you know what’s going on, and have established yourself as the customer’s agent, it’s time to get busy. Do what it takes to make things right. Educate the customer along the way so they feel comfortable. Leaving them in the dark only serves to reintroduce confusion and suspicion.

This is not the time for guessing or assumptions. Make sure each step required is accomplished and follow through with any commitments you make to the customer. Any slip up negates the healing that’s begun to take place.

LET the customer know you really care. If necessary, say following an especially egregious offense, make a goodwill gesture to compensate for the customer’s frustration and inconvenience. The key is to reinforce the idea that the customer is valuable to you and any misstep in service was an anomaly. Apologize and thank them for their patience and continued business.

Studies show that a customer whose negative experience has been resolved to their satisfaction is more loyal than one who never has a problem at all. That’s because responding to service failures is often your best opportunity to shine. Your customer is bound to share their side of the story with others. Just make sure it has a happy ending.

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