Running a business is hard enough already, but when you wake up one morning to find an angry customer email or disappointing online review, it can suddenly feel that much harder. However, difficult or demanding customers aren’t necessarily a bad thing for your business; they can actually push you to be better and to improve how you do things, which makes them a sort of hidden blessing for small business owners (even if they don’t seem like it at the time).

As Bill Gates once said, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.”

There are many types of difficult customers, like those who are constantly calling or emailing about some “emergency,” demanding that you tend to them at all hours of day or night, or reducing your staff to tears on a regular basis. These customers are truly difficult to handle because a lot of the difficulty lies with them. But today we’re going to address the other type of “difficult” customer: those who become difficult because of something you’ve done to incite their anger or frustration.

Here’s how to handle difficult, angry, or complaining customers with finesse, and perhaps even turn them into your biggest advocates:

Ask for More Information

It can feel so natural to get defensive when somebody says something you aren’t expecting, especially if it’s not complimentary. Instead, pause and ask for more of it. Yes, that’s right. Your customer wants to be heard, and they want to know that you’re giving them your full attention. Instead of jumping on the defensive, field their complaints by asking for more information: “Could you tell me more about the specific things you think could have been done differently?” or “What is something specific we can do right now to turn things around?” or “Please tell me more. I want to be sure I understand where things may have gone wrong.”

Listen Reflectively

Simply nodding and saying, “I understand” just isn’t enough. Show that you’ve truly heard what the other person is trying to express. Reflective listening is a strategy you can use to listen in a way that respects the other person’s experience. For example, you might say, “What I’m hearing is that you’re frustrated because you think we should have done X, Y, and Z better. Is that right?” You don’t necessarily have to agree with what the customer is saying: the idea is to gently accept their experience or point of view, and then move forward. This lays the groundwork of understanding that you’ll need to effectively address the problem.

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If You’re Wrong, Apologize.

Sincerity really is the best course of action. If you’ve somehow messed up, apologize as soon as you realize your mistake. Chances are that whatever happened to enrage this customer was not intentional on your part: it almost never is, because as a business owner you know how important it is to keep your customers happy. It could simply have been a communication breakdown, an oversight in your processes, or any number of other factors. What’s important is that you show the customer that you understand something went wrong on your side, and that now that you understand it, you’re going to take steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Thank the Customer

Yes, thank them: thank them for being willing to have a difficult conversation or for taking the time to address something when they didn’t have to. Most customers will never tell you when they’re angry or disappointed: they’ll just take their business elsewhere.

Most customers will never tell you when they’re angry or disappointed: they’ll just take their business elsewhere. Click To Tweet

The fact that this customer is willing to engage with you means that despite the frustration they’re experiencing, deep down they still believe that you might find a way forward together. That’s a very valuable kind of gift: for you, it’s a chance to build an even deeper relationship out of a situation that admittedly doesn’t seem that pleasant on the surface. So tell the customer, “Thank you for bringing this up and voicing your concerns. I appreciate it, and I want to work through it with you so we can get back to where we need to be.”

Show You’re Ready to Move on to the Next Step

Address the customer’s complaint by extending a solution, even if it’s a small one to begin with. This will get things moving in the right direction and build goodwill. After all, if the customer came to you with a concern or a complaint, they not only want to be heard; they want to know that you’ll do something about it! You can ask them what they think a fair solution could be, or offer your own. The idea is to show that you take their concerns seriously and are willing to act to address them right away. And once you say you’ll take steps to fix the problem, follow your words up with action.

Stay Professional

This can be difficult to do, especially if you’re confronted with a customer who’s angry and emotional. Going into the conversation, it can help if you think of the situation not as “me vs. them” but “us vs. this problem.” It’s a mindset shift that puts you off the offensive and back on the customer’s team, where you can work together to address the issue. When all is said and done, the customer probably won’t remember the specifics of the problem as well as they’ll remember how you responded to it. Stay professional and show that you sincerely care about helping the other person: if you do this well, you may just turn a furious customer into one of your fiercest fans. This is a classic outcome of the service recovery paradox, which makes clients even more likely to rate you well after you address a problem, compared to if it had never happened at all!

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Irena Ashcraft

Irena Ashcraft

Irena Ashcraft is a freelance writer who helps brands connect with their biggest fans in ways that are fresh, relatable, and fun. She loves people, tech, education, and the creative hustle.

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