Diffusing the Most Difficult of Customers

The customer is always right—or so we’ve been told. Retailers are presented with the task of retaining customers, no matter the cost. And YOU, the ever vigilant retail execution hero, are on the front lines—even with those difficult customers.

Like clockwork, 5 minutes before you end your shift, customer-zilla walks through the doors and locks eyes with you. Although just getting out alive would be a big enough win, here are some tips to assist you in turning the situation around and scoring a win for your business!

Don’t Lose Your Cool

The old adage says to fight fire with fire. This might just be the worst advice when trying to assist a customer, especially one who comes out swinging. Frustrated customers often just need to vent, and you just happen to be the punching bag who can’t get out of the way. It’s important to remember that the frustration is not directed at you personally, rather at the situation.

Don’t Interrupt

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Interrupting Cow.


While you may have the urge to jump in and let the customer know you already have the answer, or that their information is wrong, cutting them off will almost assuredly lead to a negative reaction. In fact, the opposite tends to provide results. If the rant becomes particularly heated, pausing for just a couple seconds more than usual at the end tends to give the grumpy customer a few moments pause to check themselves and gauge how reasonable or unreasonable they may sound.

Preempt their Frustrations

Getting grilled is certainly demoralizing, especially when you’re the messenger. We all have horror stories that make Freddy Kruger look like a bedtime lullaby.  What if—and hear me out—you didn’t just have to take the frustration until the grumpy customer feels they are done (which is sometimes never).

One of the most useful tactics in dealing with a grumpy customer is preempting their frustrations. Letting a customer rant only:

  1. Leads to a longer, often unnecessary description of the issue, costing you both precious time
  2. Exacerbates the customer’s heated emotion exponentially, creating a frustrated vicious circle
  3. Makes YOU feel worse. After all, you’re just trying to help, right?

Try putting yourself in their shoes and communicating their frustrations to them. That seems silly, doesn’t it? Telling them what they already know?

Picture working at a bakery where a customer has ordered a cake for their child’s high school graduation. The order has been in for weeks, and when they get to the store, an hour before the party, it’s not done. Instead of allowing a tirade, wait for a break in conversation (not interrupting), and convey the following:

“I apologize for the inconvenience we have caused you. I realize this will severely dampen the mood of the party, and because of this mistake there won’t be enough dessert there. Please accept extra dessert free of charge and let me know if there is anything else we can do to compensate.”

Instead of allowing the customer to angrily communicate the above, you have instead shown empathy, taken the words out of their mouth, and transformed them into positive, actionable items. Are they really going to repeat the above in a much more vicious fashion? Of course not.

Own the Situation

When someone is angry, of course they will tell you everything that has already gone wrong. It’s your job to look ahead and provide the solution. Studies comparing interactions between rude support staff who quickly solved the issue versus polite staff who took much longer to solve the issue consistently show that the rude staff were rated much higher. Why is that?

When customers come to you with a problem, they want a solution, not polite conversation. Take control of the situation by gently directing the customer towards actionable items, and steering them away from ranting. This will:

  1. Reduce the time needed to resolve
  2. Place confidence in the customer of your ability to resolve the situation
  3. More likely result in a positive customer interaction

Provide Options

Providing a list of options to the customer is one of the simplest, yet most effective tools in your kit. It not only keeps the customer directed and focused on the solution (honestly, it keeps them from going rogue), but also let’s them feel like they are in control of their decisions.

This happens to be a more popular tactic with children, believe it or not. Let’s say you have a fussy customer—sorry, I mean child—who does not want to eat their vegetables. Instead of asking them open-endedly what they want, give them choices: Do you want broccoli, or carrots?

This choice lets the child feel as if they are in control of their outcome, avoiding the initial choice of “no vegetables.”

Establish Expectations

Ever been transferred on phone support? Unless you like explaining your issue 6 different times, it’s not typically a pleasant experience.

Make sure you reiterate the agreed upon steps towards resolution and provide an expectation of time to the customer. If you need to go to the back, don’t just tell them “I’ll be back” and disappear into the abyss. Instead, let them know, “it will take me about 5 minutes to find this item, I’ll meet you back at the register to finish the exchange with your current item.”

Know When to Throw In the Towel

As much as you would like to be the hero, some situations unfortunately warrant outside intervention. Remember: You are a human being and deserve to be treated like one. Hostile behavior and personal attacks are not worth any customer interaction, and your company should back you as a worthy employee. Don’t be afraid to get assistance if need be! Also, if you need some advice on how to stay happy at work, don’t forget to read our blog post!

Utilize these tips in your daily customer interactions, and become the hero your business needs!


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