23.6.2021

How to Deal With Difficult Customers

Written by Aine Hendron

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Most companies don’t want to make mistakes, especially mistakes that impact their customers. However, minor problems are sometimes inevitable, so it’s important to have a strategy in place for when a customer becomes dissatisfied with the service and complains. 

Facing unhappy customers can be extremely uncomfortable. Further pressure is added by the fact that 80% of dissatisfied customers will share their negative experience with at least 10 people [1]. 

This blog shares the 5-step customer recovery process which can be amended to suit complaints of any kind, across all business structures. We also share some bonus tips on how to deal with difficult customers and improve customer service skills. 

REACT: a five-step method for dealing with difficult customers

Having a plan in place to deal with angry customers can reduce stress for employees on the receiving end of the complaint. A company-wide strategy will also reduce the risk of simple complaints escalating into negative publicity for the business. Customers will always receive the same high-quality apology and resolution if employees are trained to handle complaints in the same way. 

In fact, if complaints are resolved correctly, this can actually result in customers having an even more positive view of the business than if they hadn’t had an issue. This is known as the service recovery paradox [2]. 

When dealing with a challenging customer, you’ll want to REACT:

React

Empathise

Apologise 

Communicate

Train

React

Reacting quickly to difficult customers will demonstrate that you care about their issues. Reduce the time between when the customer initially complains and when you move to resolve their problem. While it is true that some customers may calm down over a small waiting period, others will become even angrier. 77% of consumers say they expect to be seen within 5 minutes or less when complaining face-to-face [3]. Either way, you will want to neutralise the situation as soon as possible, and show the customer that they are a priority.

Firstly, ask the customer questions which get to the root of the situation: 

  • “Can you walk me through exactly what happened please?” 
  • “What do you mean by XYZ?
  • “I want to understand the issue fully so I can resolve it as best as I can. What can I do to help?”

Understanding the problem will allow you to assess your options and plan how to resolve it in a way that is positive for both the customer, and your business. 

In some instances, it may be better to let a manager or supervisor resolve the issue if they have extra authority, or can sort out the problem sooner. Explain to the customer that you are making sure that they are receiving the best outcome, which is why you’re referring them to a senior member of staff. 

Empathise

Showing empathy and trying to understand the customer’s perspective is important, even if you feel they are slightly overreacting. You should accept that they have a right to be upset. People don’t want to feel taken for granted, especially if they’re paying for products or services.

Acknowledge the issue by saying:

  • “I understand why you feel let down, the service you received is far below our usual standard.” 
  • “Our company always tries to give our clients/customers/patrons the best possible experience, I can understand why you’re upset.”
  • “I completely understand how frustrated you must feel, I would feel let down too.”

Recognising the fact that you would be upset too, without insulting your company or the employee who perhaps made a mistake, should help the customer feel heard.

Apologise

Apologise on behalf of the company, even if it wasn’t your fault. Certain customers may point the blame at employees, even if the issue lies with a company policy, or something even larger that is out of the company’s control, too.

Say sorry for the negative experience with sincerity and professionalism. If you did make a mistake, be honest with the customer about where you went wrong. Then, begin the process of solving the problem by discussing your solution plan.

Communicate

Before presenting a solution, you’ll want to clarify the situation as much as possible and make sure you and the customer are on the same page. Misinterpreting the issue or making another mistake while trying to resolve the first error is likely to make a bad situation worse. Put your best customer service face on, and remember these dos and don'ts when communicating with difficult customers:

DON’T

  • Interrupt the customer 
  • Over-explain or provide an over-the-top apology, which may come across as insincere and excessive
  • Speak negatively about your company, or the colleague who made the mistake
  • Promise a solution which you are not able guarantee
  • Tolerate abuse - remain authoritative and respectful while standing firm against verbal abuse and insults

DO

  • Repeat your understanding of the issue to the customer, for clarity
  • Remain calm, and reflect this through your body language and tone
  • Actively listen, think, then respond
  • Build a rapport with the customer with honesty, and humour IF the mood is right
  • Be kind, optimistic and helpful

Train

Standardise this five step process across your business to ensure that all staff are trained to handle complaints in the same manner. Prevent the same issue from arising again by keeping a log of complaints, which will help you spot patterns and determine the need for change. Communicating regularly with colleagues to inform them of issues will allow the team to learn from one another’s mistakes. Complaints don’t have to be wholly negative - they are learning experiences which can better your business in the future. They can also help you better anticipate customer’s needs, and recognise minor issues before they turn into complaints. 

This model is also known as LEARN - Listen, Empathise, Apologise, React, Now! [4]

Key tips

Despite having a set plan to follow when handling challenging customers, it can still be very emotionally draining. Handling difficult situations is part-and-parcel with customer service roles. The following pieces of advice should be kept in mind when speaking with confrontational customers. 

Stay calm - it’s not personal

Often, angry customers may be searching for someone to point the finger at, and it might just happen to be you. Usually, it’s not personal - they might be angry about your mistake, but they usually aren’t angry at you as an individual. As mentioned, customers sometimes blame employees for the company rules and policies, and other elements which may be completely beyond their control.

Replace apologies with thanks 

To reinforce the sincerity of your initial apology, keep the rest of your dialogue positive. Swap out negative, overly-apologetic sentences with gratitude and positive reinforcement. 

Examples: 

  • Replace “Sorry for the wait”, with “Thank you for your patience.” 
  • Replace “It’s company policy” with “We have this policy in place because…”
  • Replace “It’s a problem with our company” with “Thanks for pointing that out. Your feedback is important to us, I will pass it on.”

People like feeling recognised and being thanked. Providing a positive response, rather than a negative apology, still acknowledges that there was room for improvement on your end, while showing gratitude to the customer. 

Go above and beyond

When you’ve made a genuine mistake, try and make it up to the customer as best as you can. Sometimes going the extra mile makes a huge difference. Don’t simply fix the problem, but offer an extra gesture of kindness, if possible.

After all, so many customer interactions are brief. Resolving a complaint alongside a customer presents an opportunity to have a conversation which leaves a greater impression. 

Offer a discount 

If you really want to make sure a customer comes back, offer them a discount for their next visit, rather than knocking money off their current bill. 

Use a point of sale (POS) system which allows you to create loyalty programmes and discounts, and share them with your customer. 

Personalise the customer experience

Take a mental note of the customer you helped. Share your name with the customer, and build a rapport with them to sweeten the experience even further. 

Some retail and hospitality POS systems have a built-in customer relationship management system (CRM), which allows you to create customer profiles with notes and details. This way, even if you aren’t at work when the customer returns, your colleagues will know about the previous issue and can verify a special discount for them. Other CRM programmes host software that will store your customer’s previous order history and send customised marketing communications, which will personalised their experience even further. Check out our integrations page to check which platforms the Epos Now POS systems support. 

Read our resources for customer retention

Epos Now have created a library of resources designed to help business owners, managers, and employees improve their service skills. We have organised our resources by sector for your convenience. We recommend starting here…

Welcoming and Greeting Guests in a Restaurant: A How to Guide

14 Reasons Why Restaurants Fail and How to Avoid Them

How to Get More Tips When Working as a Server

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