5 Strategies To Handle a Difficult Customer

by | Jun 14, 2018 | Business Growth | 2 comments

You find yourself at an airport, the long hard day of toil finally reaching its end. As you wait for your plane to taxi over you feel uncertainty griping at your heart as the weather outside is anything but stellar and a few flights have already been canceled. Alas, as it soon turns out — so is yours. Judging by the people gathered by the gate — it was one heavily booked plane. The tension in the air is palpable but for the time being everyone around is trying to maintain a semblance of civility.

Adding to the calm before the storm is the fact a solitary, lithe airport employee is assigned to the daunting task of disarming the situation. The line drags on into infinity and passenger irritation is on the rise.

Then he appears. Chin held up high, avoiding contact with his co-passengers, he makes his way to the desk. He is agent Smith incarnate, suited up, carrying a laptop bag and seeking to subjugate all sentient life in his path. His ticket (in order to emphasize the gravity of his words) lands on the desk with a bang.

“I have to be on that next flight, and it has to be FIRST CLASS!” he announces with a tone only a true shark of the corporate world could muster. It always worked without fail — sending people running for cover like townsfolk in classic spaghetti westerns would as the man with the big iron waltzed into town looking for a showdown. However this time…

“I’m very sorry, Sir. I’ll gladly find you a seat but first I must cater to the other passengers waiting in line. I will be right back with you the moment I’m done.” — all accompanied by a caring, professional look, and a smile to wrap things up. The gate agent’s answer was faultless. The passenger, however, was far from satisfied. He rolled out the big guns.

“Do you know who I am?!” He bellowed. It worked. The woman at the desk looked him straight in the eyes, put away the ticket she was handling at that time, smiled and reached for the public address microphone.

“May I have your attention please?” Her voice carried from the speakers across the entire terminal “We have a passenger who does not know who he is. If anyone can help him find his identity, please report to Gate 17.”

5 strategies to handle a difficult customer

The story above has a grain of truth to it but it has been retold so many times it’s difficult to find its original source. There’s always something about a flight from Denver, but when exactly? It doesn’t matter. I only used the story to better show you how handling a difficult customer may look like.

  • The gate agent used an extreme version of the strategy called restoring balance. People have a tendency to hand over their authority the moment the other person makes them feel miserable, diminishes their worth or the quality of their work. The best (and yet the hardest) way to handle this situation is… not letting it get to you. It requires a lot of distance towards yourself but — as you can see in the story I brought up — it yields spectacular results.
  • Reframing — a technique based on portraying the matter at hand in such a way as to impose on the other person a different approach to the issue at hand. In such cases, we quite often resort to the rephrasing technique. The moment a customer angrily informs you that he came to “give you a piece of his mind” all you have to do is to reply “I’m very sorry, but as per customer service procedures, we don’t accept those, perhaps you would rather hand me a refund request?”
  • The aforementioned techniques may finally be complemented by what I call reinstallment. If you steer the conversation in a way that pushes the customer to redact his emotional words, the conversation will go far better because it gives him the impression that it is he who controls it. Basically, give them a reply which spurs them into rephrasing what they said in a more amiable way. “I’m certain there is a different way to state the reason for your visit.” or “Do you really think of me as a lazy bitch?”
  • If it’s not your first time dealing with a customer, you may resort to memories of previous interactions to mitigate the severity of the current crisis. We have a tendency to spread what is happening in the present onto the past and future — you see someone trip in the street and you think to yourself “What an oaf, he’s tripping wherever he goes all his life.”. In reality, that is not the case and it is worth reminding your customer that “You have been satisfied with our service the last five visits, I’m certain we’ll work things out yet again.”
  • The last conversation strategy is the reorganization. Help the customer get their priorities straight. Recently, I bore witness to such an interaction. The customer (an owner of two gaming consoles: an older Xbox 360 and a newer PlayStation 4) was fussing over at the shop that game Dragon Age was overpriced for the PS4. The clerk handed him an Xbox version of the game to which the client replied “I don’t want this one! The PS4 version has better graphics!”. The clerk promptly replied “In that case, sir — what is of more importance to you: playing Dragon Age or good graphics?” After a moment of thought, the customer decided it was both… and in effect purchased the more expensive copy.

What about you? Which strategies work in your case?