7 Questions About How to Handle Difficult Customers with Myra Golden

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These questions are from a live audience at a training Myra recently delivered in New York.


1. How do you handle the customer who immediately demands to speak to a supervisor or manager without giving the Representative a chance to handle the issue?

What you don’t want to do in this situation is flat out refuse to let the customer speak to a manager because that will only escalate the situation. You also don’t want to dismissively transfer the caller to your manager. Even though the transfer would be honoring the customer’s request, you are actually teaching customers to escalate.

The best approach is going to be for you to sincerely try to help the customer while leaving the door open for a conversation with a manager if you cannot solve the issue. Here are a couple of phrases that have proven to be very effective in getting demanding customers to give frontline Representatives a chance to help them:

  • “I’m sorry you feel you need to speak with someone else, but that’s the reason I’m here. I have been given full authority to help resolve your concerns. May I have the opportunity to resolve this first?
  • “Please give me an opportunity to try and resolve this for you. That’s why I’m here.”

2.  I’m not paid enough to put up with callers who yell or cuss. Do you feel it is appropriate to hang up on abusive customers?

No one should have to endure verbal abuse from irate and unreasonable customers. We all have our own thresholds of tolerance of difficult behavior and only you determine your threshold. Once you’ve reached your threshold, I believe terminating a phone call is appropriate providing you have (a) sincerely attempted to create calm and diffuse anger and (b) you end the call as diplomatically as possible.

Here are four diplomatic phrases I share in my customer service workshops that you might consider using before hanging up on a verbally abusive caller:

  • “I’m sorry. It isn’t possible to help while listening to that language. If it stops, I can help.” (This statement is made in an attempt to create calm and prevent the need to terminate the phone call.)
  •  “I’m trying to help you, but if you continue to yell and swear, I am going to ask that you call back another time. It’s up to you…which would you prefer?”
  •  “If a few minutes helps you calm down before we continue, that would be fine. You can certainly call me back.”
  • “I want to help you, yet the language is getting in the way.”

Note: Your tone is critically important with the above statements. You must come across calm, neutral, and non-threatening.

3. What would you say is the single biggest mistake companies make when speaking with angry or unreasonable customers and what can we do about this?

A common mistake customer service professionals make is not acknowledging the fact that the customer is upset.  I realize it might seem logical that you would not want to point out the fact that your customer is angry for fear that it might only exacerbate the issue, but actually, just the opposite is true.

It just isn’t helpful to ignore anger or tip-toe around the customer’s anger and here’s why. There is something known as the communication chain. When people communicate, they expect the person or persons they are communicating with to respond or react. This reaction is a link in the “communication chain.”  A failure to respond to communication leaves the communication chain unlinked (or broken). For example, If I walk into my office and say… Hi Terasita, how are you?” ….and she says absolutely nothing, she’s broken the communication chain. And that leaves me feeling awkward, perhaps embarrassed.

If a customer expresses anger and we fail to respond to it, the communication chain is broken and the customer feels like they are not getting through, that you are not listening. So, the customer may speak louder to make his or her point. They might become even angrier and more difficult; as they are resorting to whatever it takes to feel heard and understood.

You can keep your angry customers from getting angrier by acknowledging their anger and responding to it. You can respond to anger with a statement like, “Clearly you’re upset and I want you to know that getting to the bottom of this is just as important to me as it is to you.”  This statement directly and professionally addresses anger – without- making the customer even angrier. Now that the anger has been acknowledged, you have completed the communication chain.

4. Is there truly a benefit to letting (angry) customers vent and if so, how long is appropriate?

There truly is a benefit in letting angry customers blow off steam through venting.  An Angry customer can be compared to an erupting volcano. When a volcano is erupting, there is nothing you can do about it. You can’t speed up the eruption, you can’t put a lid on it, and you cannot direct or redirect it…it must erupt.  When a customer is angry, they must experience and express their anger…through venting. We should not interrupt them or tell them to “calm down.” This would be as futile as trying to tame a volcano. A volcano erupts and eventually subsides. Your angry customer will vent and eventually calm down.

A good vent doesn’t need to last very long at all. I suggest allowing your customer 30-45 seconds for venting. This is enough time for your customer feel heard, but not so much time that the customer flies off the handle. After about 45 seconds, the venting often becomes redundant or rambling and customers may be even making themselves more upset so you will need to regain control of the conversation after this window of time.

5. Dealing with difficult customers over the phone is one thing, but how do you diffuse anger when the irate customer is 2-feet away from you.

Psychologist, Dr. Terry Riley has observed: “Today’s customers are more harried, more demanding, and more dangerous than ever.” I agree with Terry and my main objective when working with professionals who service customers in retail environments, is to keep the employees safe. I’ll give you 3 pieces of advice for dealing with difficult customers in face-to-face interactions:

a)      Avoid the appearance of a physical challenge. Body language is powerful in any human interaction and especially so with angry or hostile customers. Your body language needs to send the message that you are cooperative and open. The best stance is going to be to the side of the customer. This way, you pose no physical challenge to the customer and you’re also in a less vulnerable position should the customer become violent.

b)      Help customers feel they have choices, options, and control (Bacal, 1998). It’s very important for customers to feel they have some control over the outcomes of their situation. Give them options and let them make choices, even small ones. Reducing choice and removing privileges tends to encourage aggression.

c)       Use a calm tone and non-inflammatory words. Deliberately use your voice to create calm. Speak slowly (so that you can think before you speak). Avoid escalating your voice, and never threaten the customer with inflammatory statements like: “If you don’t calm down, I can’t help you.”

6. How do you explain to a customer that you cannot honor their request for a refund or exchange without having them get really upset with you?

I know this is a tough situation, but trust me, you can diplomatically refuse a request for a refund or exchange. Here are 3 responses you can use, depending on your specific situation:

  • “It is our company policy that we cannot pay a claim that involves consumer error. We have a responsibility to the company to uphold the integrity of our products. When a product performs as expected and has no deficiencies, we cannot take responsibility and accordingly can offer no financial assistance.”
  • “Although you might not agree with my decision, I’d like to explain it so you can at least understand.”
  • “We appreciate hearing about your experience, but we cannot compensate you in this matter because you failed to follow instructions/did not read instructions/misused the product.”

7. How can I safely apologize to a customer for a problem that is not the fault of the company? I want to apologize as a way to rebuild the relationship with the customer and yet I don’t want to assume blame for the problem.

I salute you for apologizing to your customers both when the problem is the fault of the company and when your company is not at fault. Here’s how you can apologize when the problem is not the company’s fault:

  • “I’m sorry that you had to make this call today.”
  • “I’m sorry for any frustration you may have experienced.”
  • “I’m sorry for any inconvenience this misunderstanding may have caused you.”
  • “I’m sorry, I feel awful about your problem.”


Now you can give your representatives even more great skills for delivering the best customer experience and for handling difficult customer situations. Sign up for my email list and learn specific tips, approaches, and phrases to help your employees help your customers.