Managing difficult customer behaviour

| 26 Aug 2019

How do you deal with difficult customer behaviour? Have you ever encountered demanding or angry customers? You are not alone.

Steve Zipkoff, CEO of Zipkoff Solutions, with over 40 years of retail marketing experience and an Instructor at SMU Cox Graduate School of Business, shares in this article how organisations – and individuals alike – can alleviate a customer’s desire to go somewhere else.

Regardless of the business you are in, there are two things that must be present for a company to exist and survive.

First, you MUST have customers and second, those customers MUST produce profitable revenue. If you have these two components there is a better than average chance your company will prosper.

Read: What's new this week - 23 Aug 2019

The challenge for any company is, once you acquire customers how do you keep them in order to make your company profitable?

Many companies will bend over backwards to ensure the customer is a happy one, but sometimes no matter what you do, customers can and will become difficult.

How those customers are handled can make the difference between success and failure. 

There is an old saying - “the customer is always right.” I disagree with that saying.

But until further notice, “the customer is the customer” and you should do what you can to retain them, and if possible, delight them.

How you treat difficult customers can determine your company’s future.

Two types of difficult customers

Difficult customers come in two “styles”.

First, is the assertive/demanding customer. An assertive customer is one that is forceful. They think they are in command. Demanding behavior means they want something NOW!

The second style is the angry one. They are mad…period!

The assertive/demanding customer

Assertive/demanding people are easy to recognise because they are quick to show authority, demand action and usually they get to the point immediately. They make what they want very clear.

Assertive behaviour does not mean they are angry. If you don’t listen clearly and attentively, you might mistake them as angry. They usually are not.

If you are dealing with an assertive or demanding customer you should attempt to do the following:

If you have a soft voice, raise it slightly.

A soft-voiced person tends to imply timidity. That places you at a disadvantage with the customer.

Do not shout because that can lead to a major confrontation. By raising your voice slightly, you usually will be a little below that of the customers level and that’s a good thing.

Make sure you are not louder than the customer.

Be direct and to the point.

Do not “beat around the bush.” A direct approach is important in order to let the customer know your position.

Keep non-business conversation to a minimum. Don’t socialise with them. This is a common error.

The employee thinks that by becoming a “friend” with the customer you are diffusing the situation. You are not. You are giving the customer the negotiating advantage.

They are not looking at you as a friend but an adversary. Socialising puts you at a negotiating disadvantage.

Do what you possibly can to keep your assertiveness level just below the customers. If you match it or exceed their level it can produce an argument. You must try to avoid that at all costs.

An argument can lead to hostility and that can lead to a lost customer.


So, how do you respond to an assertive or demanding customer?

First, listen intently so you will understand the problem or request.

Too many times the customer says one thing and the employee “hears” something else. This places the company at a disadvantage and can lead to confrontation.

It is best to let the customer finish what he or she is saying and then respond appropriately.

Also: What to do if a prospect has negative perceptions of your company or products and services?

Second, match some of the customer’s assertiveness in order to be on an almost equal level.

You have to let the customer know that you are not a “pushover.” You are interested in fixing the problem but you will not comply with their demands if deemed unreasonable.

Third, use closed questions to assist in controlling the conversation.

Close-ended questions can be answered by a “yes” or “no.” You do not want the customer to ramble on.

You just want them to be very specific about the problem and their request for a remedy.

Fourth, be friendly, but very specific and direct in your statements.

You don’t want to be their friend but you also don’t want to position yourself as the enemy, either.

Fifth, remain courteous.

Remember they are the customer and you would like them to remain as one.

An assertive/demanding customer can be a challenge but by using the methods described above, hopefully, they will remain a customer.


The angry customer

Every organisation experiences angry customers. They are not unique to any one industry. They transcend every one.

If a customer is angry there are three important techniques you can use to help manage the situation.

            1. Listen – so you will understand the problem or concern.

            2. Relate – apologise in a general way or in a broad sense.

            3. Propose an action plan – that will solve the problem.

You can apologise without admitting you or the company is wrong.

“I understand how you feel.” “I’m sorry for the confusion or misunderstanding.” “I don’t blame you for being upset. Let’s see if we can fix it.”

When a customer complains, offer your concern that they are upset, but do not take aggressive or hostile comments personally.

They are not angry with you, they are angry with the situation or the company.

Often an angry customer will display a lot of emotion and possible name-calling.

When this happens do your best to remain calm and avoid getting caught up in the emotion. This might be difficult but it is the only way to diffuse a continued confrontation.

Watch: InsurTech of the Year 2019 - Goalsmapper

Once you are calm, listen closely and relate it’s time to offer an action plan.

The best way is, if possible, provide two or three different options. Make sure whichever option the customer chooses you can provide it. Make sure you can deliver on the plan.

This seems obvious but do not offer an option that the customer chooses and you tell them that cannot be done.

This will definitely escalate the situation into a no-win scenario.

Techniques for managing the angry customer:

            1. Listen intently so you will understand the problem.

            2. Relate by apologising in a general way or in a broad sense.

            3. Propose an action plan and then do it!

            4. Stay calm and avoid getting involved in the customer’s emotion.

            5. Remain courteous at all times.


Dealing with assertive/demanding and angry customers can be a stressful situation and can lead to an employee’s frustration level to rise.

Utilising the above tips can reduce employee stress, alleviate a customer’s desire to go somewhere else and ensure your organisation can remain a profitable entity.

Mr Steve Zipkoff, is the President/CEO of Zipkoff Solutions, a management education company established in 1992. An Instructor at SMU Cox Graduate School of Business, he has earned the Teaching Excellence Award 38 times for his course on “Delivering Customer Delight”.

#PODCAST: Getting testimonials from your customers that work