Talk to Sales


There’s No Easy Answer for Difficult Customers

I like dogs and cats. Elephants seem nice though I’ve never met one. I find cows to be both adorable …

By Dave Eagle

I like dogs and cats. Elephants seem nice though I’ve never met one. I find cows to be both adorable and delicious. But people? Not my kind of folks. Supposedly, we’re the brightest of all the animals in the kingdom, what with our language and abstract thought, but I don’t see it. Abraham Lincoln famously said, “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” In that case, humans have long since removed all doubt. Of course, I’m not talking about you, you sexy, intelligent blog-reading beast. It’s all those other dummies out there, living their oblivious lives, never understanding the difference between your and you’re, and just generally forgetting that we live in something called a “society.” They’re the kind of people who think “The customer is always right” is some legally binding agreement between consumer and merchant, and push that maxim to its logical extreme by being tough to deal with and just generally dispensing with civility.

Photo by Vladimer Shioshvili (Flickr)
Photo by Vladimer Shioshvili (Flickr)

As a restaurateur, it can be a delicate balance dealing with people like this. On the one hand, you need customers to stay in business. On the other hand, you didn’t open a business because you had a passion for being belittled. Well, here’s something to remind yourself when you’re faced with a less than pleasant person: you are still in control of the situation. I don’t say that to encourage you to go on some kind of power trip. Nobody wins if you do that. More importantly, realizing your power to control the situation releases you from the pressure you might feel to control the customer’s behaviour itself. If someone is complaining or agitated about your product or service, it doesn’t matter whether or not you like the tone they take with you. Nothing you can say will change their approach. There’s a lifetime of psychological input that’s brought him to that moment where he’s disproportionately upset or demanding. And you’re not going to solve that. What you can solve is the situation at hand, and what you can control is your reaction. Realising that is the first step in de-escalating a situation brought on by a customer temper tantrum.

Does it sound reductive or insulting to call it that? Before you dismiss that characterisation as an example of my own misanthropy, consider what makes a customer difficult. Someone has entered your place of business with a certain level of expectation—they want to buy something, and they expect the transaction to happen without issue. Anything that deviates from this expectation can set the wrong type of person off. Most people can handle a detour to the unexpected, but some cannot. Maybe they weren’t treated the way they wanted to be treated. Maybe you didn’t have the item they wanted, or maybe you’re charging more than they expected. Whatever the reason, your customer did not get what he wanted. Compare that with this passage from a post entitled 10 Ways to Tame Your Kid’s Tantrums over at

Photo by Mindaugas Danys (Flickr)
Photo by Mindaugas Danys (Flickr)

And what, exactly, sets them off to begin with? Every single tantrum, Levy says, results from one simple thing: not getting what they want.

Levy is Ray Levy, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Dallas, Texas. Of course, the prime difference between an irate customer and a child throwing a tantrum is that your customer may actually have a point, while your little red-faced angel shrieking for justice over a discarded toilet paper roll hasn’t got a rhetorical leg to stand on. In both cases, though, experts agree that your number one priority is to


  • Remain calm. “Do whatever you can do to get yourself under control, but again, try not to lose your temper. Remember, you’re just trying to be the anchor in the storm that’s calming the system down. If one person in a system can stay relatively calm, that’s the best way to quiet any kind of upset or tantrum.” This advice comes from, but it holds true in a hospitality venue. If you feed off your customer’s negative energy and jiu-jitsu it right back at her, you’ll only embolden her sense that you or your store has wronged her somehow. Instead of arguing or getting defensive, recognising that a customer’s response is out f your control is the first step in staying cool in a tense situation. In doing so, you facilitate the second most important thing you can do to defuse things.
  • Listen. This doesn’t mean you should silently take what’s being slung at you, but as the calming influence you can deflect away from anger and towards resolution. Ask what you can do to fix the situation, and really listen to the answer. And let him know you’re listening by occasionally repeating back important things. Let them know you’re there to help. Be aware of your body language, as well. If you are listening with folded arms, that kind of guarded posture communicates the opposite of your intent.
  • Use Empathy. Again, here’s a good bit of advice from “Empathy opens people up to being able to hear us; if we don’t start with that, it shuts things down.” And then there’s this from “By being empathetic and attuned, the salesperson makes it clear he understands the customer’s concerns.” It’s all about validation. Tell your customer that understand her frustration; tell her you’d hate if the same thing happened to you. Establish common ground. This isn’t disingenuous, either: you would hate to feel as she does at that moment, and there’s nothing wrong with saying that.
  • Keep your voice low, and speak slowly. You don’t want to come off as condescending, but you do want to communicate a No-Big-Deal-We-Can-Handle-This kind of energy. If your voice rises and speech speeds up, that transmits an air of urgency or panic. Your customer may infer from this that you might be unable to resolve the issue.


One shopping mall's method of dealing with unruly customers.Photo by Chewy Chua (Flickr)
One shopping mall’s method of dealing with unruly customers.
Photo by Chewy Chua (Flickr)

Of course, of the number of people who present a problem for you, there’s going to be a subset of that group for whom no amount of coddling will help. If you find yourself hitting a dead-end with someone like this, who just keeps escalating, and getting louder and more aggressive/abusive, you do have the right to put them in a timeout. This should be a last resort, but for some people, the safer bet for the long run is to let them know they’re not welcome back. You have the right to refuse service to anyone, and someone who can’t be appeased is also likely to run around talking smack about you for weeks to come. You’re going to have to absorb that, anyway: best to make it a one-time thing. They’ll find somewhere else to get upset before long, and you can remain proud that you acted from the higher ground. Anyone else who’s watching such a scene unfold is surely not going to fault you for politely standing your ground, and they’ll be just as likely to spread a good word about your grace in the situation as your problem child is to badmouth you.