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Difficult Customers: How to deal with them effectively

Dealing with difficult customers is a common part of most businesses.

You’ve no doubt heard the adage The Customer Is Always Right. But if you’ve ever dealt with a difficult customer, you’ll know for a fact that’s not true!

Difficult customers are often simply disappointed because their expectations haven’t been met. If they complain and don’t feel heard, they can become angry, disrespectful, or even continue to argue their point when they’re clearly in the wrong!

So how do you deal with a difficult customer while maintaining your professionalism?

Difficult Customers: How to deal with them effectively - Difficult Customers


The first thing to do for difficult customers is to apologise to them. You don’t necessarily need to take responsibility for what’s been done or not done, but you can apologise that they feel the way they do.

Difficult customers are usually feeling frustrated because they didn’t get the product or service they expected. So here’s something you can always say:

“I apologise that your expectations haven’t been met.”

This applies whether or not your customer’s expecations are fair or downright ludicrous!

Your customer may have realistic expecations, for example that their coffee is hot, that their goods will be delivered intact, or that their tradesman will turn up on time. If you establish that their expectations were reasonable and should have been met, offer to fix things straight away. For example:

“Do you have time to wait while I make you a fresh hot coffee? I’ll throw in a pastry of your choice to make it up to you.”

In this instance all your customer wants is fair exchange for the product or service they purchased.

Be Effective Rather Than Right

If your customer’s expectations aren’t reasonable, it’s important to be effective rather than right.

Just say you’d arranged your tradesman to be at your customer’s premises between 10am and 12pm. The tradesman turned up at 11am, but your customer has called to complain that they were an hour late.

You remember your discussion with the customer that the tradesman would arrive sometime in that two hour window. Clearly you are in the right, but arguing with your customer will not help at all. In this instance you could say:

“I apologise that you were expecting the tradesman at 10am. I take full responsibility for our miscommunication about his arrival time. Has the work been completed to your satisfaction?”

Apologising for the miscommunication might seem unfair, as you remember what you said. But true communication isn’t what you say, it’s what’s been understood. You may be tempted to remind them of your conversation about the arrival time window, or that it clearly states on your website that job start times can’t be guaranteed. All this will do is frustrate your customer further!

Make them feel valued

What your customer really wants is to feel valued and important. If you can choose to be effective rather than right you can win the customer over rather than driving them away.

Please note that you don’t always need to offer compensation when your customer is dissatisfied. If it’s easy to do, go ahead – such as the free pastry, or free coffee next visit. If the customer demands unrealistic compensation you may need to see what your legal obligations are before discussing it with them. You could say:

“I agree that you deserve to receive quality products and service. Please allow me to look into this matter further. May I call you back at 5pm to discuss a solution?”

(And for goodness sake, make sure you call back at the time you agreed, even if you don’t have a solution yet! If you don’t you’ll be adding fuel to the fire).

What to do if your difficult customers complain online …

If you read online reviews, the sub-text behind every customer complaint is clear: “I just didn’t feel valued”. Whether the complaint is about phone calls not being returned, having to wait for service, or problems not being well-handled, the customer didn’t feel that their issue was resolved.

Often they feel upset enough to take their complaint to a larger online audience in the hope of receiving some empathy. Getting sympathy from friends and even complete strangers over the web justifies their frustration and makes them feel that someone cares about them and their experience.

If you need to respond to a negative online review, refer to our guide to dealing with customer complaints here.

When you give your customer the understanding and care they need at the initial moment of frustration, this escalation can be avoided.

If you’d like to improve customer service in your business, talk to us about our business coaching services and customer service training.  We look forward to hearing from you.