How to deal with difficult customers

by Kathryn Hawkins

When you run a small business, customer service is a huge component of what you do. A glowing recommendation can boost your bottom line, while a vocal customer complaint can crush your sales. As such, it’s important to make sure that all of your customers have a positive experience—but sometimes, you may find that particular customers are so difficult to please that it’s tough to remain polite. Here are some strategies for handling such situations.

Remain calm

A customer who shouts at you will eventually run out of steam if you simply stay calm and listen to his concerns. Don’t try to argue: Instead, pay attention to his complaint and respond with empathy, which should go a long way in diffusing his anger.

Don’t take it personally

If a customer has become agitated, don’t respond with anger or tears. The customer may simply be having a bad day, or he may have an aggressive personality by nature. It’s important to remember that, even if he is unhappy with a product or service he received from your business, he’s not attacking you personally. Remain professional and take any insults in stride—and never personally attack the customer in response, or he’ll likely tell everyone he knows about your bad conduct.

Find out all you can about the situation

If a customer has an issue with a product or service that your business has provided, it’s in your interest to learn as much as possible about what went wrong—both to alleviate the customer’s concern and to prevent such incidents from happening in the future. Offer the customer a complaint card, on which he can fill out specific details of the incident. If a product is faulty, ask him to bring it in for your inspection. If he had an issue with one of your employees’ service, talk to the employee about the incident in question before jumping to any conclusions. In some cases, the customer may not have a valid case, but you should find out as much as you can about the situation before jumping to any conclusions.

Take the necessary steps to remedy the problem

In some cases, a customer may simply need to exchange a faulty product. If your business’ service is the issue, you may need to offer the customer a refund for the service in question, and might even consider offering a gift certificate for future services. How far you’re willing to go to appease the customer will likely depend on the severity of the situation, and whether your business is truly in the wrong. However, in most cases, it’s a good idea to provide at least a small token whether or not your company has made a mistake—changing a customer’s perception from negative to positive can help prevent him from slandering your business to his contacts, and may encourage him to recommend your company instead.

Follow up on the situation

After providing the customer with a refund, exchange, or other form of remedy for the problem in question, take a few days to let him cool down. Then call him at home to follow up on the situation and confirm that his issues were adequately resolved. Ask for feedback on what your business could have done differently and whether he would continue to use your business’ services or products in the future. Even if the customer’s responses are rude, avoid sinking to his level, and be sure to treat him with respect and civility. Whether or not he plans to return to your establishment, it’s always important to maintain a polite and professional attitude when representing your business.

is a freelance writer and editor based in Portland, Maine. She is a regular contributor to BNET.com and Intuit's Small Business blog, and is owner and editor of Gimundo.com, a website and daily newsletter dedicated to good news.
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