3 Things to Know Before You Talk to Your Next Challenging Customer

african american telephone operator

You already know it’s best to not say words like “Unfortunately,” or a hard “no,” and you probably even know that you need to let angry customers vent for at least a few seconds, but there are some other things you should know before trying to get customers to accept your word as final, especially when you have to give customers bad news. I’m sharing three tactics from my handling demanding customers workshops to help you assertively (and politely) control challenging interactions with customers.

1. Don’t undermine your authority by mentioning “your supervisor.”

Woman talking with headset

I had an employee who, when trying to assert her authority with challenging customers, would say things like, “Only a supervisor can make a decision for that amount,” “That’s over my head,” or “If I can’t help you, I’m happy to let you talk to my supervisor.”

What my employee was doing, certainly without realizing it, was priming customers to escalate up to a supervisor. The mere mention of supervisor and the suggestion that some decisions were “over her head,” psychologically nudged customers to do just that, go over her head to talk to a supervisor who was clearly the only person able to move the needle on the customer’s issue.

So, don’t prime customers by dropping words and expressions that say there’s someone above you more capable of making decisions. Assert your authority with confidence, like I had my call center agents do when customers got upset about not being able to use a debit card to rent a vehicle. “When renting from us, a credit card in the name of the renter must be presented at the time of rental; otherwise, debit and check cards are accepted as a form of payment at the time of return.” 

2. Acknowledge how your customer feels by linking the communication chain

Weakest link breaking in old rusty chain photomontage

I’m in a family group text, and last week someone in my family text targeted me with spicey words about a situation that was based on an assumption. I could’ve said a lot, but I thought better of it (after typing, backspacing, and thinking.) I chose not to feed the drama, put my phone down, and jumped on a conference call. When I looked at my phone again forty minutes later, the drama queen of the group had sent three lengthy rambling texts. I smiled, knowing exactly what happened –the Communication Chain. I broke it.

The Communication Chain is this. When a person puts out a message (verbal or written), they expect a response to that message. That first message is a link in the communication chain. If there’s no response to the link, the chain is left unlinked or broken. When I didn’t type a reply, negative or positive, I broke the chain. So, why is breaking the communication chain terrible, you wonder. Stay with me.

To grasp this, we need to look at the human brain. The right side of the brain is where we feel emotions – like fear, joy, dread, shock, and love. The left side of our mind is the logical side. This is where we perform tasks that have to do with logic, like science and math.


So back to our Communication Chain – if you have a customer who expresses concern, frustration, or anger and you don’t acknowledge it, that is, if you ignore the rage, you break that chain (like I did by ignoring a text), and this break forces customers into the right side of the brain where they may become more intense or challenging.

You don’t want an upset customer to operate from the right emotional brain. Because if they do, they’re likely to be more talkative, irrational, and more dramatic.

You want your customer coming to you from their logical, rational, and calm left brain. If you link the communication chain by just responding to the customer’s anger, you keep the customer from getting stuck in the right brain.

Here are some things you can say to acknowledge a customer’s concern:

young african american call center operator

“I can see your point on that.”

“It sounds like you’ve had a frustrating time.”

“We want to get to the bottom of this as much as you do.”

“It seems like you’re overwhelmed with the process.”

“This is no more acceptable to us than it is to you.”

Now, my family drama isn’t business, so I was, and am, okay with leaving that mess on the table. Sadly, though, you don’t have this option with customers. You’re going to have to link the communication chain. Just give a neutral, non-inflammatory response, and you’ll get that angry customer to back down in no time because they’re operating from their logical left-brain. 

Here’s a quick video on acknowledging concern that you can use to train your employees. (Taken from my Customer Service eLearning)

3. Reframe the conversation to focus on what you can do about the issue

Women with headsets working at a call center

My sophomore in college daughter called me yesterday, and I knew something was wrong because this was an actual voice call and not a text. “I just found out that as an executive board member, I’m expected to wear business casual attire to all meetings!” she complained. My daughter’s entire wardrobe is holey jeans, Chuck Taylor’s in three colors, and graphic tees. She was in her right-emotional-brain boiling about the audacity of her peers, expecting students to dress up.

I let Lauren rage for a few seconds, and when I felt it was safe to cut in, I offered, “You’re coming home this weekend for Labor Day. We’ll go shopping and get you what you need. The first thing you need to do is find out what business casual means for the executive board. Is it jeans without holes and nice tops, or are they expecting slacks or khakis? Send a quick text to find out what’s expected, and we can do this.”

What I did with Lauren, when I stopped her whining and pointed to a fix, is I reframed the issue. Reframing is getting a person past the venting and complaining and moving on to what can be done to fix the problem, or at the very least, reframing moves on to what’s next.

Reframing does two things for you. First, it acknowledges your customer’s biggest concern. (I didn’t do this with my daughter, but you’ll want to acknowledge with customers.) Secondly, it ushers in the solution phase of problem resolution.

Here are seven reframing statements that recognize customer concern and help customers move on.

“We have a situation that has come about from a past issue. I want to now focus on what we can do to fix this for you.”

“If I were in your shoes, I think I’d feel just as you do. Now, let’s see what we can do to fix this.”

“We want to get to the bottom of this a much as you do.”

“Rest assured; I will do all I can to fix this for you.”

“I certainly understand your concern. Let’s take a look and see what’s going on.”

“This is no more acceptable to us

than it is to you. Let’s take a look at what’s going on here.”

“I will do my best to take care of this for you.”

And here’s a short video on Reframing, taken from my 3-Step De-escalation Training (You can use this video to train your team.)

Continue the conversation with me?

Making sure you don’t prime customers to want to escalate to a supervisor (the first tactic) is easy once you’re mindful of it. But tactics two and three will take some practice for you to pull off with confidence. Once you’re in the flow of linking the communication chain with genuine acknowledgment and reframing, you won’t be bullied by demanding customers, and you’ll be asserting your authority with grace. If you find you need more help as you work with challenging customers, check out these resources.

How to Handle Difficult Customers + De-escalation 30-minute eLearning 

Delivering Bad News to Customers (My training on LinkedIn Learning