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Three Types of Challenging Customers and How to Deal with Them

Three Types of Challenging Customers and How to Deal with Them

As a small business owner, you come across more than your fair share of personalities. Cheerful customers, chatty customers, those customers that never get off their phones. But sometimes you come across, how shall we say, “difficult” types. Here are three types of challenging customers, and how to deal with them.

Sound familiar?

The angry customer

Probably the classic image of difficult customers, these are people who have trouble containing their emotions and are prone to rants. They tend to cause a scene, which can be embarrassing. If you let them, they can ruin your entire day. The trick is not to let them. Here’s how to deal with irate customers.

Understand that it’s not about you

While the guest may be upset at something that happened at your business, they are not upset with you as a human being. Of course, it can feel personal when a stranger is lecturing you, but try to stay objective. Use “we” pronouns instead of “I” to make the exchange less personal. (As in, “We will get this sorted.”) Using we pronouns has also been proven to create a positive bond between individuals.

Listen and show it

A listening technique that works well in many different types of situations, empathic reflection doesn’t immediately try to solve, soothe or apologize for the other person’s feelings. It simply requires you to show that you are actively listening to the upset person.

Stay away from phrases like “I’m sorry” or “I understand,” since you may not understand and you probably aren’t sorry. Instead, show that you are listening by giving your undivided attention, nodding and then repeating their problem as they state it.

For example, if your customer is ranting about your boutique not carrying clothes in their size, maybe you state, “You’re upset about our selection.” Often just repeating the customer’s concern is enough to calm them down a bit, as they understand that they are being heard.

After your customer is calm, you can try to resolve the issue.

“Let the client vent about the situation if at all possible,” advises Carrie Thompson, Facility Manager at Affordable Mini Storage. “Don’t allow physical violence or threats (time to call the police!). Allowing a client to fully verbalize their complaint or anger is valuable. Many issues arise or escalate because the client didn’t feel like they’d been heard.”

Here are a few things to keep in mind when listening to customers:

  • Practice active listening—consciously assimilate what the other party has to say, instead of just standing silently in front of them. Use positive body language like open stancea and nodding along to show the other person that you’re listening.
  • Make them feel that they’re taken seriously—You can demonstrate this by maintaining eye contact and exhibiting the right non-verbal behaviors (like not smiling, excessively nodding, or rolling your eyes). As Gary Johnson, a Senior Consultant at Prevention Advisors, recommends, “call your customer by name, if possible,” he adds. It makes people feel that they’re being heard and could help calm them.”

Take deep breaths

There’s a reason “just breathe” is a cliche: because it works. Your heart rate will naturally rise when encountered with aggression, but you can slow it down with breathing techniques.

Harvard Medical School lists a few quick breathing techniques proven to help you relax. Even if you don’t master a specific technique, simply becoming aware of your breathing pattern and consciously slowing it down will make you feel more level-headed. And the best part is the upset customer never needs to know.

Understand that you can’t please everyone

Ideally, every customer who enters your store leaves with a smile on their face, but sometimes that won’t happen. Sometimes the best business decision is to calmly tell a customer, “Sir, I must ask you to leave the store now.”

As customer service and speaker Shep Hyken puts it, “if the customer crosses the line, it may be time to fire the customer, politely sending them on their way to the competition. A bad customer can hurt morale and make the working environment uncomfortable. Just as bad, a manager that won’t stand up to the customer and support his/her employees can have a negative impact as well.”

Here are some steps you could take when asking customers to leave:

  • First is to give them a chance to calm down. Tel them in a calm but firm voice that they need to tone down the foul language or actions and that you won’t be able to help them if their behavior persists.
  • If they refuse to calm down, politely ask them to leave. According to Johnson, you can say things like:
    • Mr. Jones, I have not been rude to you, so there is no need to be rude to me. If you calm down, I will be able to assist you, but if you continue to threaten me I must notify the authorities
    • I apologize, but if you continue to use this language, I will be forced to ask you to leave the store.
  • If things escalate, call the authorities. Depending on your store’s procedures, you could notify mall security (if applicable) or get the police involved.

Parctice due diligence

Not every interaction will be pleasant, no matter which type of small business you own. But you can make sure a customer’s journey is as seamless as possible. Use a point of sale that automates inventory management to make sure that you do not run out of merchandise. And make sure that your POS system can handle every type of payment, because trying to pay and not being able to is a huge source of (very preventable) customer complaints.

Having the right mental attitude will help prevent your buttons from getting pushed and enable you to respond in a calm and professional manner.

Ricky Marton, founder of Be Robin Hood says that the most important thing to do when dealing with troublesome shoppers is to not let them see that they’re getting to you. “Once they realize they aren’t in charge, they’ll either leave or calm down and (hopefully) apologize.

Be mindful of verbal; and non-verbal queues

The things you say — and don’t say — can significantly affect the outcome of any customer interaction. Signs of boredom, impatience, or aggression will only escalate the situation. So, be very mindful of your words and the body language you project.

Here are a few tips to help you do just that:


Use “phrases of courtesy.” According to Renée Evenson, author of Powerful Phrases for Effective Customer Service, “Customers appreciate being treated courteously, so when you interject words and phrases of courtesy appropriately throughout your conversations, you show your customers how you respect them.”

Evenson provides a handy list of phrases of courtesy that you can refer to. Check them out below and make it a point to incorporate them into your customer service vocabulary:

  • “I apologize. I didn’t hear/understand what you said.”
  • “Will you?” rather than “You will.”
  • “Yes,” rather than “Yeah.”
  • “Sir.”
  • “Ma’am.”
  • “I’ll check and be right back.”
  • “Will you hold for a moment while I check on that?”
  • “Thanks for waiting.”
  • “Mr./Mrs./Ms. _____.” (Address by the first name only if you know that’s appropriate)

To see the full list and learn about how to incorporate phrases of courtesy into your customer service, check out the book here.


Be careful with the non-verbal cues that you give off.

“Body language is an important tool for showing a customer you are serious about resolving the issue,” says Laurie Guest, an author, trainer and keynote speaker with a focus on customer service.

“Nodding, eye contact, and note taking are all excellent modes of silent communication. Most importantly, keep quiet. If you interrupt, the person will assume you are not listening and often feel the need to start over again. Patiently listen to the whole story.”

You should also avoid defensive or hostile gestures such as closed fists or folded arms as they could aggravate the customer.

For your reference, here’s a table you can refer to when it comes to the dos and don’ts of body language in retail:

The indecisive customer

Procrastinating, indecisive customers suck up time that could be better spent nurturing paying customers or, for that matter, on any number of business-boosting activities that don’t involve waiting for a customer to make up their mind.

There are a number of strategies you can use that will help convert an indecisive customer into a paying one.

See indecision as an opportunity

Instead of focusing on the fact that you are spending way too much time with a customer, understand that their indecision is probably due to lack of confidence and not an unwillingness to part with the money in their wallet. If they were definitely not interested, they would simply leave your store. So understand that every indecisive customer you meet is actually an opportunity to make a sale. Stay upbeat and never show that you are frustrated.

Understand their point of view

This is key to making any kind of sale, but is especially crucial when your customer is waffling. Chat your customer up to determine what they’re looking for, what their budget is, and how your product will ultimately be used.

Give them fewer options

You’re the expert on your merchandise, so don’t be afraid to say so. Since you’ve determined what they’re looking for, narrow their options down to two choices, if possible. Choice paralysis is a real phenomenon, and often the driver of indecision.

Communicate what you can and can’t do about their situation

Once you’ve heard what the customer has to say, you’ll need to talk to them about what you can and can’t do. Anne Miner of The Dunvegan Group recommends that you start by clarifying and apologizing.

“Once you have heard the story, ask questions to clarify where necessary. Then, apologize — tell the customer you are sorry they have had this experience, feel this way or whatever is appropriate.”

From there,  proceed by communicating what you can and can’t do about their problem. Whatever you say, though, see to it that you do something. 

“Never say: “There’s nothing I can do.” That statement is like gasoline on a campfire. Although it may range from simply gathering facts to solving the problem, there’s ALWAYS something you can do. If you are a member of the team, then all the work done for the customer is a reflection of the overall quality,” says Guest.

Miner echoes this advice. “Tell the customer what you CAN do for them — issue a refund, a credit, or connect them to the manufacturer.”

Now, what happens when you can’t bend to your customer’s wishes?

The best thing is to be upfront. Miner recommends saying something like: I wish I could do that for you. At this moment, that is beyond my authority but I will ask ______. May I have your phone number so I can get back to you?

Here’s an additional tip: if possible, let the customer know about the changes that you’ll make as a result of their complaint.

“Make the customer feel like they’ve made a difference,” advises Adler. “The last thing customers want is to feel like their feedback is going nowhere. Make sure that you let them know that you’re very grateful they alerted you to this problem. Then let them know the steps that will be taken to ensure the same thing won’t happen to other customers.”

The internet vigilante

One of the joys of the connected age is that every customer has the ability to leave scathing reviews on social media sites like Yelp. Many customers, if they feel slighted, go straight to your Facebook page to vent. It’s enough to make a small business owner feel like they are walking on eggshells, terrified to check their business pages.

But don’t let difficult customers turn you into a Luddite. The only way to deal with poor reviews is to deal with people as real individuals, not faceless internet trolls.

Respond to bad reviews

The great thing about Facebook, Yelp and Twitter is that your response will also be public. The means anybody who reads a poor review can read your response to it, so you should definitely respond. There are even templates available if you’re feeling stuck.

The important thing is to respond as yourself, the business owner, using your real name. This puts a human face to the business. Respond to the reviewer using their name and any type of identifier you remember. You might begin a response with something like, “Hi Peter, I was happy to help you find the right shade of paint for your new deck,” as opposed to a generic greeting.

State your case without apologizing

Some people who have never owned businesses are under the illusion that small business owners always have deep pockets. These types of difficult customers are known to complain in order to receive compensation that they may or may not always deserve. So never apologize for something you did not do. A simple, “I’m so sorry that you feel our service didn’t live up to your standard” is much safer than immediately assuming guilt.

Consider blocking belligerent posters

While most bad reviews are written by real customers who feel the need to vent their displeasure, others are written by actual trolls: people online who are out to stir up trouble and controversy. Social platforms know this and give business owners the power to deal with them.

Facebook allows you to hide comments without the reviewer knowing that you did so. This is one of the many reasons to make sure your Facebook is set up for a business, not a person, since only business accounts have this power.

While you can respond to tweets, you cannot hide the tweets of others and “tweetstorms” can often become unruly and even newsworthy. For this reason, we consider thinking long and hard about whether it’s worth it for your small business to have a presence on Twitter. Yes, it’s nice as a customer service channel, but unless you have the manpower and online savvy to manage it properly, a business account on Twitter may end up being a headache.

Yelp gives you the option to report defamatory reviews, but provides no guarantee that they will take action, unless “you or your lawyer have obtained a final adjudication from a court of competent jurisdiction indicating that the review is defamatory.” Which brings us to our next point.

Lawyer up

The truth is that terrible online reviews can sink a small business. If an individual is truly trying to drag your business through the mud, we recommend speaking to an attorney about what can be done. A well-written letter from a real attorney can be amazingly effective, even if no further action is taken.

Understand that the rules have changed

There is no longer a line between real life and online life. Activity online is just an extension of the real world, and your brick and mortar store needs to have an active presence online. There are tools that help your business succeed online. Keeping your information current and correct can prevent anger in the first place.

Prevent the preventable

The best way to deal with difficult customer situations? Prevent them from happening in the first place. Here’s how:

Keep your store neat and adequately stocked

Keeping your store organized makes it easier for shoppers to navigate your location and get their hands on the things they need. This gives them a faster and more convenient in-store experience and decreases the likelihood that they’ll ask (or demand) for assistance.

Also, ensure that your shelves and fixtures are adequately stocked. Instruct your staff to routinely check your shelves for items that are running low so they can replenish immediately. Doing so helps customers find what they’re looking for quickly and easily, so they (and you) are less likely to feel inconvenienced.

Speed up customer service

Make sure your staff knows the importance of speed when serving customers. Many shoppers are extremely busy and have no time to wait around.

How you can you serve customers promptly without compromising quality?

Hire additional employees – Having added help can keep your store running smoothly during the hectic Christmas season. See to it that you have a good staff-to-customer ratio so you’re not making anyone wait. Remember, slow customer service is a huge consumer pet peeve. You’ll prevent a lot of headaches simply by being prompt.

Do note that hiring more people is just the first step. Equally important is ensuring that your staff is well-trained. Devote extra time educating your employees (especially seasonal hires) about the ins and outs of your store. They should know your sales floor and stockroom like the back of their hand so they can easily find the right products for shoppers.

Retail tech know-how also goes a long way, so see to it that your employees know how to quickly operate your equipment and retail software.

Speed up checkout

Many customer issues may also arise in the checkout area. From long lines to less-than-perfect payment technology, retailers need to anticipate and prevent potential problems that can occur when it’s time to ring up sales. Here are a few steps you can take to improve the checkout experience during the holidays (and beyond):

Use quick keys—Most modern POS systems provide product shortcuts or on-screen buttons that speed up how items are added to a sale at checkout. If your system has this capability, be sure to enable it and add your most popular items. That way, when a customer buys a product that’s already included in your quick keys layout, you can ring them up with just a tap of a button, instead of having to search for the item.

Use integrated payments—Using a payment solution that integrates with your POS makes checkout a lot faster. Integrated payments allow sales to flow directly from your POS to your card reader. This means you won’t have to manually key in the transaction information into the card reader, so sales are processed much faster. Not only that, but integrated payments prevent human error and are more secure.

Talk to your POS vendor about the payment processors they integrate with and see if you can use them in your business.

Enable contactless payments – While contactless payments such as Apple Pay aren’t as widespread as credit cards, a growing number of consumers have adopted them.

If you cater to a lot of these shoppers, start accepting contactless payments in your store. That way, people won’t have to fumble with cards or cash. All they need is their phone, and they’ll be good to go.

Add registers and untether the checkout experience – Always be prepared to open new registers when it gets busy. For instance, if your POS can run on a laptop or iPad, you’ll want to have extra devices in your store so you can quickly open a register when the lines get too long.

That’s what homeware store Borough Kitchen does in their business. “At peak times… we can add a new till instantly by switching on another iPad,” shares founders David Caldana & Justin Kowbel.

Consider doing the same thing in your stores. Equip extra iPads or laptops with your POS so you can quickly bring them out when it gets crowded in your shops. And if you’re using a tablet, you could even untether the checkout experience and ring up sales from anywhere in the store instead of being stuck behind the cash wrap.

Redirect the passion

In the heat of the moment, it can be hard to remember that sometimes your most difficult customers turn into your most loyal customers.

Whether your customer is upset in real life or online, they are upset because they care, and this negative passion can be redirected into positive sentiment. If you can solve a challenging customer’s problem, compensate them in a personalized, rational way, and make their day a little better, they have the potential to turn into an advocate for your business. Make sure that you’re collecting as much information on your customers as possible, so that you can deliver a personalized experience that makes them feel valued.

As Melinda Emerson says in The Huffington Post, “Customer service is the cornerstone of a successful small business. Turning an angry customer into an advocate might take effort and willpower, but I believe you can manage it.”

So take deep breaths, keep your wits about you, and face all types of difficult customers like the opportunities they are.

Ready to prepare your business for every type of situation and customer with powerful, omnichannel solutions? Let’s chat.

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More of this topic: Customer Experience