Difficult Customers


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How to successfully interact with hard-to-please clients.

Not all business is good business. Sometimes there are customers you cannot seem to please, no matter how hard you try. You know the type – the folks who never seem satisfied even when they get exactly what they ask for. Since we all probably know one or two of these hard-to-please types, let’s think about how we can best do business with them.

This may come as a surprise, but there aren’t any big secrets to successfully getting along with difficult customers. The truth is that a conversation with a difficult customer is not unlike a conversation with your best customer. We all use some very basic communication tactics on our best days, in our best conversations, naturally. The goal here is to dissect those things that work and identify the process so it can be repeated at any point in time.

Every successful conversation is a give-and-take between two or more people. Respect is perhaps the most crucial component. Some folks subscribe to the belief that they will treat people the way that people treat them. But imagine how that might go with a difficult customer. I foresee a negative ending; how about you? I firmly believe that you have to give respect to get respect. Showing respect when respect has not been received sounds difficult, but it becomes easier and easier when done properly and repeatedly. It can also provide you with a sense of confidence and pride in tough situations.

Another critical communication skill is recognizing the mindset the difficult customer enters the conversation with. It doesn’t matter if they are rushed, irritated, accusatory, impatient, etc. Our responsibility is to recognize where they are and meet them there by acknowledging them.

Keep your composure

I used to have a veterinary customer that would call to place orders. He was always in a hurry and not much for the typical niceties associated with a good conversation. He would start by rattling off his account number as fast as he could with no greeting, no exchanging who he was, and no pleasantries whatsoever. I figured out the best way to acknowledge this customer was to put the account number into the system and respond at the same pace that he began the interaction. I would enter the account and then say the name of the practice and his name, followed by the fact that I was ready to take an order.


It sounded like this (names and companies are made up for this example):

Me: “Thanks for calling ABC Distribution. How can I help you today?”

Doctor: “12345-07.” (Delivered in a fast paced, stern voice.)

Me: “XYZ Veterinary. Dr. Smith, how can I help you today?” (Delivered at the same pace as he started the interaction.)


Please note that I made it OK for him to be in a hurry. I kept my composure and answered with the same pace to show him that I understood that he may be in a hurry, and I was ready to roll at his pace. I did not have to verbalize any of that; I conveyed it through my reaction to his pace and no-nonsense engagement. I also let him know that I knew who I was dealing with in a respectful manner.

Over time, this veterinarian began to specifically ask for me when he would call in to place his orders. That, to me, was a success. He was never the kind of customer that would carry on a conversation about the weather or personal topics, but he knew that I did not get flustered by his approach. I was always professional and respectful. I let him lead and kept up with his pace and vigor during every interaction.

When errors occur

Other difficult customers may show their worst side when they have a discrepancy or an error.  Acknowledging an irate customer can be tricky since the last thing that you want to do is acknowledge them in a way that further agitates the situation or empowers an already difficult customer to become more difficult. Statements like, “Sounds like you have an error” or “Sounds like you have an issue” may put a difficult customer on the offense.

Taking words like “you” and “your” out of your acknowledgement statements is a great way to depersonalize the situation and will help bring things to a more neutral place. Instead, say things like: “Sounds like there was an error. Do you mind if I ask you a couple of questions so that we can resolve this?” This helps create a partnership to work through the issue together.

Giving the issue a life of its own allows you to work with the difficult customer to resolve the issue. Using acknowledgments like, “Errors like this can be frustrating. Let’s work together to get this fixed,” show you recognize that they are irritated without directly addressing their attitude, and at the same time you have also positioned yourself as their partner to get it fixed.

Once you are positioned as their partner, it is important for you to tell them what your capabilities are and what you will do to rectify the situation. Keep in mind I am not suggesting you take ownership of the issue. You do not need to own it if you did not create it. Now it is simply an issue, and you will work together to determine the best resolution.

It is possible to turn a difficult customer into a good customer based on how you acknowledge them and how you allow them to navigate the conversation. Let them lead. Show respect by making it OK for them to be irritated. Acknowledge the issue and depersonalize the problem so you are positioned as their partner for the resolution. Make certain that the proposed resolution is satisfactory for them and thank them for working through it with you. You will be amazed at how these tactics can defuse difficult situations and difficult people!



Todd Brodersen, President of Same Page Consulting Inc.


Photo credit: istockphoto.com/AndreyPopov