Dealing with Difficult Customers

  Hort Snacks - July 2017
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 It is a reliably established fact that in all circles of life, there are nice people and there are less nice people. There are people that will bend over backwards like a Cirque de Soleil performer to accommodate and avoid inconveniencing someone. And then there are others that make it seem like the Spanish Inquisition were giving out free puppies and fruit smoothies. It’s a fact. The sad truth is that these same people (and their corresponding styles) make up your customers. Customers come in all shapes, sizes and characters. Some are basically invisible; they come, they pick or shop and then they leave. Others are interactive; they chat, they want to know about you and your business, they want to know the intricacies of things and they are pretty excited about the entire experience.

And then there are the difficult customers. Who knows what makes them difficult? It could be a momentary thing (residual frustration from something that just happened to them), it could be learned/habitual behavior or it could be some sort of legitimate concern that can be resolved with some effort on your part. It can be hard. Sometimes logic is nowhere in sight and people are just upset or want to be difficult, simply because they can and you happen to be conveniently located to vent frustrations on. The challenge that you and your employees face is determining the real cause of concern or complaint, so that it can be dealt with, all while navigating the symptoms of the concern, which manifests in any number of ways (most of them unpleasant). So, regardless of whether your customer’s concern is legitimate (which is, of course, subjective) or not, if you want them as a customer in the future, you need to deal with them. Here are some possible tips for handling difficult people (note, these are according to me, not necessarily the path that you have to take).

1. Keep your cool and be polite
This can be hard. Really, really hard. When someone is coming at you, it can be hard to suppress natural tendencies that you’ve developed over years of being human (flight, fight, etc.). As much as possible, keep your tone even, try to avoid going on the defensive (or worse, an aggressive offensive) and work to treat the customer the same as you would a non-difficult customer. Be respectful and polite. It NEVER hurts to be polite. Even when people aren’t. And maybe throw a smile in there (try to make it more smile, less grimace, as much as possible)

2. Be sincere
If you genuinely want to help your customers, your tone, actions and attitude will communicate that to them. It’ll show and it’ll keep them coming back.

3. Listen to understand
A big part of being sincere is spending more time listening than you do talking. In my experience, in a challenging situation, when you start talking, the tone tends to slide over towards the defensive (cue excuses, etc.). So spend less time talking. And more importantly, listen with intent to understand. Ask questions at appropriate times, so that you A) actually gain the information that you need to really get a good grasp of the situation and B) you demonstrate that you actually WANT to understand.

4. Defer to a higher power
I’m not suggesting that you throw things heavenward when things go south (although a silent, internal prayer for patience never goes awry), but rather give yourself permission to let someone else deal with an issue. If you are an employee, don’t be afraid to turn things over to someone else, especially if you are on the bottom end of the totem pole. If you have employees, give them permission to call you in and tag out. In either situation, by turning things over to someone else, there is a break (albeit a brief one), which allows emotions to subside (theoretically). Additionally, a new face brings new perspective and, more importantly, a potentially a cooler head.

If you are the boss, or if you are an employee, but have been given permission and authority to deal with issues (however the policy has been developed), then deal with them. If the problem drops in your laps from someone else, then deal with it. Shunting people from one person to another just fans the fires of frustration.

5. Don’t be a doormat
In my humble opinion, the adage or saying “the customer is always right” has been stretched and abused to the point of ridiculous. Now, your personal business motto might disagree with that, and you might be prepared to go to ANY length to satisfy a customer, but sometimes, people are WRONG. Condoning and enabling bad behavior just encourages people to continue to act that way. So, be firm. Work hard to be polite, to solve their problem and satisfy them, but don’t tolerate abusive behavior. You and your employees have the same rights as anyone. So establish what those are and don’t budge beyond that point.

In the end, whatever happens, the end goal should be to gain an ally for your business, because allies make great customers. Be respectful and work hard to have both you and the customer land in a place where you are both happy. Good luck.

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For more information about the content of this document, contact Robert Spencer.
This information published to the web on June 29, 2017.