How to Handle Unreasonable Customers

5 Ways to Handle Unreasonable Customers

Customers are irrational.

They overvalue what they already have, they react differently based on how an issue is framed, and they are less satisfied with decisions when they’ve been given more options to choose from.

How to Handle Unreasonable CustomersHowever, these well-known forms of customer irrationality are often easy to work around and can even be used to enhance customer experiences.

Unreasonableness is an entirely different matter.

With unreasonable customers, appeals to logic are subsumed by an emotional intransigence that is often hard to break through. Unreasonable customers are inherently stubborn; they are unwilling to accept what we (and we like to think) most others would accept as obvious.

Because unreasonable customers are detached from reality, they are among the most difficult customers to work with.

Below is a five step process for working with unreasonable customers. The techniques are most powerful when used in order but, like all customer service techniques, should be adapted to the specific circumstances.

How to Handle Unreasonable Customers

#1 Guide them gently back to Earth

Sometimes customers are only unreasonable because they are angry and have temporarily lost perspective. Use techniques like active listening and letting the customer punch himself out to help the customer not only feel heard but also to begin opening up to other perspectives. (See chapters 61 of Be Your Customer’s Hero for more on letting customers punch themselves out.)

#2 Give them a different lens

Sometimes a customer’s perspective is skewed by emotion, sometimes it comes from not being able to see the exchange through a different lens. Once you have guided the customer to a place where they are listening (at least partially), explain the why behind the situation.

Show them how your tracking system won’t allow the package to be tracked in such detail or how city ordinances prevent you from permitting smoking at your outside tables. Don’t make excuses, but if your reasons are sound, they can often help the customer see things in a different light.

#3 Sell them on an alternative

The nature of unreasonable customers is that they only want what they want; they are not interested in the other options you present. If you’ve followed the first two steps above, many unreasonable customers will be in a more receptive place and willing to entertain alternative solutions.

So, don’t just present the alternatives; sell the alternatives.

Tell the customer why your option can be more appealing. Explain to the customer how you can deliver better and more consistently working inside of your existing systems. If at all possible, present your options as superior alternatives to what the customer is asking for.

#4 Draw the line

If a customer remains unreasonable, sometimes you have to draw a line in the sand. You shouldn’t do it out of frustration or because you’ve “hit your limit” but instead because it’s obvious that nothing else is going to work. The customer believes what he believes, and it looks like it’s unlikely to change.

However, be prepared to lose the customer at this point or at least for them to remember the exchange unfavorably.

I remember working with a completely unreasonable couple in the early years of one of my retail businesses. They continuously asked for us to violate important safety-based policies and complained regularly about the smallest of things, always with threats of leaving. I comped them once; then I comped them twice. Finally, I calmly, professionally, and diplomatically, told them I couldn’t do any more for them and proposed that perhaps we weren’t the best solution for their needs.

Years later, we got word from another local business that the couple had told them how terrible our customer service was and how “curtly” they had been treated.

Be Your Customer's Hero

#5 Say goodbye

Sometimes, unreasonable customers are also abusive and aggressive. When you believe that drawing the line is only going to delay the inevitable and subject your team to more abuse, or if you’ve drawn the line before and you are being met with more unreasonable demands, then it is time to say goodbye.

Assuming your business can handle the loss of that customer, the impact on morale and the time that will be freed up to focus on more deserving customers can often make cutting the customer loose the wisest choice.

The first three steps in the the above process can help move many unreasonable customers to a more manageable place; however, the nature of unreasonableness is that it is unreasonable. Reason does not work on it, and for some customers, the first three steps will not be enough.

So begin with patience, empathy, and alternatives to try to move unreasonable customers to a more rational place, but if that doesn’t work, don’t be afraid to walk away.

Sometimes, it’s simply the most reasonable thing to do.


By Adam Toporek. Adam Toporek is an internationally recognized customer service expert, keynote speaker, and workshop leader. He is the author of Be Your Customer's Hero: Real-World Tips & Techniques for the Service Front Lines (2015), as well as the founder of the popular Customers That Stick® blog and co-host of the Crack the Customer Code podcast.

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