How to tackle a difficult customer ?

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On a busy Sunday evening, shops bustling with customers of all ages, I picked up a book from the display rack. The pages were damaged and the first reaction I got from the salesperson who followed my questioning gaze was a defensive one. He went on to explain how careless customers damaged books.

That incident made me think about the off-putting nature of a defensive argument. No matter how rational a customer is, the first thing they’d like to hear is an apology. Of course, I understand how the books could have been damaged but I don’t want to hear a long-winded explanation on how it isn’t the fault of the ones who are supposed to provide me with the best service I can afford.

Looking at this scenario from a business point of view, it translates to poor customer service and it could consequently result in the loss of regular customers as well as prospects. According to the White House Office of Consumer Affairs, a dissatisfied customer will tell between 9-15 people about their experience. Around 13% of dissatisfied customers tell more than 20 people. So, the need of the hour is to train and nurture a workforce which understands these implications and thus goes out of their way to satisfactorily deal with the customers especially the difficult ones.

So how do you deal with these so-called difficult customers? Well, there is never a perfect answer, but the first step is to identify the kind of customer you are dealing with. A customer can be difficult due to a variety of reasons. Why are they difficult? Is it because they are angry? Dissatisfied? Confused? Understanding the reason why a customer is being difficult is the key that will unlock your ability to be the perfect salesperson.

Let’s take a look at some examples of difficult customers.

Case -1 

Customer A is furious about poor service.

The key here is to apologise. Apologise before you ask what exactly is troubling the customer. Most customers are looking for an apology for the poor treatment they suffered and saying exactly what they want to hear can instantly make the customer more rational and responsive. After apologising enquire about the issue that made the customer dissatisfied, find out the reason why the issue occurred and if it was your fault admit it and apologise again.

Sometimes the customer could be mistaken, and the fault may have been on their side, in that case politely ask the customer to recheck but make sure you do not sound rude or contemptuous. Whichever the case, make sure you end the communication with a promise of better service in the future and make sure to follow-up so that the customer truly feels cared for.

Case – 2

Customer A is unclear about her needs and is taking too much time to decide.

The resources and personnel a company can afford is limited and time management is crucial in our field. A customer who takes too much time to decide may not be an obvious difficult customer like the angry customer. However, this kind of customer is harder to manage and if not correctly dealt with can lead to substantial losses. Time is money and if too much time is spent on a single customer, the chances of losing other potential customers increase and may consequently generate more dissatisfied customers. 

The right way to deal with this customer is to strike up a conversation and ask questions that would give you a clearer picture of the needs and wants of the customer. If the customer cannot decide, you must collect the information you need to make a suitable suggestion. 

Case – 3

Customer A is making unreasonable demands.

Not all customers are reasonable, but a good employee is quick to recognise a customer who is making demands that cannot be fulfilled. When dealing with these customers, make sure that you talk pleasantly regardless of the rudeness of the customer. Other customers who watch the interaction are listening and every word you say is being noted.

As always, apologise for the issue and politely explain why the customer’s demand cannot be fulfilled. Instead of saying something along the lines of “I’m sorry but we cannot do that”, say “I’m sorry for the inconvenience, our company offers so-and-so services but the one you mentioned is not available, let me help you select a better alternative.” 


There are many other kinds of difficult customers but not all kinds of customers can be predicted. The best course of action is to adapt and learn from your experiences. Most difficult customers need special attention and listening and apologising are the basic rules that every salesperson swears by. A good part of customer satisfaction comes from customer service and a good part of customer service becomes the responsibility of the sales team.

The sales team consists of people too and often they may have their own issues and problems but make sure your workforce is trained properly so that they can clearly separate their personal life from work. It can be taxing to be the first one to apologise, to always be courteous but that is what this profession entails and with the right mindset the challenges can be overcome. According to Lee Resource, for every customer complaint, there are 26 other unhappy customers who have remained silent. Hence, the dissatisfied customers who raise their voice are the only visible challenges and facing them with a positive turn of mind is the best possible step you can take. 

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