Handling Difficult Customers: Strategies for Inbound Service Teams

dealing with difficult customers

According to a March 2023 NPR survey, 74% of Americans reported having a service or product problem over the previous twelve months. Furthermore, researchers found that 43% of customers raised their voices or outright shouted to express their displeasure with a product or service. 

As you work in customer service, dealing with difficult customers is inevitable, but learning how to do so is often harder than expected. There are different types of difficult customers, and each requires a unique approach to diffuse their situation and get them the help they need, which can put a lot of stress on your service team and make it hard to find an amicable solution.

Fortunately, you can use a few tried-and-true strategies to calm customers, solve problems faster, and preserve your brand reputation. Below is everything you need to know.

7 Types of Difficult Customers

First and foremost, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the types of difficult customers you’re bound to encounter. They include the following seven:

1. The Angry

Anger or rage are some of the most common responses to product issues, and — as evidenced by the previous stats — they often lead to yelling, which makes it hard for your customer service agent to get a word in edgewise. Of the aforementioned 74% of people with a service or product issue in 2022, 63% stated they experienced “customer rage.” 

Knowing how to deal with an angry customer requires a strong balance of empathy and patience.

2. The Impatient

The impatient customer is one who demands quick solutions and will likely become irritated by any delay, such as being placed on hold or transferred to another department. 

Timeliness is key here, so much so that half the battle boils down to getting these customers routed to the right department in the first place so you can avoid any transfers. The other half involves retaining well-trained staff members who can explain things clearly and efficiently.

3. The Indecisive

Hesitant or doubtful customers are often unsure about what they want or need; they might not even be certain whether they want a refund or a replacement product. Your agents must determine what the customer considers an adequate resolution and work toward that.

4. The Know-it-All

As such a moniker implies, know-it-all customers believe they are more knowledgeable about the product or service they’re calling about than your team members. Agents must acknowledge that these customers have done their homework as they gently guide them toward the correct information or solution, avoiding arguments at all costs.

5. The Complainer

Complainers are perhaps some of the most negatively minded difficult customers, constantly finding fault in everything and often seeming (if not outright being) impossible to please. 

Your agents can disarm these sorts of situations by way of active listening and empathy. They should give complainers a chance to vent before assuring them that they will do everything possible to solve the problem.

6. The Over-Talker

These customers dominate conversations, making it challenging to get to the root of their product or service issue. With that said, your agents should politely steer the conversation back on track by summarizing the person’s main grievances and focusing on the issue at hand.

7. The Demanding

Demanding customers have high expectations and often push for far more than what is reasonable or possible. Agents should not feed into these unrealistic expectations and should, instead, set clear boundaries about what they can and can’t do for a customer. Giving a demanding customer advice and clearly defining their options may help move things toward a realistic solution.

Handling Difficult Customers: 3 Effective Tips

While there are no one-size-fits-all strategies for handling each of the seven types of difficult customers at once, your team can take a few proven measures to improve their conflict resolution skills across the board. 

As your agents interact with unruly customers, they should strive to do the following three things:

1. Focus on Solutions, Not Excuses

During their opening interaction, it’s perfectly acceptable for your support staff to apologize to customers for what they are dealing with. That said, agents shouldn’t bombard customers with excuses about what they can’t do and why things went wrong; they need to present solutions to the problem and help customers determine the best path forward.

Additionally, agents need to know when it is appropriate to escalate. Some situations may simply be beyond their control or area of expertise, and when that happens, they should route the call to another department or a supervisor as efficiently as possible to lower the odds that the customer becomes angrier.

2. Maintain Emotional Distance

While empathy is essential in a customer service position, maintaining emotional distance is crucial to avoid being overwhelmed by the customer’s frustration or anger. Your support team also needs to learn de-escalation techniques, such as speaking in a calm, steady voice, using the customer’s name, and expressing understanding and a willingness to help. These efforts can calm the customer and lead the conversation toward a resolution. 

Although some agents have a knack for de-escalation from the get-go, most will require training to learn and eventually master these techniques. Do not hesitate to invest in your staff and ensure they have the skills necessary to handle any difficult customers.

3. Show Appreciation and Seek Feedback

As a final tip, agents should acknowledge and thank the customer for their patience and understanding. Doing so can go a long way in maintaining a positive relationship, even after a difficult interaction.

Seeking feedback is also an important part of handling difficult customers. Sincerely asking what your business can improve on will demonstrate that you want to enhance future experiences and make things right. 

As part of both of these processes, record and analyze difficult interactions. You can use these recordings for training purposes, to gather data about common customer complaints, and to optimize your overall service model.

Applying These Strategies

With an understanding of how to deal with a difficult customer now under your belt, it’s time to apply these strategies to the best of your ability, and in order to do that, you’ll need to invest in support agent training and upgrade your technology. Revamping your inbound call center solutions will accelerate the delivery of service and help reduce customer frustration, thereby giving your agents a better chance of resolving issues. 

Remember, you aren’t going to know how to deal with an angry customer or master the art of doing so overnight — it requires practice, diligence, and even trial and error — but prioritizing conflict resolution will lead to better experiences, improved loyalty, and brand growth.

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