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How to deal with difficult customers

Every business faces difficult, demanding customers at some point but resolve the situation quickly and you’ll keep them as valuable customers.

Difficult customers can be hard to deal with but it’s essential that you do professionally and quickly before they spread the word about their experience with your start up business. Even if they are in the wrong, it’s important that you deal with the situation in a positive way so as not to lose them as a future customer.

Satisfied customers are more likely to return and it costs far less to retain a loyal, happy customer than it does to win new customers for your business. Good customer service creates loyal customers who spend more and encourage others to buy from your business.

A study in the US by the Office of Consumer Affairs found that loyal customers are worth up to ten times as much as their first purchase, and an American Express survey found that 70% of customers are willing to spend more with companies that they believe provide excellent customer service.

But when faced with an angry, impatient or demanding customer, it takes skills and clear customer service processes to get a positive outcome. This guide will look at how to deal with difficult customers and how to prevent complaints in the first place.

Learn more about what makes good customer service and boost your customer satisfaction.


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How to deal with a difficult customer

No matter how good your start up, you’ll eventually have to deal with an upset or difficult customer. Knowing how to resolve a negative customer experience should be part of your start up culture with training provided for all staff who communicate directly with customers.

There are six steps to dealing with customer complaints – from ensuring you listen carefully and respond professionally, to following up and making sure the issue is resolved and the customer is satisfied with the outcome.

Watch this: Key to dealing with any difficult customer is to make sure you have a positive, productive conversation. Radio host Celeste Headlee speaks at Ted Talks event in this video on how to have a better conversation:

Step 1. Get in the right mind-set

Dealing with angry customers and listening to them berate your business can be upsetting but it’s important to set aside your emotions. Even if the customer is in the wrong or the problem isn’t your fault, voicing this won’t resolve the situation and may make matters worse. Be professional and focus on solving the situation.

If you suspect your emotions will get the better of you, deal with complaints by email or letter, rather than on the phone or face-to-face. Remind yourself that the problem is a business issue, so don’t take personal offence.


Step 2. Listen carefully

Listening to a customer shows that you want to help and provides some vital clues in understanding what has gone wrong and how best to resolve it.

  • Listen to the customer attentively – Make eye contact and don’t interrupt (if face-to-face). For a customer driven to complain, there’s nothing worse than an uninterested member of staff who simply isn’t listening.
  • Use positive on-your-side language – Saying “let’s get this problem solved for you” or “please tell me what has happened” makes you appear friendly and willing to help. The word “let’s” creates the image of you and the customer working together to resolve things.
  • Get the facts – Ask for more information, stick to finding out the facts and avoid making assumptions. Often companies try and deal with complaints quickly but this can result in further headaches if they’ve assumed something instead of asking a question. Not being listened to can further frustrate the customer. Get the essential facts – what happened, when, where, and why the customer is unhappy.
  • Play back what you’ve heard – Repeat the problem back to the customer to ensure you’ve understood. Playing back demonstrates that you were listening to the customer and they’ll feel more confident that you can solve the issue.


Step 3. Be polite and calm

Be polite and apologise where necessary. Be empathetic and see the problem from the customer’s perspective.

If agitated, try to calm the customer down but don’t let them intimidate you. Explain that you want to help but can only do this if they calm down. Never argue with a customer or you risk losing control of the situation. Ensure your body language is friendly and open, don’t cross your arms and speak calmly.


Step 4. Find an immediate solution

It doesn’t have to be the ultimate resolution, but finding a quick solution to placate a difficult customer while you work on a more significant resolution can defuse the situation. A quick solution might mean breaking your own processes and rules, but that’s OK. Offer refunds or a reduction in their bill. The offer of free drinks or desserts if you’re in the catering business, for example, can quickly lower tempers.


Step 5. Go the extra mile

It’s often important to go above and beyond to help your customers. Surprising an unhappy customer by doing all that you can to solve their complaint is a great way to engage with the customer and help them move past their complaint.

A prime example is Ritz-Carlton’s famous $2,000 rule. The hotel chain is famous for empowering its staff to solve customer complaints there and then, rather than escalating problems. It allows any member of staff to spend up to $2,000 without authorisation to fix a customer problem. It may seem a lot of money, but management consider it a worthwhile investment as the average Ritz-Carlton customer will spend more than $250,000 with the hotel group during their lifetime.

Watch this: The Ritz-Carlton company is a great example of customer service, and Forbes has created a helpful video showing three good customer service principles that any business can adopt on what Apple learnt from Ritz-Carlton:

Knowing the long-term value of a customer is why many companies put time, resources and effort into ensuring they deal effectively with unhappy customers.

One approach is to exceed expectations when solving problems. If you’re not sure what your client wants as a remedy, ask them to identify what will make them happy. For example, you could say, “If this solution does not work for you, I would be happy to work with you to find a new solution that’s within my power to do.” Genuinely caring about resolving the problem goes a long way.


Step 6. Follow up

Contact the customer after resolving the complaint to ensure they’re happy with the resolution. You can go the extra mile with your customers, for example, by sending handwritten notes to apologise or sending them a discount on the next purchase. It’s important to end the interaction positively, express your gratitude for their patience and apologise again for the problem.


Avoiding customer complaints

In an ideal world your start up should work so well that it avoids customer complaints in the first place. Here are our top tips for minimising customer complaints:

  • Train staff thoroughly, as complaints can result from staff not knowing answers or being able to give good information. Make sure staff are knowledgeable about your products or service.
  • Log complaints and the reasons behind them as this will help you identify things that need to be changed. By recording customer complaints, you’ll be able to monitor how the volume and nature of complaints change over time.
  • Measure and streamline customer contact routes. If your start up relies on a contact centre to deal with customers, monitor its performance to spot and solve problems such as having to wait too long to speak to a customer service representative.
  • Keep your promises or you’ll lose customers’ trust. Don’t make rash decisions under pressure to quickly sort the situation. Say “Let me just confirm that” and tell them matter-of-factly if you cannot provide the product or service.


Social media and difficult customers

Social media makes it easier than ever for customers to express their views and complain in public. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use social media – you just need to be proactive when it comes to customer complaints.

Set up a Twitter and Facebook account and monitor it regularly for customer complaints. Responding quickly is important: NM Incite found in its research that 71% of customers who get a quick response on social media will recommend a company or its products, compared to just 19% of customers who do not get a response. Responding to a customer on social media makes your conversation public; if it needs sensitive data or a lot of back and forth replies, then send the customer a private message. Reward positive comments by liking, retweeting and responding to them.


Staff and difficult customers

Encourage staff to use common sense when dealing with complaints. Empower them to do all they can, even if it means going against company procedures or practices if it makes sense to do so. Reward positive customer service so it becomes something to strive for. Don’t let business processes get in the way of good customer service – ensure good customer service is the highest priority.

As mentioned, make sure all your staff have the right knowledge to deal with complaints, so that customers aren’t passed back and forth between staff members. Nothing frustrates the complainer more than having to continuously repeat their complaint. Encourage staff to ask a more knowledgeable member of staff if they’re unsure what to do, and be available to talk to customers yourself should an issue crop up.


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Reference to any organisation, business and event on this page does not constitute an endorsement or recommendation from the British Business Bank or the UK Government. Whilst we make reasonable efforts to keep the information on this page up to date, we do not guarantee or warrant (implied or otherwise) that it is current, accurate or complete. The information is intended for general information purposes only and does not take into account your personal situation, nor does it constitute legal, financial, tax or other professional advice. You should always consider whether the information is applicable to your particular circumstances and, where appropriate, seek professional or specialist advice or support.

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