Five types of difficult customers and ways to create positive outcomes

As a small business owner, you know how important customer service is. Keeping loyal customers coming back is much easier than convincing new ones to give your business a try. It’s no surprise that 93% of customers are more likely to make repeat purchases from companies that offer excellent customer service. And a recent customer satisfaction survey showed that 80% of customers would likely switch to a competitor after bad customer service.

But what do you do when difficult customers challenge you or your staff? We’ve assembled a collection of difficult customer personas, potential strategies for defusing negative customer service scenarios before they escalate, and key takeaways.

The impatient customer

The situation: Jim waited in line to return the shirt he bought in the wrong size for 15 minutes before he got to the cash register. He was now going to be late for his next appointment and he simply wanted to exchange his purchase. Whatever was taking so long was inexcusable. His time was way more important.

The response: Walter greeted Jim at the register and he noticed his body language: crossed arms and eye rolls. He listened empathetically to Jim’s reaction to his wait in line and thanked him for being a customer. Instead of being patronizing or defensive, Walter quickly issued the exchange and offered Jim a coupon for 20% off his next online purchase. That way an online return would be possible.

Key takeaways: Stop and listen before reacting to customer attitudes. Notice body language and be courteous.

The indecisive customer

The situation: Jeff struggled to choose between several different laptops at Gina’s Tech Corner, but he didn’t communicate his concern to Gina. He just couldn’t decide how much power and how many features he needed to accomplish his daily tasks as a freelance graphic designer.

The response: Gina knew that choosing business tech is difficult. Gina asked Jeff specific questions about some of the most common factors that impact decision-making, including features, functionality, and price. She also pointed out online literature that would help him make a decision and listened to make sure she understood how he used his laptop most often.

Key takeaways: Don’t misunderstand confusion for apathy when a customer is shopping. Explore how the customer will use your product and ask what their budget is. Offer additional resources if needed.

The angry customer 

The situation: Jorge wanted a resolution to his issue with the restaurant. They’d gotten his order wrong again and he was a loyal customer. He yelled at his server that he needed to see the manager and demanded that his meal be replaced with what he actually ordered.

The response: Juan, the manager of Corner Deli, recognized how angry Jorge was. He knew his best approach was to begin the interaction by apologizing for the issue. Knowing that Jorge was a frequent diner at the restaurant, Juan defused the situation with kindness and offered to make things right, going the extra step of comping the meal. He kept the interaction brief to minimize the opportunity for tempers to flare and offend other customers. 

Key takeaways: Unhappy customers aren’t always just unhappy with the situation at hand, so keep that in mind when trying to resolve the issue. Maybe they had a flat tire on their way to work that day. Be kind and keep the interaction short to prevent escalation. Try not to take things personally.

The refund-demanding customer

The situation: Erica couldn’t believe that Star Cleaners shrunk her curtains. She simply wanted them cleaned while she remodeled her den and now they were too short. Erica marched into the store and insisted that her money be returned.

The response: Jonathan greeted Erica at the counter calmly and listened to her grievance. Unfortunately, Star Cleaners was not responsible for the state of Erica’s curtains after cleaning because she’d signed a waiver when she dropped them off. Erica was still upset, but she now understood that a refund was unreasonable.

Key takeaways: Each company has their own refund policy, as well as regulations that determine which items can be taken back. While the best course of action is to provide a refund in full or in part, your company may want to offer a credit toward a future purchase. If you do give the refund, be clear about when it was processed and how long they can expect it to take.

The unsatisfied customer

The situation: Ginger’s frustration was written all over her face. Even though Rinaldo gave her a new latte after her complaint that the first one wasn’t hot enough, she still insisted that this was the worst coffee shop in town and threatened to blow them up on social media.

The response: Rinaldo greeted Ginger and listened to her rant. He knew this situation most likely needed to be escalated to his manager, so he called him over to the counter. Rinaldo recognized that he didn’t have the skills or authority to resolve Ginger’s problem.

Key takeaways: An angry customer and an unsatisfied customer require a similar response. Begin with an apology, even if you don’t feel like one is warranted. Briefly take stock of the solutions offered and attempt to offer something else; consult your company policies to determine what you can offer in this situation. During the conversation, don’t dismiss their concerns or complaints; listen with a sympathetic and attentive ear. Escalate the conversation to your boss if needed.

Share your customer service experiences

Customer service takes patience and persistence. People are after all, are just people. Relating to them in a way that says “I respect you and value your business” is the biggest takeaway of all. Realizing that customer difficulties usually aren’t anything personal is most of the battle. And taking a similar approach to negative online reviews and social media comments is vital.


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We want to hear your customer service stories—tell us your positive experiences with previously unsatisfied customers. Hit us in the comments below. We appreciate your readership!

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