How to Deal with Difficult Customers: 8 Proven Tips for Retailers

Group of Diverse Busy People Shopping

With the holiday season in full swing, retailers are likely seeing an uptick in foot traffic and sales, as shoppers purchase presents, party materials, decorations, and the like. And while this is certainly great news for merchants, the holiday rush also has its downsides.

Stress levels can run pretty high this time of year, so you’re more likely to experience difficult customers. To help you navigate these occurrences, below are a few tips on dealing with not-so-pleasant shoppers.

1. First things first: try to prevent issues from arising

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 find what they’re looking for. This gives shoppers 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’re less likely to feel inconvenienced.

Speed up customer service

Make sure your staff knows the importance of speed when serving customers. Shoppers — especially during the holidays — are extremely busy and have no time to wait around. So, how you can you serve customers promptly without compromising quality? Try the following:

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 stock room 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 short cuts or on-screen buttons that speed up how item,s 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.

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, it probably makes sense to offer 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, and in particular, at Christmas time, 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.

2. Stay calm and breathe

It may sound simplistic, but you’d be surprised at what a few deep breaths can do. 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.

3. Listen to and empathize with the customer


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

Doing so 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. (More on this below.)

Make them feel that they’re taken seriously

Gary Johnson, a Senior Consultant at Prevention Advisors, advises retailers to 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. Doing so makes people feel that they’re being heard and could help calm them. 

Johnson suggests saying something along the lines of  “Mrs. Jones, that sounds incredibly frustrating” or “I’d feel the same way in your shoes.”

4. Be mindful of your verbal and non-verbal language

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:


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.”

That demonstration of respect and courteousness goes a long way, especially when you’re in a difficult customer situation.

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

  • “I apologize. I didn’t hear/understand what you said,” or “I’m sorry, I need to pass by.”
  • “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 to learn about how to incorporate phrases of courtesy into your customer service strategy, check out the book here.


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 to them. Avoid defensive or hostile gestures such as closed fists or folded arms as they could only 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:


5. Practice defusing 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 defusing 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.”

6. 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.

7. 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 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.”

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.

3. If things escalate, call the authorities. Depending on your store procedures, you could notify mall security (if applicable) or get the police involved.

Bottom line

Dealing with difficult customers can be… well, difficult, but it comes with the territory of running a retail store. We hope the tips above gave you some ideas on how to act the next time a not-so-pleasant customer comes your way.

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

Further reading

stafftrainingguideThink your employees could use more training in customer service? Check out The Ultimate Guide to Training and Motivating Retail Employees, an in-depth resource packed with actionable takeaways for motivating employees and boosting staff productivity.

This free resource is chock-full of advice and insights that can help you empower your staff and increase your store’s productivity. Specifically, you’ll learn about:

  • Hiring and training retail employees
  • Using a mix of learning tools to improve staff knowledge
  • Inspiring team members to be top performers

Get it free here

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+.

  • Hi NICASIO, all of your points here is very important. In fact, point number four is really important to me because sometime I have to communicate with our graphic design clients.

  • Oleg Cerkas

    Enjoyed reading your article, Francesca. Definitely whatever the situation is even if it’s not our fault, we being a business owner shall never make them fell that it is customers’ mistake.

    From my experience I did make a list of a few words in an article. These words as far as I believe shall never be used while dealing with customers. Here’s the link – Hope you will find something informative.

  • Such a master pics article on web about customer handing Tips … its help me lot with progress them in different stage, thanks FRANCESCA NICASIO!