Company with a "customer service" sign.
PHOTO: Random Retail

Death, taxes, marketing conferences referencing artificial intelligence (AI) and difficult customers. These are all facts of life, right? We all understand the latter is an inherent part of operating any business, large or small. After all, don't we tend to get grumpy when we have to pay a bill and something doesn’t go how we expect with our product or service?

And it seems to be human nature to tattle when we’re upset. Esteban Kolsky reported that 13 percent of unhappy customers will share their complaint with 15 or more people. This is just one of the many reasons to avoid poor customer service. The fact is, whether you’re Amazon or not, you will get complaints, you will upset your customers, so you need to have a strong strategy in place to deal with difficult customers. You also need some ways to determine if it’s worth it to stay invested in some of those customers or, if they truly are that difficult, to cut ties. We’ve checked in with some customer-facing officials to learn how to deal with difficult customers and how to determine when and if it's time to part ways. 

1. Admit You Have a Problem

The first step? Take a hard, honest look at the problem, said Agustin Drubi, MD, an orthodontist in Miami. “It's hard to accept our shortcomings and be honest about our service sometimes,” said Drubi. “We have to put ourselves in the shoes of our customers and try to understand where they're coming from.”

If it's your fault, do everything in your power to correct the situation and make up for it. “Not only do we aim to solve the problem, we sometimes even send our customers gifts for the trouble,” he said. “A simple gift card goes a long way. At the end of the day, they're pointing to one of our problems we didn't notice before, and that is invaluable information to us to be able to improve.”

Related Article: Google Duplex's Conversational AI Shows a Path to Better Customer Services

2. Prioritizing Customers in High Tiers

Balazs Hajde, content manager at Authority Hacker, said his company preemptively filters problematic customers by having a 30-day money-back guarantee. “The difficult, nagging or demanding members usually reveal themselves in the first few days, and decide to refund before the end of the guarantee period, regardless of whether we solved their issue or not,” Hajde said.

Beyond this simple system, the company always considers the value the customer brings to its community before deciding how far it is willing to go with them during a difficult situation. How do they evaluate customers? “The value a member brings often coincides with the level of membership they have chosen to purchase,” Hajde said. “High-tier members are often incredibly active, flexible and understanding, while lower tier members can get upset over the smallest details.”

In the rare case of a high-tier member being difficult, customer support teams will simply prioritize solving their issue without considering who is ultimately responsible. “This is usually enough to calm the storm,” Hajde said. “We believe in being honest and transparent, so we're usually willing to admit if a partnership just won't work out. Either because the customer demands something too specific that we can't accommodate, or the courses we offer are incompatible with what they want.”

3. Don’t Take Things Personal

There’s no emotion in business, right? Well, there is, but do what you can to not take things personally when a customer is upset, said Sophie Miles, CEO and co-founder of “When a customer is upset, and we always see this in customer service, the first thing to do is not take it personally,” Miles said. “His annoyance is with the company, not with you. Otherwise, your emotional balance will be affected and you will end up in a discussion." And in that vein, listen and apologize for the problems caused. Hit yourself before the other does it stronger, Miles said.

Related Article: How an Engaged Front-Line Workforce Contributes to Great Customer Service

4. Keep Things in Public Arena

One thing about difficult customers is they can leave a trail. Remember earlier when we discussed web tattling? Sam Williamson, co-owner of CBDiablo, said the few times he’s had difficult encounters with customers through his business, his teams often try to keep the conversations public. If the complaint appears on social media, they’ll keep it on social media. 

“This is purely to ensure that if the complaining customer was to leave a poor review for our business, that people would be able to see the full conversation on social media,” Williamson said. “The issue with negative reviews is that there is very little you can do to defend yourself. By making the conversations you have with customers public, you can reduce the impact of negative reviews. Also, this can help the difficult customer to calm down slightly if they know that other people — potentially friends and family if the conversation is on Facebook — could be reading their comments too.” 

5. Have ‘Patience, Respect and Openness’

Charlotte Forshaw, a customer service manager at handbag and luggage provider Maxwell-Scott, said her company is always trying to retain customers. “I think the key to achieving that is patience, respect and openness,” she said. “I'm always trying to let the customer get the problem off his or her chest first because a lot of frustration is already built up by the time I pick up the phone to speak to the person. By letting them vent in the beginning the conversation becomes more constructive afterwards.”

Be as open as possible with the customer. Don’t hide behind technical terms but instead address any issues the customer faces openly.  “Since I am working for a family-owned brand that values a good customer experience above all, we are also very generous and forthcoming with upset customers,” Forshaw said. “We offer them discounts, replacements free or charge or repairs at our factory. The last thing we want to do is completely cut ties with a customer so we go out of our way to make sure a difficult customer is turned into a happy customer.”

Related Article: How Machine Learning Can Raise the Bar in Customer Service

6. Don’t Be Afraid to Cut Ties

If you truly feel like it’s time to cut ties with a customer, don’t be afraid to make the move, according to Reuben Yonatan, founder and CEO of GetVoIP. You may experience a negative ROI on a particular account when you terminate a client, Yonatan said, but there is no need to think of it as an opportunity cost. “By cutting ties with a troublesome client,” he said, “you are preserving morale across your entire team, and you will actually have a net positive impact on ROI.”

Yonatan said that more than once in his experience as CEO, he has been tempted to allow a difficult account to stay onboard. Each and every time, though, those clients found ways to make him regret that decision. “Rather than the account transforming into one of our top performers,” he added, “it always resulted in getting bogged down in special requests, complaints, late or unpaid invoices, or worse a teammate frustrated to the point of handing in their 30-day notice.”

But just how do you cut ties? “We do this by telling them that we realize they are not happy with our service and that maybe they would be happier somewhere else,” Drubi said. “We back this up by saying we are providing them with a full refund. Most of the time, they don't leave. And the ones that do are within their right and usually end up saving us headaches down the road.”