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The ABC of dealing with difficult customers

By Pauline Muindi | April 15th 2020

The customer is always right. This is an adage that many entrepreneurs and businesses aspire to live up to. However, most entrepreneurs soon find out that customers can be difficult and irrational. There are customers who will demand the impossible, misunderstand your information, blame your company for something that is out of your control, and go on a damaging smear campaign on your company on social media.  

1.       Don’t avoid them

Keeping difficult customers satisfied and happy can be a tricky affair. “We reflexively want to argue with the customer or get away from them,” says Jeff Toister, the author of Getting Service Right: Overcoming the Hidden Obstacles to Outstanding Customer Service.

If you allow this natural instinct to take over, you might easily dismiss the customer or engage them in an argument or power struggle. As a business owner, you can’t afford this kind of behaviour. Before you respond impulsively to a difficult customer, pause and realise this isn’t about you. This is about your business, and resolving the situation amicably is in your business’ best interest. According to a recent customer-acquisition study, 93 per cent of customers are more likely to make repeat purchases with companies that they feel have great customer service.

To win over a difficult customer, you have to be willing to be the bigger person. By remaining helpful and courteous throughout an encounter with a difficult customer, you flip the switch and show the customer that they matter. This turns the situation into an opportunity to improve your business. To learn how to handle difficult customers, here are a few pointers:

2.       Let them vent

A dissatisfied customer wants to be heard and have their complaint acknowledged. Therefore, the first step in any successful customer service is to listen to what the customer has to say. Don’t try to talk over them and engage in argument. Remember to keep your ego out of it because your primary goal is to resolve the situation as quickly as possible and keep your customers happy. The goal isn’t to “win” the argument.

Even if you have heard the same complaint over and over from other customers, keep calm and let the customer have their say. Don’t interrupt to correct any mistaken assumptions or assert your dominance. The only exception to this rule is if the customer becomes verbally or physically abusive, in which case you should caution them that you won’t help if they continue their behaviour. In case of a physically abusive customer, call security and have them escorted out.

Take this as an opportunity to build rapport with the customer. Ask questions about their experience with the product or service to better understand their complaint. You can also take notes as they speak, which communicates to the customer that you’re taking their complaint seriously.

3.       Empathise and apologise

After listening to the customer’s complaint, show empathy by letting them know that you understand their position. For example, you can say something like “I’d be upset too if I was in your shoes.”

Apologise for the situation, even if you feel that your business isn’t at fault. This will go some way in appeasing the customer. Bear in mind that the way you phrase the apology also matters. Don’t go for the weak “I’m sorry if you feel that way” or “I’m very sorry about that.” Such apologies sound empty because they don’t involve the customer or take responsibility.

Instead try something like “Please accept my apologies for this unfortunate situation. I understand that you are upset about it. I’d be upset if this happened to me too. Will you give me a chance to sort this out for you?”

This kind of apology sounds sincere, shows empathy, and involves the customer. By inviting them to respond, you show them that they have a level of control over the situation. In most cases, the customer will want to move on to resolution. However, in some cases a customer might want to vent some more. Patiently wait until they’re ready before moving on to the next step.

4.       Find out what they want

Don’t start working on a solution to the problem before finding out exactly what the customer wants. You can do this by posing a question such as “What would you like me to do to rectify the situation?”

In some cases, the difficult customer hasn’t clearly outlined their expectations. This gives them an opportunity to pause and reflect on their expectations. Sometimes, they might realise that all they wanted was to be heard and receive an apology. In other cases, the customer might request for specific actions and expected outcomes. This gives you a great starting point towards resolving the issue.

5.       Focus on the solution

Whether the error is on your side or the customer’s, focus on coming up with a satisfactory solution. This is your opportunity to restore the customer’s trust with your business and boost the chances of return patronage. Even if the customer wants to continue hashing out the problem at this point, tactfully steer them towards a solution. Assure the customer that you’re doing everything you can to get the best outcome for them.

6.       Know when to walk away

There are some difficult customers who just can’t be satisfied. Some will be out to make baseless complaints in an effort to get something for free or at a lower cost. How you choose to handle such situations is largely dependent on how valuable the customer is to your business. For instance, if a Sh 1 Million customer balks at a Sh1,000 invoice, you can just give in to them. But if a Sh5,000 customer doesn’t want to pay the Sh1,000 charge, it might be best to walk away.

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