How to Deal with Difficult Customers

Date: March 12, 2010

Handling a difficult customer can feel a lot like dealing with an unruly in-law—you don’t like the interaction one bit, but interaction cannot be avoided. If only you could change their unpleasant behavior instead of taking the abuse.

That’s unlikely, but not impossible, says Shep Hyken, a customer-service expert and author of best-seller The Cult of the Customer. One option: “If you’re dealing with a certain kind of personality, and you can identify what type it is, you can adapt your own behavioral style to match theirs,” he says. Once you find out your own behavioral style—at sites like and (operated by Hyken)—you can learn how to best interact with difficult people.

For the following typical difficult clients, here are Hyken’s solutions:

  • The indecisive client. If the client continually changes his or her mind, it’s often because you haven’t asked the proper questions. To make sure you’re selling the right product or service, ask enough questions to determine his true needs—don’t trust what he asks for is what he needs. Also, set rules from the beginning. When the customer knows outright that a change will end up costing him money (and it should), he’ll make the right decision the first time (and think twice about changing his mind).
  • The abrasive/generally rude customer. Some people are amused by their own abrasiveness, and others don’t even know they’re acting that way. In this situation—whether you’re in a b-to-b or b-to-c business—the main question is, are they worth dealing with? Are they worth hurting the morale of your employees? Are they worth taking attention away from your other customers? If not, politely tell them why you cannot work with them. Sometimes this tactic is met with newfound respect from the customer, and their behavior changes immediately.
  • The checker-upper. Have a client who likes to call all the time to “check the status” of an order or project, even when you’ve asked him to trust you? Their behavior more likely hinges on his insecurity. To get rid of the nag, be proactive in determining how often you’ll be in contact. Weekly updates, monthly calls—lay it out beforehand so he’s getting what he needs.
  • The client who’s never happy. If the client keeps coming back, even if she’s perpetually unhappy with your product or service, she’s likely just a half-glass-empty kind of person. She probably doesn’t want to leave you because otherwise, she wouldn’t have anything to complain about. If this is draining your time, resources and sanity, strongly consider cutting ties. If you’ve always provided the best-possible customer service, you know you did your best.

And contrary to the popular adage, the customer is not always right, Hyken says. But they are always the customer. “So if they’re wrong, let them be wrong with dignity and respect. You’re not trying to win an argument, you’re trying to win a customer.”

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