The rewards of running your own business entice thousands of adventurous kiwis to start one every year. The feelings of independence, doing your choice of work and potential big profits are enough to get many to quit their day jobs and go self-employed.

But is it all dollar bills and choose-your-own-hours? It can be, but there’s also something that can make it a real nightmare, and it’s something that as a business owner you don’t always have a lot of control over.

The tricky process of dealing with difficult customers

Try as you might to run a good business and offer a solid service or product at a reasonable price, the fact is you’re never going to please everyone. It’s a depressing prospect especially when it feels unjustified. But the customer’s always right, right? Wrong. But telling them that is generally not the way to fix the situation. So how do you deal with a difficult customer?

Here are five suggestions on the best way to deal with difficult customers.

1 – Take a breath, don’t react

As hurt or offended as you might be at the customer’s reaction, it’s important to avoid anything rash. That can be tough when it’s dangerously fast and easy to reply in haste online – emails, Facebook comments or Google review replies – hold up on responding too quickly or if you’re feeling riled.

2 – Try to discern the customer’s angle

This isn’t always easy simply because you don’t know what’s going on in the customer’s life – the issue with your business could be a red herring. They may just be angry with life, maybe they’ve gone through a breakup or they’ve lost their job, and they’re just looking to take it out on someone, anyone – and even the smallest thing could be a trigger. While it’s totally unfair that your business ends up in the firing line, sometimes it just can’t be avoided.

But it can help you know the best way to respond.

If a customer is just taking out their frustrations then be careful about acting angrily in return – it will only fire them up more. If it helps, maybe feel sorry for them and their unhappy life. Or maybe express some sympathy or kindness – it might be enough to shame them into feeling guilty about their outburst and turn them around.

3 – Assess the damage

How bad is their bad reaction for your business? This will vary depending on your business and the value of the customer. A word of caution: be wary of underestimating the importance or value of any customer. You might think it’s no great loss to kick them to the curb or ignore their complaint, but you don’t know who they know or what influence they might have – proceed carefully and err on the side of assigning them some importance.

Having said that it might be a blip you can safely ignore – let them vent and have their say, and then let it go. Of course, if their reaction could hurt your business then it’s prudent to swing into damage control. This might include responding to comments or reviews online – try to keep it positive, stick to the facts and, while there’s nothing wrong with accepting blame, you can indicate other reasons it happened.

4 – Can you turn the customer around?

More than just venting – the customer may have a legitimate complaint and you’ve caused them grief – can you put it right? Has the customer made it clear how they want the situation resolved? You might not be under any legal obligation but would it be a massive burden on your business to grant them their request? Chalk it up to goodwill; it could be a good investment for the future.

Even if you can’t do 100% of what they’re asking, going partway, offering some sort of sweetener or even just an empathetic response can go a long way to softening the attitude of a grumpy customer, possibly limiting the damage they cause your business.

5 – Move on, it’s not the end of the world

As depressing as an unpleasant customer or bad review can be (especially if it’s ruining your perfect record) you can’t obsess over it. In all likelihood it won’t be the last and, if it makes you feel any better, it happens to every business, no matter how awesome they are.

If you’ve done what you can to put it right and learned what you can, it’s time to close the book on it and move on.

Avoiding difficult customers in the first place

Good in theory but it’s not always possible. Sometimes great customers can go toxic for no good reason – maybe their life falls apart and all of a sudden you’re the enemy. You just can’t control that sort of thing. Then again, during the initial engagement with the customer you might pick up on a few warning signs, like:

  • Making unreasonable demands (but not willing to pay accordingly)
  • Tone of emails or phone calls
  • Haggle on reasonable pricing
  • New to your product/service (or haven’t shopped around)
  • Disorganised, unprepared or expect you to do things that should be their responsibility

Those are a few signs of a potentially difficult customer – the longer you’ve been in business, the more you’ll just get a gut feel that something’s not quite right and it might be prudent to sidestep the work.

Fortunately difficult customers are generally the exception (unless your business is actually terrible, and then maybe you should do everyone a favour and quit) but it’s worth reviewing how you deal with them if/when the time comes.

5 Ways to Deal with Difficult Customers