Your business brings in all kinds of customers.
And you don’t get along with all of them.
If you spend enough time in business, you’ll meet customers who become close friends. You’ll also meet customers who you dread talking with.
No one likes to deal with difficult customers. Their phone calls can ruin your day. Their emails can make you sweat.
Your difficult customers may come into your office in person. But, much more common in this virtual age, your difficult customers will yell at you over email or make lofty demands over the phone.
With virtual communication, it’s easier than ever to distance yourself from a difficult customer. It’s easier than ever to chalk their behavior up to plain rudeness, and to avoid taking proper care of them.
But the truth is that how you interact with difficult customers can determine your personal success and the success of your company. And that doesn’t change, whether you’re standing in the customer’s office or 4,000 miles away.
If you handle difficult customers inappropriately, your business can take a serious hit. But if you handle them well, you’ll rapidly learn how to improve your company.
On the one hand, if your customer service takes a hit when it comes to difficult customers, this can end up seriously hurting your company’s bottomline and reputation.
On the other hand, if your customer service steps it up a notch to appropriately serve these difficult customers, your business can reap the benefits.
Everyone has to deal with tough clients at some point, so you might as well learn how to turn the situation to your advantage.
In this post, you’ll learn how to win over tough customers to be loyal customers — and you’ll learn when to call it quits when a customer takes their complaints too far.
1. Listen — Actively and Sincerely
No matter what your tough customer is upset about, it’s a sure bet that they want their concerns to be listened to. In some cases, all the customer really needs is to feel heard and valued. Your goal in this case is to make the customer feel personally valued. If it helps you to think of this from a business perspective, keep in mind that valued customers will help build your business through referrals.
To make even your toughest customer feel valued, it’s your job to listen to the customer’s full complaint. Listening, in this case, doesn’t mean passively sitting by while your customer rants. Instead, you should focus on what the customer is saying, and show your concern with your body language. Lean forward to show that you are paying attention, nod at the appropriate times, and whenever possible, ask questions about their concerns. Above all, do not interrupt the customer, but allow them to fully explain the scope of their complaint.
Once your tough client has finished explaining their frustrations or dissatisfaction, repeat back the major points of the complaint. This not only shows that you were truly listening, but it also gives the customer a chance to correct any miscommunications. Once you’ve done this, your customer will begin to see that they are truly valued, and you will be sure that you’re both on the same page about what has made the customer upset.
Note that in all cases, it is by far preferable to have this conversation in person. People tend to be calmer when they are talking to someone face-to-face, so put in the extra effort to go see your client at their office. Not only will this make for a smoother conversation, but it is also another way to show your commitment to the customer.
Sometimes it isn’t possible to visit your customer in person — for instance, perhaps their office is thousands of miles away from your own. In these cases, still aim for the most possible contact. Video chatting is preferable to a phone call, and a phone call is preferable to email.
2. Model the Tone You Want Your Customer to Take
As you repeat back the customer’s concerns, and as you continue to talk through the issues, make a conscious effort to model the tone of voice that you want your customer to take. In these cases, this means that you should talk calmly, firmly, and candidly. People tend to mirror each other in conversations, so you can encourage your customer to be calm and collected simply by being calm and collected yourself.
Particularly if the customer has been yelling or showing some other strong emotion, it may be difficult to keep your tone reasonable. If you need to, take a moment to breathe in deeply and collect your thoughts before you begin speaking. Even if this causes a momentary pause in the conversation, it is better to take your time and set the right tone for the remainder of the conversation.
3. Imagine an Audience
As you are dealing with difficult customers, you may be tempted to place blame on either yourself and your company or on the client and the client’s company. Although this may make you or your client feel better temporarily, in the long run it only damages the trust between yourself and your customer.
To avoid falling into this trap, imagine that you have an audience watching the entire interaction. The audience should be comprised of others from your own company (including your supervisor), others from your client’s company, and clients from other companies.
With your imaginary audience in mind, you won’t be tempted to place blame on either side. Your imaginary audience will also help you to stay calm, even if your client is visibly angry or upset.
At times, your imaginary audience may also become very real. In this social media age, your client has free rein to share their experience with your company, and this could come back to bite you if you don’t remain calm and professional.
If you end up with negative social media reviews despite your best efforts, there are still steps that you can take to handle the reviews effectively and professionally.
4. Take Your Customer’s Perspective
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Even if you don’t agree with your customer’s point of view, take their concerns to heart and do your best to understand where your client is coming from.
You can ask yourself, for instance, if the customer is making unreasonable demands because they’re feeling pressured by their own supervisor. Or, perhaps your customer was given unrealistic promises from others in your own company, which is now reflecting poorly on you.
Regardless of why the customer is upset, it’s critical that you take their perspective and try to understand their viewpoint. By doing so, you can better empathize with their position, and this will come through in your body language (increasing your ability to fulfill tip #1 in this post). You will also be in a better position to problem solve with the customer once you understand their point of view.
5. Admit Fault and Apologize
The age-old advice from car insurance companies is “never admit fault.” But that maxim doesn’t always apply to business matters. If you’re dealing with a difficult customer who is calling you out on a real mistake, then be honest with them. If you or your company really did make a mistake, chances are your customer already knows. It only hurts your relationship with them if you continue to deny the mistake.
Instead, admit that a mistake was made and offer a sincere apology for it. Go on to explain to the customer that you will do everything in your power to fix the mistake and to ensure that it won’t happen again. And then, continue on and actually fix the mistake as promised (see tip #7).
Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean that you should just apologize any time you deal with a difficult customer. An apology is only effective when there truly was a mistake that could have been avoided, and when you truly will do your best to fix the mistake and prevent it from happening in the future.
6. Be Honest about What You Can and Can’t Do
There may be times when you simply can’t fix the problem that your customer is complaining about, even if the problem was caused by a mistake from within your company. For instance, if another representative promised unreasonably low prices to your customer, this was certainly a mistake. But, you may not be able to fix that mistake by actually giving the customer those promised low prices.
In cases such as this, be straightforward and open about what you can and can’t do to help the customer. If you can’t lower the prices to the previously promised figure, then tell your customer that. And, tell your customer what you can do instead. Although it may make the tough customer angry in the present moment, being honest about your limitations will save you a massive headache in the future.
You’ll only make your difficult customer even more difficult down the road if you promise things that you can’t deliver on, which leads us to the next tip.
7. Follow Through on Your Promises
Regardless of what agreement you reach with your client, you must always follow through on your end of the deal. To reach this goal, don’t make promises that you can’t keep, and make sure to keep all of the promises that you make. You’ll only make an angry customer even angrier if you promise a solution that you can’t actually deliver.
8. Know When to Call it Quits
All of these tactics are meant to apply to the typical difficult customers, the ones who have exceedingly high expectations but still remain within the boundaries of professional conduct. There are times, however, when a customer’s behavior may move from the realm of difficult into abusive.
The “typical” difficult customers may reprimand you in a meeting, or threaten to take their business elsewhere, but they won’t become physically, emotionally, or sexually violent. The “typical” difficult customers will not sexually harass you and will never make you worried about repercussions on your personal or family life. If your customer’s behavior begins to go beyond a “typical” difficult customer’s behavior, then you should seriously consider terminating the professional relationship.
Your customers should never become abusive, and abusive behavior from your customers is not acceptable in any circumstance. In addition, choosing to distance yourself and your coworkers from abusive customers can help to build a healthy company culture for all employees.
If you do decide to terminate the relationship with a customer, keep things professional by politely but firmly informing the customer that you will no longer be working with them. There is no shame in protecting yourself and your company from abusive customers — after all, there are some times when the customer is not right.
When you’re learning how to deal with difficult customers, it can feel overwhelming and even futile. But remember that even the most challenging clients are just people, and they can be won over. Practice these methods of dealing with difficult customers by applying them to all customers — after all, your easygoing customers also deserve to feel cared for, heard, and valued.
Gaetano DiNardi is the Director of Demand Generation at Nextiva and has a track record of success working with brands like Major League Baseball, Pipedrive, Sales Hacker and Outreach.io. Outside of marketing, Gaetano is an accomplished music producer and songwriter - he’s worked with major artists like Fat Joe, Shaggy and loves making music to stay turbocharged. To get in touch, follow him on LinkedIn.