Dealing With Unhappy Customers

Turning a Challenge into an Opportunity

Many of us have to deal with angry or unhappy clients as part of our roles, and it's never easy. But if we know what to say and, more importantly, how to say it, we may be able to save the situation. In fact, we can even end up with a better relationship with our client than we had before.

In this article, we'll explore how to deal with angry or difficult customers. We'll highlight specific tips and techniques that you can use to smooth things over, so that you can leave them feeling satisfied.

Click here to view a transcript of this video.

Step One: Adjust Your Mindset

Once you're aware that your client is unhappy then your first priority is to put yourself into a customer service mindset.

This means that you set aside any feelings you might have that the situation isn't your fault, or that your client has made a mistake, or that they are giving you unfair criticism.

All that matters is that you realize that your customer or client is upset, and that it's up to you to solve the problem. Adjust your mindset so that you're giving 100 percent of your focus to your client, and to the current situation.

Step Two: Listen Actively

The most important step in the whole of this process is listening actively to what your client or customer is saying – they want to be heard, and to air their grievances.

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Start the dialogue with a neutral statement, such as, "Let's go over what happened," or "Please tell me why you're upset." This subtly creates a partnership between you and your client, and lets them know that you're ready to listen.

Resist the temptation to try to solve the situation right away, or to jump to conclusions about what happened. Instead, let your client tell you their story. As they're talking, don't plan out what you're going to say when they're done – this isn't active listening!

Also, don't allow anything to interrupt this conversation. Give your client all of your attention.

Step Three: Repeat Their Concerns

Once they've had time to explain why they're upset, repeat their concerns so you're sure that you're addressing the right issue. If you need to, ask questions to make sure that you've identified the problem correctly.

Use calm, objective wording. For example, "As I understand it, you are, quite rightly, upset because we didn't deliver the samples that we promised you last week."

Repeating the problem shows the customer you were listening, which can help lower anger and stress levels. More than this, it helps you agree on the problem that needs to be solved.

Step Four: Be Empathic and Apologize

Once you're sure that you understand your client's concerns, be empathic. Show that you understand why they're upset.

And, make sure that your body language also communicates this understanding and empathy.

For example, you could say, "I understand why you're upset. I would be too. I'm very sorry that we didn't get the samples to you on time, especially since it's caused these problems."

Step Five: Present a Solution

Now you need to present a solution. There are two ways to do this.

If you feel that you know what will make your client happy, tell them how you'd like to correct the situation.

You could say, "I know you need these samples by tomorrow to show to your own customers. I will call our other clients to see if they have extras that they can spare, and, if they do, I'll drop them off at your offices no later than 5 p.m. this evening."

If you're not sure you know what your client wants from you, or if they resist your proposed solution, then give them the power to resolve things. Ask them to identify what will make them happy.

For instance, you could say, "If my solution doesn't work for you, I'd love to hear what will make you happy. If it's in my power I'll get it done, and if it's not possible, we can work on another solution together."

Step Six: Take Action and Follow Up

Once you've both agreed on a solution, you need to take action immediately. Explain every step that you're going to take to fix the problem to your client

If they contacted you by phone, make sure that they have your name and contact details. This gives them a feeling of control because they can get hold of you again if they need to.

Once the situation has been resolved, follow up with your client over the next few days to make sure that they're happy with the resolution. Whenever you can, go above and beyond their expectations. For instance, you could send a gift certificate, give them a great discount on their next purchase, or send a hand-written apology.

Step Seven: Use the Feedback

Your last step is to reduce the risk of the situation happening again.

If you haven't already done so, identify how the problem started in the first place. Was there a bottleneck that slowed shipment? Did a sales rep forget to confirm an order?

Find the root of the problem and make sure it's fixed immediately, then consider using Kaizen to continue improving your work practices. Also, ensure that you're managing complaints and feedback effectively, so that you can improve that way that you do things.

Further Tips

  • It's important to handle difficult customers professionally. Learning how to stay calm and how to stay cool under pressure can help you get through challenging situations with grace and professionalism.
  • If your client is especially angry, then talk slowly and calmly, and use a low tone of voice. This will subtly help lower the tension, and ensure that you don't escalate the situation by visibly getting stressed or upset yourself.
  • If your client has sent you a difficult email or they're angry with you over the phone, then offer to meet with them in person if you can to address the problem. This will not only diffuse anger (since it's harder for most people to get truly angry face-to-face) but it also shows that you genuinely want to address and fix the situation.
  • If you feel that your client is being unreasonable, you might start to get upset, especially if they're criticizing you, or your organization, unfairly. So learn anger management skills so that you can stay calm in these situations.
  • Occasionally a client or customer may become verbally abusive towards you or your team. Know in advance what you'll tolerate, and what you won't. If things escalate, you may need to be assertive and stand up for yourself, or even walk away from the situation to give the client time to cool down.
  • People in your team might be the ones on the "front line" when it comes to dealing with difficult customers. Make sure that they know how to engage correctly in emotional labor. (This means that they should know how to manage their own emotions when dealing with difficult people.)
  • Work on improving your conflict resolution skills. These skills can help you if you need to negotiate with your clients.

Key Points

Dealing with difficult customers can be challenging. But if you handle the situation well, you may even be able to improve your relationship, and create further opportunities.

Make sure that you listen actively to their problems or complaints, and resist the urge to interrupt or solve the problem right away. Be empathic and understanding, and make sure that your body language communicates this.

If you're not sure how to fix the situation, then ask your client what will make them happy. If it's in your power, then get it done as soon as possible. Follow up with your customer to make sure they were happy with how the situation was resolved.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

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Comments (38)
  • Over a month ago Sonia_H wrote
    Hi S_Andrea,

    Before responding to any customers about this issue, it would be helpful to know what management has to say FIRST - especially since the matter is not just impacting one customer. Considering that the satellite dish was damaged due to an act of nature, the cable company should provide: 1) on its main website [and perhaps social media pages] a flash alert acknowledging the issue, the impacted areas, what customers can do in the meantime, and an estimated time of repair; 2) a recorded message on the main phone number acknowledging the issue and direct customers with instructions; 3) a set of talking points to its customer service representatives so they can quickly explain the matter to incoming callers.

    For this type of satellite damage, no customer service rep should be expected to speak above or beyond what the cable company has addressed. (It's out of your hands as a CS Rep.) Being timely, truthful, and transparent with customers is the best that you can do right now. Some will still get angry, and others will be patient.

    Few people enjoy receiving bad news. I found an article that explains how to deliver bad news with honesty and empathy. (https://www.mindtools.com/community/pages/article/bad-news.php) Let us know how it goes!

    Mind Tools Coach
  • Over a month ago S_Andrea wrote
    How about when you work as a customer service representative for a local cable company. Your job is to take incoming calls from customers who have problems with their service. You begin working your normal shift on Super Bowl Sunday when the main satellite dish for your company is struck by lightning. The volume of calls rapidly increases as customers call to ask why they have no service. As you ask one customer to hold, he states in an agitated voice, "What do I have to do to get someone to talk with me about my not having cable service?". What is your response to the customer?
  • Over a month ago Midgie wrote
    Hi simonngo1,
    Thank you for your feedback. Having a step-by-step plan for effectively dealing with unhappy customers can help you to resolve the situation more quickly. I hope you enjoy more of our resources to help you further develop your professional and personal skills.

    Mind Tools Team
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