Customer service representatives, complaint managers and senior executives are often confronted by irate customers. When the interaction is in person or over the phone, there are techniques to calm the customer and get to the heart of the matter. Here are seven steps  I used at IBM when I handled critical customer complaints.

7 steps to handle difficult customers


1. Validate who is speaking and what service they need.

Many service calls start with some preamble to validate who the customer is and in some cases determine if they are entitled to the service call (some service call centers are fee based).

a. Customer name and call back number (in case you get disconnected on the phone).

b. Particulars about the service they are calling about so you can get them to the person with the right skill to respond to their problem.

2. Listen to your customer’s problems.

a. Repeat the customer’s concern in your own words.

b. Seek Agreement that I have understood correctly. If not, sometimes using the customer’s own words helps.

c. Ask if there are any other concerns.

d. Repeat a. through c.

e. Keep asking if there are any more concerns. The objective here is to ensure you understand all the issues.

3. Prioritize.

a.  If the list  of concerns is long, ask if any are higher priority than others or need to be handled first.

4. Understand the impact.

Ask for the impact of the problems described on the customer or the customer’s organization. So if a piece of software is not working, or a service is down, what does that mean to the customer? Examples might be:

  • I cannot pay my staff as that system runs my payroll.
  • Customers cannot order products.
  • My warehouse is down and I cannot find any of my stock to ship orders.
  • My lights are off and I have to send everyone home.

a. Repeat the customer’s impact in your own words.

b. Seek agreement that you have understood the impact. This way your customer feels you have ‘heard them’. This technique goes a long way to diffuse unhappy customers.

5. Respond.

Try to respond to as many of the issues as you can to provide relief to the customer immediately.

a. Try to find relief immediately for the items the customer is most upset about and is highest on their priority list.

b. Act with a sense of urgency and empathy for the customer’s situation.

c. For items you cannot provide relief for, right away, provide an action plan to resolve the issue.

d. If you honestly don’t know what it will take to resolve the customer, ask for some time to research the problem and offer to get back to them.

e. Ensure at the end of the call with the customer that they understand the next steps and who has what responsibility. Some actions may need to be taken by the customer and they need to understand what their role and responsibility is. Some actions will be done by you.

f. Set a time frame for any follow up calls or information.

6. Continue regular communication with the customer.

a  At the start of each call with the customer, review the open issues, the actions that were supposed to be taken between calls by the customer and by yourself and any progress.

b.  Continue to resolve customer issues, as quickly as possible or communicate why they cannot be resolved. Seek alternatives for those issues that cannot be resolved. Can you compensate the customer in some way.

c. Close each call with an action plan that includes any actions the customer agrees to take and those you will take.

Tip: If there are others internal to your organization involved in resolving the customer’s issues, have a meeting with the internal team before the interaction with the customer. Don’t air dirty laundry in front of the customer. Know the plan to action with the customer, for example, what questions will be asked, by whom and what information will be provided and by whom. Control the messages being delivered to the customer. The worst case scenario is when internal teams argue in front of the customer. Take all internal arguments or disagreements off line to internal meetings.

7. Recap the resolution.

When all issues are resolved, recap with the customer, so they know their problems have been fixed.

a. For those problems that cannot be fixed, have a reasonable explanation and / or accommodation for the customer.

b. Seek closure with the customer. Are they happy now or do they, at least, understand the situation and appreciate that you have tried to resolve their problem?

c. Show appreciation to the customer for the opportunity to provide service to them.

Share your techniques with the community.

What are you techniques to handle difficult customers? Please share your thoughts with the community by writing your comments below.

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Adele Berenstein

Adele Berenstein is an Experienced Customer Satisfaction Executive, recently retired from a Large Global IT Organization after a long productive management career including Sales, Marketing, Services, teaching and education center management and most recently, 19 years in customer satisfaction management. She turned around divisions with customer satisfaction problems, implemented measurable improvements and management systems, and implemented programs to prevent problems from ever affecting customers.

One Response to “Customer Service Tip: 7 Steps to handle difficult customers”

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