How to Deal with Difficult Customers: 9 Proven Tips for Retailers

Dealing with difficult customers can be… well, difficult, but it doesn’t have to be. With the right attitude and action steps, you can effectively navigate these tricky customer situations and emerge (hopefully) unscathed.

This post offers tips and insights to help you do just that. Our hope is by the end of the article, you and your staff will be more prepared to handle difficult shoppers.

Let’s dive in.

1. Have the right mental attitude

Take a few seconds to breathe and put yourself in the right mindset before dealing with the customer. Remind yourself that the shopper isn’t necessarily mad at you, but rather, they’re miffed about the situation.

Having the right mental attitude will help prevent your buttons from getting pushed and enable you to respond in a calm and professional manner.

Ricky Marton, founder of Be Robin Hood says that the most important thing to do when dealing with troublesome shoppers is to not let them see that they’re getting to you. “Once they realize they aren’t in charge, they’ll either leave or calm down and (hopefully) apologize.

2. Hear the customer out and empathize with them

People who are upset need to be heard, so let your customers talk, and don’t interrupt them.

“Let the client vent about the situation if at all possible,” advises Carrie Thompson, Facility Manager at Affordable Mini Storage. “Don’t allow physical violence or threats (time to call the police!). Allowing a client to fully verbalize their complaint or anger is valuable. Many issues arise or escalate because the client didn’t feel like they’d been heard.”

Here are a few things to keep in mind when listening to customers:

Practice active listening

At this stage, it’s important to engage in active listening, which is the practice of consciously assimilating what the other party has to say, instead of just standing silently in front of them.

This will help make a good impression and it’ll allow you to really take in what the customer is saying, so you can (if possible) resolve their issue efficiently.

Active listening also entails that you listen with your whole body. This means using positive body language such as having an open stance and nodding along to show the other person that you’re listening.

Make them feel that they’re taken seriously

Gary Johnson, a Senior Consultant at Prevention Advisors, recommends that you show customers that you’re taking their concerns seriously. According to him, this can be done by maintaining eye contact and exhibiting the right non-verbal behaviors (like not smiling, excessively nodding, or rolling your eyes — more on this below).

“Call your customer by name, if possible,” he adds. It makes people feel that they’re being heard and could help calm them.

Respond with empathy

“When someone yells at us, our natural response is usually to respond with either anger or go into defense mode. Avoid these at all costs,” says Fiona Adler, Founder at Actioned.com.

“Whether or not you think there’s a real problem, it’s real from the customer’s perspective, so the appropriate emotion for you to respond with is ‘empathy’. Say things like; ‘I can see why you’re disappointed’ or ‘Oh dear, that’s not what you would have expected’ or ‘I can understand why you’re upset.’”

3. Be mindful of your verbal and non-verbal cues

The things you say — and don’t say — can significantly affect the outcome of any customer interaction. Signs of boredom, impatience, or aggression will only escalate the situation. So, be very mindful of your words and the body language you project.

Here are a few tips to help you do just that:

Verbal

Use “phrases of courtesy.” According to Renée Evenson, author of Powerful Phrases for Effective Customer Service, “Customers appreciate being treated courteously, so when you interject words and phrases of courtesy appropriately throughout your conversations, you show your customers how you respect them.”

Evenson provides a handy list of phrases of courtesy that you can refer to. Check them out below and make it a point to incorporate them into your customer service vocabulary:

  • “I apologize. I didn’t hear/understand what you said.”
  • “Will you?” rather than “You will.”
  • “Yes,” rather than “Yeah.”
  • “Sir.”
  • “Ma’am.”
  • “I’ll check and be right back.”
  • “Will you hold for a moment while I check on that?”
  • “Thanks for waiting.”
  • “Mr./Mrs./Ms. _____.” (Address by the first name only if you know that’s appropriate)

To see the full list and learn about how to incorporate phrases of courtesy into your customer service, check out the book here.

Non-verbal

Your body language should show customers that you’re open to what they have to say, so be careful with the non-verbal cues that you give off.

Make eye contact (but don’t stare), nod along to what the customer is saying, and maintain an open stance to demonstrate that you’re listening. Avoid defensive or hostile gestures such as closed fists or folded arms as they could aggravate the customer.

For your reference, here’s a table you can refer to when it comes to the dos and don’ts of body language in retail:

4. Be discreet

Being tactful and discreet is crucial when dealing with difficult customers. Remember, other people are watching, and some may even whip out their smartphones to record the conflict. The last thing you want is for the incident to hit social media.

Johnson recommends that managers and associates speak in a slow and lowered voice. Strong emotions are infectious, so control your feelings and avoid doing anything that could further aggravate the situation.

5. Communicate what you can and can’t to about their situation

Once you’ve heard what the customer has to say, you’ll need to talk to them about what you can and can’t do. Anne Miner of The Dunvegan Group recommends that you start by clarifying and apologizing.

“Once you have heard the story, ask questions to clarify where necessary. Then, apologize — tell the customer you are sorry they have had this experience, feel this way or whatever is appropriate.”

From there,  proceed by communicating what you can and can’t do about their problem.

“Tell the customer what you CAN do for them — issue a refund, a credit, or connect them to the manufacturer,” says Miner. “Ask the customer if this will be acceptable to them. If not, ask what it would take for the customer to feel better about the situation.”

Now, what happens when you can’t bend to your customer’s wishes?

The best thing is to be upfront. Miner recommends saying something like: I wish I could do that for you. At this moment, that is beyond my authority but I will ask ______. May I have your phone number so I can get back to you?

Here’s an additional tip: if possible, let the customer know about the changes that you’ll make as a result of their complaint.

“Make the customer feel like they’ve made a difference,” advises Adler. “The last thing customers want is to feel like their feedback is going nowhere. Make sure that you let them know that you’re very grateful they alerted you to this problem. Then let them know the steps that will be taken to ensure the same thing won’t happen to other customers.”

6. Act quickly

If you can resolve the customer’s problem immediately, then, by all means, do so. This has several benefits:

For one, being able to quickly address a customer’s concerns may just turn their negative experience into a positive one. If you can get on top of things and satisfy the shopper, they might just end up as a loyal customer who buys from you regularly and tells their friends.

Resolving a customer’s issue ASAP also prevents a situation from escalating. This is especially true if someone is complaining loudly inside your store.

As Nicole Reyhle wrote in her Forbes column, “when a customer is creating a scene in front of other customers, you should aim to resolve it as fast and quietly as possible… One of the main reasons for this is that any customer who becomes upset and loud about it in your business is likely the same type of person to talk about this experience with friends, family and other potential customers.”

7. Compensate for their discomfort (if necessary)

Taking this step isn’t always necessary and depends on the situation. For instance, if the issue is due to an error on your part, it may behoove you to do something extra for the customer.

Jason Perkins of San Diego SEO Firm suggests providing additional compensation to make up for any mistakes or issues.

“Give them something to compensate for the discomfort. When customers complain about something, either it has to do with your service or with the people who are working for you. If they feel that they are not being serviced properly, you have to give them something to make up for the mistake,” he says.

“Since I was a manager, I made it a point to give these customers a coupon, discount or maybe give them their item for free or give them a replacement.”

8. Make a judgment call: Will you tolerate someone who’s being downright obnoxious or unfair?

If the situation reaches a point where the customer crosses the line and becomes downright rude and unfair, you’ll need to make a judgment call on giving them what they want versus “firing” them.

Yes, choosing the latter would mean that they’ll never shop with you again, but keeping a problematic customer can be just as bad.

As customer service and speaker Shep Hyken puts it, “if the customer crosses the line, it may be time to fire the customer, politely sending them on their way to the competition. A bad customer can hurt morale and make the working environment uncomfortable. Just as bad, a manager that won’t stand up to the customer and support his/her employees can have a negative impact as well.”

Here are some steps you could take when asking customers to leave:

  1. First is to give them a chance to calm down. Tel them in a calm but firm voice that they need to tone down the foul language or actions and that you won’t be able to help them if their behavior persists.
  2. If they refuse to calm down, politely ask them to leave. According to Johnson, you can say things like:
  • Mr. Jones, I have not been rude to you, so there is no need to be rude to me. If you calm down, I will be able to assist you, but if you continue to threaten me I must notify the authorities
  • I apologize, but if you continue to use this language, I will be forced to ask you to leave the store.
  1. If things escalate, call the authorities. Depending on your store’s procedures, you could notify mall security (if applicable) or get the police involved.

9. Practice diffusing anger

Staying calm and empathizing with frustrated and emotional shoppers can be difficult, but it’s entirely doable if you practice. That’s why Johnson advises retailers to routinely conduct training sessions on diffusing anger.

“To better prepare your staff, a good strategy is to use interactive role-playing. Set up training sessions so that team members can practice dealing with angry and upset customers,” he says.

Johnson, who personally facilitated such sessions, shares that staff members always feel more empowered and comfortable after role-playing different scenarios. “It’s one thing to think – in your head — what you would do or say, but it’s a whole other thing when you actually have to articulate it out loud and practice what you need to do.”

Reminder: it’s still best to try and prevent issues from arising in the first place

The best way to deal with difficult customer situations? Prevent them from happening in the first place. Here’s how:

Keep your store neat and adequately stocked

Keeping your store organized makes it easier for shoppers to navigate your location and get their hands on the things they need. This gives them a faster and more convenient in-store experience and decreases the likelihood that they’ll ask (or demand) for assistance.

Also, ensure that your shelves and fixtures are adequately stocked. Instruct your staff to routinely check your shelves for items that are running low so they can replenish immediately. Doing so helps customers find what they’re looking for quickly and easily, so they (and you) are less likely to feel inconvenienced.

Speed up customer service

Make sure your staff knows the importance of speed when serving customers. Many shoppers are extremely busy and have no time to wait around.

How you can you serve customers promptly without compromising quality? 

Hire additional employees – Having added help can keep your store running smoothly during the hectic Christmas season. See to it that you have a good staff-to-customer ratio so you’re not making anyone wait. Remember, slow customer service is a huge consumer pet peeve. You’ll prevent a lot of headaches simply by being prompt.

Do note that hiring more people is just the first step. Equally important is ensuring that your staff is well-trained. Devote extra time educating your employees (especially seasonal hires) about the ins and outs of your store. They should know your sales floor and stockroom like the back of their hand so they can easily find the right products for shoppers.

Retail tech know-how also goes a long way, so see to it that your employees know how to quickly operate your equipment and retail software.

Speed up checkout

Many customer issues may also arise in the checkout area. From long lines to less-than-perfect payment technology, retailers need to anticipate and prevent potential problems that can occur when it’s time to ring up sales. Here are a few steps you can take to improve the checkout experience during the holidays (and beyond):

Use quick keys – Most modern POS systems provide product shortcuts or on-screen buttons that speed up how items are added to a sale at checkout. If your system has this capability, be sure to enable it and add your most popular items. That way, when a customer buys a product that’s already included in your quick keys layout, you can ring them up with just a tap of a button, instead of having to search for the item.

Vend Tip

In Vend, these shortcuts are called “Quick Keys, ” and they can significantly reduce time spent at checkout. If you’re using Vend and would like to learn more about Quick Keys, click here.

Learn More

Use integrated payments – Using a payment solution that integrates with your POS makes checkout a lot faster. Integrated payments allow sales to flow directly from your POS to your card reader. This means you won’t have to manually key in the transaction information into the card reader, so sales are processed much faster. Not only that, but integrated payments prevent human error and are more secure.

Talk to your POS vendor about the payment processors they integrate with and see if you can use them in your business. (Pssst… Using Vend? Check out this post for more information on integrated payments.)

Enable contactless payments – While contactless payments such as Apple Pay aren’t as widespread as credit cards, a growing number of consumers have adopted them.

If you cater to a lot of these shoppers, start accepting contactless payments in your store. That way, people won’t have to fumble with cards or cash. All they need is their phone, and they’ll be good to go.

Add registers and untether the checkout experience – Always be prepared to open new registers when it gets busy. For instance, if your POS can run on a laptop or iPad, you’ll want to have extra devices in your store so you can quickly open a register when the lines get too long.

That’s what homeware store Borough Kitchen does in their business. “At peak times… we can add a new till instantly by switching on another iPad,” shares founders David Caldana & Justin Kowbel.

Consider doing the same thing in your stores. Equip extra iPads or laptops with your POS so you can quickly bring them out when it gets crowded in your shops. And if you’re using a tablet, you could even untether the checkout experience and ring up sales from anywhere in the store instead of being stuck behind the cash wrap.

Bottom line

Dealing with difficult customers isn’t easy, but it comes with the territory of running a retail store. Also, remember that something positive can also arise from these situations.

As Adler puts it, “Angry customers are one of the most challenging parts of running a business, but handled correctly, you really can turn these people into some of your strongest advocates. I’ve seen many cases where a mistake has been corrected and the customer has gone on to be extremely loyal to the business and refer lots of their friends as well.”

Do you have any other tips for handling difficult customers? Share your thoughts in the comments.

About Francesca Nicasio

Francesca Nicasio is Vend's Retail Expert and Content Strategist. She writes about trends, tips, and other cool things that enable retailers to increase sales, serve customers better, and be more awesome overall. She's also the author of Retail Survival of the Fittest, a free eBook to help retailers future-proof their stores. Connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Google+.

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