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.

How to Handle a Complaint Over Email -7 Simple Steps

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Every email that goes out from your customer service team has your company’s brand in the signature line, it puts your corporate reputation on the line, and at the fingertips of a disgruntled customer, your emails can be plastered all over the Internet by way of a powerful blog.

Nearly half of all routine customer service questions emailed are not answered adequately. Companies are addressing only a portion of customers’ questions or the answers they give leave customers thinking a robot must have read the email.

Another big problem with consumer email response is many emails are just plain sloppy. They are filled with mistakes that make companies look unprofessional. Most people don’t review or edit their emails – they just hit “send”- and when they do, they are putting an entire brand’s credibility on the line.

Email customer service is supposed to give customers quicker answers and solutions while allowing companies to slash operations costs. When email threads go back and forth unnecessarily because questions aren’t answered, operations costs exceed the cost of telephone interactions. And sloppy emails rob companies of credibility.

So you need to carefully craft and proof your emails. How do you do it? Here are 7 basic steps for you.

Step One- Read the customer’s email in its entirety

Forty-six percent of consumers opening emails from companies are frustrated to discover that their question(s) was not answered. This often happens because employees stop at the first problem described in the email and they, at best, skim the rest of the email. Read the entire email before typing anything.

An excellent way to ensure you respond to every question in the customer’s email is to copy the customer’s email and paste it into your reply back. After pasting the customer’s content into your reply, go paragraph by paragraph through the customer’s email and type your response after each of the customer’s paragraphs. You are, in essence, taking the customer’s email and breaking it into little workable chunks and easily addressing every single issue. (After addressing the customer’s questions completely, you, of course, delete the pasted paragraphs.)

Tip – I often copy exact words and phrases that the customer uses in her initial email and paste it into my reply. This allows me to “mirror” the customer’s language and it shows that I truly did read the customer’s email.

Step Two- Open your email with “Thank you.”

A lot of companies begin complaint response emails with: “We have received your email dated…” Don’t do this. The fact that you’re responding to the email is irrefutable proof that you have received the customer’s email. Instead of wasting words, immediately go into a response designed to restore the customer’s confidence and regain their goodwill.

My favorite approach to beginning a complaint letter is to begin by expressing appreciation for the feedback. Here are some ways to express appreciation for customer feedback:

  • “Thank you for taking the time to write to us.” (This is ideal for a response email to a customer who is actually responsible for the error or when you cannot honor the customer’s request for a refund or exchange.)
  • “Thank you for your email. We appreciate customers who let us know when things aren’t right.”
  • “Thank you so much for taking the time to write to us. We appreciate the opportunity to clarify what we think has happened.”

Step Three – Apologize

Most company replies to emails that describe problems do not include an apology. To not apologize to a customer who has experienced a problem is to miss an opportunity.  Making an apology to customers after things go wrong is positively related to satisfaction with the company’s “recovery.”  When your employees apologize to customers, they convey politeness, courtesy, concern, effort, and empathy.

Let me let you in on a little secret: an apology doesn’t have to be an admission of fault. And it’s not even about placing blame. The whole point is to convey that you genuinely care about how the customer was treated and to regain goodwill.

I believe in apologizing to the customer whether the problem they experienced was a result of an act of nature, a third party, or even the customer. It goes without saying that I believe that we must apologize when the problem is the fault of the company.

Here’s how you can apologize when the problem is not the company’s fault:

  •  “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.”

Step Four –Explain why or how the problem happened

A vital, but often overlooked element of customer recovery is to provide an explanation for how or why the problem happened. Taking the time to explain to a customer what might have caused the problem helps organizations re-establish trust.

In an article titled, Manage Complaints to Enhance Loyalty, John Goodman says, “In many cases, a clear, believable explanation as to why the policy or performance is reasonable will at least mollify the customer and, in some case, satisfy him or her.”


Providing an explanation can be as simple as saying,

“Thanks for taking the time to let us know about _____. We appreciate customers who let us know when things aren’t right.”

A customer posted a response letter from  Southwest Airlines on the Consumerist website that provides an outstanding example of how to give customers a frank, yet the safe explanation of why a problem occurred. The transparent justification of the problem in this letter subliminally offers an apology, makes the letter feel personal, and it certainly rebuilt trust with the recipient.

Customers will always appreciate you taking the time to explain why the problem occurred and again, this gesture on your part helps to reestablish trust.

Step Five- Offer compensation if applicable

When the problem is clearly the fault of the company, recompense (in the form of discounts, free merchandise, refunds, gift cards, coupons, and product samples) will help you restore customer confidence and regain goodwill. Our research has found that 58% of complaining consumers who received something in the mail following their contact with the company were delighted, versus only 40% of those who did not receive anything.

Don’t hold back when it comes to compensating customers after a service failure. Your reward will be increased customer satisfaction, loyalty, and powerfully persuasive positive word-of-mouth advertising.

Optional, Bonus Step – Surprise & Delight

This step is optional, but I highly recommend it. Surprise and Delight is all about inspiring a feeling of astonishment through unexpectedness.

One of my clients in the beauty industry is maximizing surprise & delight by creatively using gift cards in a way that is generating profits. They used to compensate customers dollar-for-dollar; a $3 overcharge was resolved with a $3 check. Makes sense doesn’t it? Well, now they give a $10 gift card for a $3 overcharge. The customer is WOW’d. But not only is the customer WOW’d and telling her girlfriends about the unexpected gift card, but the company is enjoying a redemption rate of 67% with customers spending 2x the gift card amount in the store.

Try a little surprise & delight and you’ll get your customers talking and, if you design it right, you’ll also enjoy growth as a direct result of the WOW factor.

Step Six – Proof your email!

Grammar gaffes make your company look bad. You and I both know spell check (and even grammar check) won’t catch everything. You are going to have to invest a little time to read and re-read every line of your emails to make sure they look and read professionally. Here are some hard and fast email proofing tips:

  • Point with your finger and read one word at a time. Yes, this will take some time, but you’ll be amazed at how many mistakes you capture this way.
  • Read your email aloud and silently.
  • Proof for only one type of mistake at a time. Do one read through just for punctuation, another for word usage, and another for accuracy of your message.
  • Print your email out and read it.
  • Start at the final paragraph of your email and read it backward.

Step Seven- Respond as quickly as reasonably possible

The average company takes 46 hours to respond to a customer’s email. This is not okay with customers. You need to shoot for responding to emails within 2-4 hours. Is this easy? No, but you need to align your processes and manpower to make it happen.

And here’s why: A speedy response will improve your corporate credibility with consumers and it boosts customer satisfaction. Research shows the longer it takes for companies to respond to email complaints, the greater the customer’s perception that they have been treated unfairly.

Every email that goes out from your customer service team has your company’s brand in the signature line, it puts your reputation on the line, and it forms a binding document between you and the customer. Make sure your message is professional, actively works to regain customer goodwill, and is free of embarrassing gaffes. Follow these simple seven steps and your emails will bless you, rather than curse you.

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.

Excellent Problem Response Letter From American Airlines

Watch my full customer recovery video to get 5 steps for restoring customer confidence after service failures.

The One Thing Companies Can’t Cut In This Tough Economy: Customer Service Employees

The One Thing Companies Can’t Cut In This Tough Economy: Customer Service Employees

While staff reductions may be necessary as sales slow in this economy, the people who serve your customers need to be the last staff considered for cutbacks.  This is because customer service employees are in the absolute best position to help you keep your current customers.

You probably already know that it costs 5-6 times more to win a new customer than it does to keep a current customer. A strong frontline keeps your customers.

BusinessWeek (March 2, 2009) reports cutting back just 4 Call Center Reps out of 3 dozen can send the number of customers put on hold for 4-minutes from zero customers to 80 customers. Do you really think 80 of your customers are willing to hold for 4-minutes every single day?

And not only are long hold times a problem (and that is a BIG problem), but the fact is, 60% of consumers prefer speaking with a live agent. Consumer interest in speaking with live people is so strong that a few years ago a man named Paul English founded the “gethuman” movement with the sole objective of restoring personal contact in customer service.

Gethuman.com is a pretty cool website. It is a database of secret phone numbers and shortcuts to reach a human at 500 major corporations. The first time I used it I’d just received an email alert on my BlackBerry from American Airlines that my flight from Columbus to Tulsa had been cancelled. I immediately called the toll-free number listed on the email message, but I could not get a live person to save my life. I remembered the gethuman movement and pulled up the website. There I learned that to get a live body at American, I just needed to hit “0” at every single prompt, ignoring all messages.

If a website exists for the sole purpose of showing consumers how to get in touch with people, what does that say about customer service today?

Bottom Line: Yes, times are tough for a lot of us, but the frontline is not where you want to make your cuts. You need to safeguard your service in this economy. Find other areas to make cuts and don’t cut from the frontline. You need the frontline to serve your customers and to keep customers from even thinking about defecting to the competition.

 Many of the major airlines are charging for checked luggage and Talbots has stiffened rules for returns. These are the kinds of cuts you need to creatively search for. The frontline is not where you need to make cuts.

Need help brainstorming areas to make cuts that don’t include the frontline?  Check out my friend John Storm of Brainstorm Network. He’s masterful at helping companies come up with ideas for profit generation, cost-reduction, and innovation.


How Being “Gumby” Can Transform Your Service Culture

Master Customer Service Course Myra Golden

Have you ever shopped at the Container Store? If you’re working in customer service, and you want an enlightening (and thought-provoking) benchmark for your company, I urge you to get out and visit a Container Store this weekend.

The Container Store is a leading retail chain specializing in home organization products, such as wire shelving, plastic shower totes, shoe bags, food packaging, knife and peg racks, and bins.

Over the past four years the company has expanded throughout the United States , maintained infinitesimal turnover that is unheard of in the retail industry, and ranked 1st or 2nd on Fortune Magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For.

How do they do it?

Every Container Store employee is strategically trained to think flexibly to solve customers’ organization problems. And the company does this with an air of excitement by using the 1950’s Gumby clay-figure TV star.

“Being Gumby”—bending over backward to please customers (and co-workers)—is highly prized at the Container Store. (So is training—Container Store employees average 162 hours a year!)

Get this…I read in Fortune Magazine that at a Container Store in Dallas, there’s an IT manager, who is also a part-time yoga instructor who teaches free weekly yoga classes to her staff. Her colleagues have responded enthusiastically since the classes began two years ago; 25% now join in the bending and stretching. “It’s a good mental practice that can be applied to physical purposes,” says Betty Murray, the IT Manager/Yoga Instructor.

Being Gumby is about doing whatever needs to be done to serve a customer, help a co-worker, or complete a task. It’s about not getting “bent out of shape” when a customer makes a request of you that you’d rather not do. And it’s also about bouncing back quickly after having a tough encounter with a challenging customer.

The Container Store constantly reinforces the Gumby culture by having a 6 foot tall wooden Gumby in the lobby at the company’s headquarters and giving away the annual Gumby award to the employee who exemplifies flexibility.

Get your employees to adopt the flexibility of Gumby and your company will be well on the path to delivering Beyond WOW service!

 Sources Cited

Christopher Tkaczyk, 100 BEST COMPANIES TO WORK FOR
FORTUNE, Monday, Jan. 12, 2004

We are best known for our classroom training – and it is amazing! Our customer service training is led by the industry’s best trainers…experienced, engaging, and energetic. If you poke your head into a Myra Golden training session, you know this training is different. Participant involvement is astonishing. People are having fun and they are completely engaged. Most importantly, the participants are learning real-world strategies that will absolutely empower them to deliver exceptional customer service. Every one of our customer service training sessions is custom designed to meet our client’s objectives and every session delivers a measurable return on investment.

We also offer train-the-trainer (T3) programs to equip your corporate trainers to deliver our renowned customer experience training in your organization. Please call us at 918-398-9368 to discuss bringing our T3 program to your organization. Learn more:
Customer Service Training – Classroom

Customer Service Training – Online (LMS)

Customer Service Training – Webinars