Handling Difficult Customers

You are currently viewing Handling Difficult Customers

Aggressive customers can be a nightmare. Don’t confuse them with assertive customers who simply insist on their rights; this article is about the customers who issue threats, shout, ruin the experience for other customers, and make unreasonable demands. They may even grow physically aggressive by putting their hands on employees or causing damage to property. If you work in the service sector, it’s smart to educate yourself on how to deal with aggressive customers.

Recognizing the value of a complaint:

Dealing with an angry customer is a chance to learn, and a way to turn a negative experience into a positive one. When delivered properly, a complaint is a gift that an employee should value. It means that the customer cares enough about his experience to let you know what he likes and doesn’t like. If customers were completely indifferent towards their experiences, there would be no reason for complaints!

Some customers get angry when they have a bad experience with your business. You can turn it into an opportunity to improve your business and strengthen the customer-business relationship.

Research shows that 90% of unhappy customers who are not complainers actually leave without ever telling a company they’re not satisfied.

Every complaint is a gift that can help customer service teams through insights. Give thanks to those who share their opinion, and they’ll be more likely to keep you in the loop with other things you could improve on.

The Do’s and Don’ts of dealing with aggressive customers:

There are all kinds of ways that inexperienced or poorly trained employees respond to angry customers. Ignoring the customer, for example, is a sure way to provoke further aggression. So is trying to talk the customer out of his anger by using logic and facts; this kind of response drives aggressive customers past the point of reason and gives them an emotional hold over their victims.

People in the service sector should maintain a positive, non-confrontational attitude with customers because it reduces complaints and keeps their business going.

All aggressive behavior must be dealt with verbally as soon as possible. Verbal responses have been found to be more effective than other types of action. Showing deference does not mean that you accept inappropriate behavior. It simply means that you acknowledge the customer’s feelings before moving on to deal with the situation at hand.

Acknowledge the customer’s complaint and take responsibility for your business’ actions (“I’m sorry for what happened”). Never make excuses or shift blame to a third party unless it is true (“The kitchen was very busy this morning, and that’s why we couldn’t get your order right”).

Acknowledge the customer’s feelings (“I can see how frustrated you are, I know it must be disappointing…”).

Persuade the aggressive customer to accept responsibility for his actions (“Please calm down… Let’s discuss this like adults”)…. and only then,

Escalate the situation only when you’re sure that the present course of action is not working (“I’m afraid we can’t resolve this until you calm down”).

Never physically touch an aggressive customer unless it’s absolutely necessary, such as attempting to rescue a coworker or calling for help if the aggressor escalates his behavior.

Numerous studies have proved that most violence in the workplace is instigated by employees, not customers. Even so, you should be aware of how to deal with violent behavior from an aggressive customer.

If physical contact ensues, you’ll need to ask your coworker if he needs immediate medical help. Do whatever it takes to call for help and make sure someone will be there to back you up.  Do not attempt to detain the violent customer for your own safety and that of others around you.

Don’t lose your temper:

The most important thing is not to let an aggressive customer get under your skin. It’s extremely difficult, I know, but you need to keep a cool head at all times; do not let the situation escalate and do not engage in any physical contact with him/her. If you must speak with the customer, try to do so in private: isolation can de-escalate a situation. Be firm and courteous at the same time; remember that you are the one with all the power, as long as you keep your composure.

Stay calm:

If you feel yourself losing your temper – for example, if an aggressive customer starts insulting or threatening you – stop what you’re doing and leave the customer alone. Think about how you can improve your situation or change the dynamics of your interaction, but do not react to angry customers; they are looking for a reaction to further fuel their anger. Never lose sight of the fact that even if an aggressive customer is “right” in some way (to an extent), and no matter how frustrated you may be, you are in control of your emotions and nothing else.

Observe the customer’s body language:

Try to notice if the customer is using verbal abuse to cover up his/her own weakness or uncertainty. Also pay attention to the timbre of the voice: aggressive customers will often project anger through their voice, meaning they will speak too loudly and/ or too quickly. Look into his eyes: do you see any fear there? If so, the customer is probably using aggression as a defensive mechanism.

Ask questions to better understand the problem:

Ask open-ended questions to assess the situation better and get more information about what’s actually happening. Also, ask questions to learn more about the customer’s expectations so you can explain better why you have to refuse his/her request.

When trying to resolve a crisis, you should understand the customer’s issue so that you can take the appropriate steps to solve it. Some customers get so worked up that they stop providing useful information and even start raging for no apparent reason. If your caller does this, wait for a time when there’s not as much noise in their voice before you ask any questions.

Make sure to give the customer your full attention, waiting for an opening to provide what they’re looking for. A few good questions you could ask are as follows:

  • “What has made your experience with us less than perfect? Tell me more about how you felt last time.”
  • “Please share your experiences from the time you first entered the establishment. What was the exact employee behavior that triggered a negative interaction?”
  • “Has there been one specific problem that has ruined your experience with our company, or are you frustrated by the accumulation of several smaller issues? What large issue do we need to fix, or what small adjustments?”
  • “Is it one individual, or is the entire staff in need of coaching about their attitudes?”
  • If the customer seems to need help, use your judgment about whether involving another employee would be helpful.

Challenge their assumptions:

Remember when I said aggressive customers use verbal abuse to cover up their own weakness? Part of this is because they try to make themselves feel stronger by “putting down” employees. For example, if a customer says “I’m the king around here,” you could respond by saying “Oh really? Let’s see who’s the king in this situation!” Or, if a customer calls you stupid, laughing at him/her can be enough to make them feel uncomfortable and back down. Playing on their assumptions is an effective strategy for dealing with aggressive customers.

Be firm but polite:

If you feel the situation has gotten out of control and your safety is at risk, don’t be afraid to leave a difficult customer on his/her own for a while. Perhaps ask him/her to come with you into a room where you can have some “privacy” in order to talk about the situation. Don’t be rude, just try to have a more private conversation so you can collect your thoughts and/or make a plan of action.

Call for help:

If you’re not able to regain control of the situation on your own, call your manager or supervisor for assistance; they will know what to do. It’s not your job to sort out a situation that has gotten out of hand, and you shouldn’t feel guilty if you ask for help: it’s perfectly acceptable and even encouraged!

Don’t enter the customer’s physical space:

Even when people remain calm, their personal space can be interpreted as an act of aggression or a lack of concern for someone’s comfort level. When customers get angry, give them lots of room. This will make them feel less threatened and may help diffuse the situation.

  • For your physical security, try to stand behind a counter or something that will physically separate you from the customer.

Listen to the customer’s grievance:

Customers who are unreasonable in their anger may have a point. By giving the customer opportunity to vent, you’ll not only defuse any present frustration, but also show customers that you care about their experience.

  • Don’t ever interrupt the customer, even if you want to respond to something they’ve said.
  • Give them time to talk out their feelings.
  • Maintain eye contact with the customer, nod to indicate you are listening and understanding them, and express concern at appropriate moments by making a facial expression.

Be assertive, not aggressive:

When a customer confronts you with aggression, try to be as non-confrontational as possible by using great verbal skills and empathy. Don’t get into yelling matches with customers or defend yourself from the attacks; that will only escalate an already delicate situation and further hurt your business’ cause. Always be firm, but keep your voice calm and unaggressive:

“May I help you?” instead of “What do you want?”

If a customer gets out of line with an employee, the employee should just apologize for their behavior politely and then move on to the next step in handling the situation. This way, customers or other employees will not feel like they can pick on the employee, and may leave for more receptive help.

“Don’t take it personally.”

When a customer is upset with you, it’s easy to see that as an attack on you personally; however, this should rarely be the case.

It is important to remember that most customers are not angry with you, but rather the situation.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take criticism personally; however, make sure to separate your personal feelings from the company’s reputation when handling a confrontation.

A few ways to do this are as follows:

  • Realize that the customer hasn’t taken time to tell you about their grievances because they’re upset with you personally. Sometimes it seems like the customer is taking out a personal vendetta on you, but make sure to remember that this isn’t the case. They’re just trying to tell their story and have someone listen to them.
  • Ask yourself if anything in their criticism about you is valid, or if it’s just a perception that they have.
  • Don’t take what their saying personally; remember, it is not about you.

“Admit mistakes.”

Be honest when confronted with a customer’s issues.

If you are not in fact at fault for the situation, apologize for any inconvenience and perform your best to correct the problem as soon as possible.

When you do this, customers will feel like they can trust your word, and that their experience will improve from thereon out.

Otherwise, if you have caused the problem, be open about all actions that you’re taking to solve it. Make sure not to hide anything:

  • Don’t lie about how much of a problem something is.
  • Don’t give excuses for why there is nothing that can be done about the situation.
  • Don’t assume what the customer is expecting of you; ask them.
  • Don’t try to hide the fact that you are frustrated with the situation.

If you have a problem with an employee, speak about it confidentially one-on-one or in a group setting so that any mistakes will not affect other employees’ performance. 

Try to find a solution to the problem: 

When an angry customer comes to your desk, listen and try to find out what they need. If you are able, provide them with what they ask for. But if the customer is unreasonably demanding or asks you something that’s not within your power, use a firm tone of voice and say “I can’t do that.”

  • Discuss with the customer what they want to purchase and why you are not authorized to fulfill their request. Offer them what you can legally provide.
  • Get approval from higher-level personnel. If the customer request something not available as a regular product, ask your manager for permission to approve the sale.

Build and maintain trust:

Customers are more likely to distrust your company when they’re angry. It’s important we do all we can to rebuild and maintain a healthy level of trust moving forward.

If you made a mistake, it’s okay. The speed at which you can recover your relationship largely depends on how willing both parties are to open up and communicate openly about the mistakes that occurred. If both parties take responsibility for their actions and apologize, moving things forward will only be possible with more openness and honesty in the future.

When interacting with an angry customer, you need to show that you care. Gather as much information about the customer before going through their order history.

Tips for building trust with a customer:

  • It’s important to be honest and straightforward about how you approached, or mishandled, the situation. It’s more important than blaming someone else in order to fix a problem. Plus, acknowledging what went wrong is essential before you can move forward with a solution. Don’t make excuses for your mistakes . Your customers will not believe you if you’re constantly finding ways to blame others for your actions.
  • A useful strategy for dealing with challenging situations is “positive scripting,” which involves telling yourself and others that you are seeking clarification for a known error. Instead of saying “I don’t know” or “I’m new here, let me find out for you,” say something like “let me check with my coworker.” 


Keep in mind that violent verbal aggression is a crime; if a customer verbally abuses you or threatens your safety, you can report him/her to security personnel at your workplace. You can also call the police if at any time you feel that your life is in danger.

Remember too, that aggressive customers are usually just scared that if they don’t get what they want, they will have to deal with their anger on their own. Try to understand where he/she is coming from and respond accordingly; you might be able to diffuse the situation before it gets out of hand and/or you might be able to help him/her work through their anger in a more productive manner.

Short Online Courses