How to deal with difficult or upset customers

Catherine Heath | October 4, 2021


Customer service is a demanding job. You’re the front lines of the business dealing with hundreds of customer queries and problems. Sometimes, customers are angry and frustrated and this requires a specific approach from the customer support rep. 

Negative customer situations are an opportunity to turn them into a positive experience. You may even end up with a better relationship with the customer than you did before if you resolve their problem for them. 

Of course, you should never tolerate abusive customers – that’s time to escalate the situation to a manager. But difficult and upset customers deserve to be listened to with empathy, and have the problems fixed by the support rep. 

When customers have their problems resolved by the company, they return for repeat business and become more loyal. It’s in the company’s best interests to calm down and help these tricky customers and turn them into loyal fans. 

Making a point to handle difficult customers is backed up by the data. According to AE, one third of consumers would switch businesses after just one instance of bad customer service. Even worse, 91% of customers will just leave a business without complaining – frightening stuff. 

“Thank your customer for complaining and mean it. Most will never bother to complain. They’ll just walk away,” says Marilyn Suttle, Success Coach.

1. Apologize instantly

A well-timed apology can work wonders for defusing the situation. It shows you are taking responsibility for the problem, acknowledges that you’ve made a mistake, and calms the customer down. Apologies should be well-thought out and highlight the problem that you’re talking about, instead of the generic “We’re sorry for your inconvenience.” 

Phrase it like “I’m so sorry we failed to deliver your order on time,” or “I’d like to offer our apologies for the trouble you’ve had with our software”. 

A thorough apology is the balm on your customer’s wounds and should not be skipped. 

2. Practice active listening

Whether you’re in person, on the phone, or communicating through email, show the customer that you’re actively listening to what they’re saying. Your listening should be active rather than passive – nodding and saying “uh huh”, repeating back what the customer is saying to check you understand, and so on. 

Active listening requires that you give your full attention to the customer and let nothing interrupt what they are saying. Listen closely to the words the customer is using rather than focusing on their angry tone. 

3. Allow the customer to fully explain the issue

Don’t interrupt the customer until they have fully explained what their problem is. Customers need to vent and this will go a long way to defusing their anger. They just want someone to listen to them and it’s natural for people to have this urge. 

As a customer support rep you are in a unique position to be able to provide a sounding board for what this customer has experienced, and you may even find that their anger has been triggered by something other than your product – this was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. 

So let customers get to the end of their story before you begin to offer a solution. 

4. Use the customer’s name

A person’s name is the sweetest sound in any language. We are hardwired to respond to our names. 

Using a customer’s name is an effective tactic to get them to calm down – if used sparingly. Using the customer’s name too much can sound awkward and come across as patronizing, so call them by their name only once or twice. 

Being addressed by name shows the customers you care about who you’re talking to and personalizes the interaction. It takes very little effort to use this tactic. 

5. Don’t take it personally

It may feel like customers are angry at you but remember their problem is really with the product or service. Your job is to get to the bottom of what went wrong and try to be an objective observer rather than the victim of an unhappy customer. 

If you feel like a customer’s behavior is getting to you, try to take a step back and get a better view of the situation. Don’t take the customer’s tone personally, but think of it as your job to handle the customer and solve the situation for them. 

Getting angry yourself only makes the situation worse. It impacts your ability to defuse the situation and find a constructive solution. 

6. Show empathy

When a customer has told you their problem, use empathetic language to show you understand how they feel. 

Say something like, “I understand how you feel. I would feel this way too if I were in your position.” 

You don’t necessarily have to agree with the customer to be empathetic but you do have to demonstrate that you understand their situation. At this point, your upset customer might calm right down and be able to focus on a solution. 

7. Resolve the problem

This is the most important step to take when dealing with difficult and upset customers. You need to tell them what you’re going to do to make it right and then actually follow through on the solution. 

If you already know what it would take to satisfy your customer, propose a solution and see what they say. If you don’t know how to resolve the situation, or the customer doesn’t agree with your proposed solution, ask them what it would take to make them happy. 

Once the solution has been agreed, take action right away. If you can’t resolve the issue immediately, be honest with the customer about how long it’s going to take and keep them updated on your progress. 

8. Follow up 

After the issue has been resolved, follow up with the customer to check they have been satisfied. This small step shows you care and that you are invested in the outcome of their experience, and can create even happier and more loyal customers.

If possible, go above and beyond their expectations. Perhaps offer them a discount voucher for their trouble, or free shipping. This shows you really want to make amends for the lapse in service that led to your customer being upset, and strengthens your brand in your customer’s eyes. 

Final remarks

It’s a job well done when you handle a complaint from a difficult customer and they leave the interaction happy and satisfied. Your brand’s reputation has been saved and that customer may even go on to tell their friends and family about you. 

“When a customer complains, he is doing you a special favor; he is giving you another chance to serve him to his satisfaction. You will appreciate the importance of this opportunity when you consider that the customer’s alternative option was to desert you for a competitor,” says Seymour Fine, Author The Marketing of Ideas and Social Issues.

It’s not easy dealing with upset customers, but these kinds of situations are really an opportunity to turn lemons into lemonade. If customer service reps approach difficult customers with the right attitude, then they can turn a customer who might have left you into a fan for life. 



About the author
Catherine Heath
Catherine Heath

Catherine is the Community Builder for KnowledgeOwl. She is also a freelance writer based in Manchester. She writes blogs, social media, copy, and designs owl-based images. 

You can find out more about Catherine on her personal websites Away With Words and Catherine Heath Studios.


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