10 Steps to Handle a Tough Customer on the Phone

Aug 5, 2021
Scott Carr

The saying ‘the customer is always right’ sometimes means that customers wouldn’t be easy to deal with. Even successful businesses would have to inevitably deal with sticky customer situations over the phone.

A crucial part of managing a successful business is managing customers. No matter how good your practices are in offering excellent customer service, you can’t please all customers each and every single time.

How the company’s customer service staff are trained to handle these challenging scenarios can tip the scales between profits versus losing revenues. Let’s face it – if your customers are happy and appeased, business growth potential is increased exponentially. Reversely, if you leave them upset with issues unresolved, difficult customers can hurt your business reputation.

First things first

Before resolving a particularly tricky situation, it helps to know which difficult customer type you’re dealing with. Tough customers come in variations; the more common ones include:

  1. Indecisive – these are the ones who can’t seem to decide, despite your best efforts in providing alternatives and answering their questions.
  2. Demanding – they know what they want but feel entitled that you deliver requests that are unreasonable and expect quick answers.
  3. Aggressive – often raise their voices, with or without provocation, and think that their requests should have the utmost priority.
  4. Know It Alls – these are customers who think they know everything about business operations and would criticise your every move towards a solution.
  5. Whiner – tends to blow things out of proportion (even if there’s none, to begin with), and are very hard to please.

Now that you are able to identify their behaviours, you are off to a good start in dealing with stubborn phone clients.

Turning a Challenge into a Winning Opportunity

Before learning the keys to handling tough customer calls, you need to understand that there is no way to control other people’s behaviour. You, however, have control over your actions and can choose to respond effectively.

Here are 10 steps in managing tough customers on the phone:

1. Listen actively.

This is giving your customers your 100% attention.

Listen to what your customer is saying. When you sense that it’s going to be a difficult conversation right off the bat, allowing your customer to air his/her grievances already takes the edge off things.

Do not interrupt or talk over even if you already have an idea what they are going to say next. Let them tell their story and resist the urge to solve the situation right away. Make them feel that they have your undivided attention.

2. Empathy goes a long way!

Show you understand why they are upset.  

Summarising client’s statements on what caused the dissatisfaction is a way of establishing what they are saying is important. If you can convey that you understand their situation and position, half the battle is won.

3. Keep calm.

Speak in a lower tone.

Although easier said than done (especially when customers are being sarcastic), keeping your cool will dissipate a potentially explosive situation. Don’t allow customer’s frustration to affect you personally. Keep in mind that the customer doesn’t really know you. They’re just unhappy and frustrated, and because you are the company’s representative, you are an easy target.

4. Keep your composure.

Even if the customer does not.

Responding in the same mood as your customer will not solve anything. Replying with a sarcastic comment or engaging them in an argument (no matter how tempted you are), will just escalate matters. What you can do to diffuse the situation is to remind them that you are there to help and resolve their issues.

5. Keep it factual.

Especially when the customer is already irate.

If you calmly outline the situation, as well as the measures you are taking to solve their problem, it would be hard to maintain an aggressive tone, even with the angriest of customers. Again, listen to what the client is really saying before taking action to ensure that you are providing an accurate solution.

6. Know when to apologise.

Feelings are key.

Lamely saying ‘sorry’ won’t work. You need to be sincere and acknowledge your customer’s feelings. Most importantly, follow it up with action.

How would you feel if this happened to you? Yes, let your customers know that.

7. Customers are humans.

Everyone has bad days.

We’ve all been there – bills all piling up, a hard day at work, a fight with a spouse, a sick kid – all of these are easy triggers for someone to snap. Be patient. Use a kind tone. Speak with a smile – they may not see it, but your customers will definitely ‘hear’ it. It’ll make you feel better too!

8. Take action.

Prompt solutions.

Do you know what doesn’t help calm a volatile customer? Making them wait for a long time! Once an agreement has been met, take immediate action. Better yet, explain the steps you’re going to make to remedy the situation.

Leverage on technology to manage customer calls as not to miss them or so you will be able to get back to them promptly. There are tools and apps out there which can help you with this, one example is Omni, where even landline calls can be routed to your employees’ smartphones.

9. Keep your promises.

All the time.

It doesn’t matter if it’s just a callback or to check-in if the problem has been fully resolved. A word of caution: don’t promise what you can’t deliver. If anything, under-promise, and over-deliver. Go above and beyond. It’ll be worth it.

10. Figuring out what really happened.

Use the feedback.

Problems usually arise when there is a disconnect between expectations and delivery. It is a good time to check if there are processes that need improvement so that unpleasant incidents can be avoided.

Lastly, before ending the conversation, always ask if there are other matters that the customer would want to be addressed. There might be a second problem that would also need your attention. This demonstrates that your business cares about its customers. Based on Microsoft's report, 96% of customers agree that great customer service keeps them loyal to a brand.

Always remember that your customers chose your business over rivals so providing excellent customer service is what will turn irate customers into loyal ones. Consider investing in systems and tools to give you an edge. A great start -- as it would not burn a hole in your pocket and it comes with no commitment -- would be integrating your customer service process with Omni so you can have interactive phone virtual assistants, multiple extensions numbers and can be on top of your business wherever you are. For your customers, go this extra mile.

Learn more about Omni and sign up here!