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Five proven tips for dealing with difficult customers

Stress levels can run pretty high this time of year, so you’re more likely to experience difficult customers. To help you navigate these occurrences, below are a few tips on dealing with not-so-pleasant shoppers.

Keep calm and breathe

It may sound simplistic, but you’d be surprised at what a few deep breaths can do. Take a few seconds to breathe and put yourself in the right mindset before dealing with the customer. Remind yourself that the shopper isn’t necessarily mad at you, but rather, they’re miffed about the situation.

Having the right mental attitude will help prevent your buttons from getting pushed and enable you to respond in a calm and professional manner.

Listen to the customer

People who are upset need to be heard, so let your customers talk and vent, and don’t interrupt them.

At this stage, it’s important to engage in active listening, which is the practice of consciously assimilating what the other party has to say, instead of just standing silently in front of them.

Doing so will help make a good impression and it’ll allow you to really take in what the customer is saying, so you can (if possible) resolve their issue efficiently.

Active listening also entails that you listen with your whole body. This means using positive body language such as having an open stance and nodding along to show the other person that you’re listening. (More on this below.)

Be mindful of your verbal and non-verbal language

The things you say—and don’t say—can greatly affect the outcome of any customer interaction. Signs of boredom, impatience, or aggression will only escalate the situation so be very mindful of your words and the body language you project.

Here are a few tips to help you do just that:


Use “phrases of courtesy.” According to Renée Evenson, author of Powerful Phrases for Effective Customer Service, “Customers appreciate being treated courteously, so when you interject words and phrases of courtesy appropriately throughout your conversations, you show your customers how you respect them.”

That demonstration of respect and courteousness goes a long way, especially when you’re in a difficult customer situation.

Evenson provides a handy list of phrases of courtesy that you can refer to. Check out the phrases below and make it a point to incorporate them in your customer service vocabulary:

  • “I apologize. I didn’t hear/understand what you said,” or “I’m sorry, I need to pass by.”
  • “Will you?” rather than “You will.”
  • “Yes,” rather than “Yeah.”
  • “I’ll check and be right back.”
  • “Will you hold for a moment while I check on that?”
  • “Thanks for waiting.”
  • “Mr./Mrs./Ms. _____.” (Address by first name only if you know that’s appropriate)
  • To see the full list and to learn about how to incorporate phrases of courtesy into your customer service strategy, check out the book here.


Your body language should show customers that you’re open to what they have to say, so be mindful of the non-verbal cues that you give off.

Make eye contact (but don’t stare), nod along to what the customer is saying, and maintain an open stance to demonstrate that you’re listening to them. Avoid defensive or hostile gestures such as closed fists or folded arms as they could only aggravate the customer.

For your reference, here’s a table you can refer to when it comes to the dos and don’ts of body language in retail:

Act quickly

If you can resolve the customer’s problem immediately, then by all means do so. This has several benefits:

For one, being able to quickly address a customer’s concerns may just turn their negative experience into a positive one. If you can get on top of things and satisfy the shopper, they might just end up as a loyal customer who buys from you regularly and tells their friends.

Resolving a customer issue ASAP also prevents a situation from escalating. This is especially true if someone is complaining loudly inside your store.

As Nicole Reyhle wrote in her Forbes column, “when a customer is creating a scene in front of other customers, you should aim to resolve it as fast and quietly as possible… One of the main reasons for this is that any customer who becomes upset and loud about it in your business is likely the same type of person to talk about this experience with friends, family and other potential customers.”

Make a judgment call: Will you tolerate someone who’s being downright obnoxious or unfair?

If the situation reaches a point where the customer crosses the line and becomes downright rude and unfair, you’ll need make a judgment call on giving them what they wants versus “firing” them.

Yes, choosing the latter would mean that they’ll never shop with you again, but keeping a problematic customer can be just as bad.

As customer service and speaker Shep Hyken puts it, “if the customer crosses the line, it may be time to fire the customer, politely sending them on their way to the competition. A bad customer can hurt morale and make the working environment uncomfortable. Just as bad, a manager that won’t stand up to the customer and support his/her employees can have negative impact as well.”

Bottom line

Dealing with difficult customers can be… well, difficult, but it comes with the territory of running a retail store. We hope the tips above gave you some ideas on how to act the next time a not-so-pleasant customer comes your way.

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Francesca Nicasio is a retail expert and blogger for Vend, an iPad-based point-of-sale software that helps merchants manage and grow their business. This article was republished from Vend's retail blog, where Vend talks about trends, tips, and other cool things that can help stores increase sales and serve customers better.