5 Disastrous Mistakes when Dealing with Difficult Customers

July 5, 2018
5 Disastrous Mistakes when Dealing with Difficult Customers

Let’s just say it right here at the start — dealing with difficult customers stinks.

Having provided customer service training to thousands upon thousands of people at all levels of organizations, I’ve learned that there is one thing every person who works with customers wants to know: how to successfully navigate difficult customer service situations and customers.

From the disengaged to the deceptive, from the frustrated to the furious, challenging customers can manifest themselves in an incredible variety of ways.

Even in the simplest cases, challenging customer service situations require that customer-facing professionals have both the mental fortitude and the specific skills needed to be successful.

These situations can become even more problematic when those working with customers make fundamental errors, making challenging situations even more difficult, or, at least, that will make these issues infinitely more difficult to resolve.

What follows are five disastrous mistakes — mistakes that can destroy any chance of resolving a customer’s issue.

Fortunately, with the right knowledge and training, these mistakes are easily preventable, and simply being aware of them will enable you to resolve more challenging issues and to feel less stress and more in control when in the heat of the moment.

#1 Not Managing Your Inner Caveperson

So much of working with challenging customers comes down to understanding psychology, both the customer’s and our own.

Our society has evolved much faster than we have. We are still wired for the savanna, and when we are confronted with anger, aggression, or even mere frustration, our intuitive, irrational caveperson brain kicks in. (Though it’s not quite that simple.)

Our natural response is hard-wired. Our body releases a variety of of stress hormones that immediately impact our ability to process information rationally.

What’s even more fun is that this “amygdala hijack” is happening to our customers as well. In fact, at CTS Service Solutions, we dedicate significant time in our customer service training to making sure that our techniques and strategies are effective in the face of this biochemical response.

The disastrous mistake people make is not understanding the psychological/biological process both they and the customer are often undergoing when in tense customer service situations and, more importantly, not learning to manage those emotions and responses accordingly. It takes acknowledgement, understanding, and specific techniques to be able to overcome this instinctual response in real time.


When you’re experiencing reactive emotions, take a mental step back and change your focus to the customer. Don’t focus on your feelings; focus on the customer’s feelings.

Don’t focus on your feelings; focus on the customer’s feelings.

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#2: Using Counterproductive Words and Phrases

The words we choose and use have an impact not only on our listeners but on ourselves. Research has shown the power of language to not only impact our thinking and emotions but even to impact our physiology. Yes, words can actually change your brain.

When used correctly, language can be a powerful tool; when used improperly, it can be one of the most disastrous mistakes a customer-facing professional can make. All too often, without specific training, the language we use is counterproductive; it actually makes bad situations worse.

Communication skills are often what separates the amateurs from the pros in customer service. While choosing the right words at the right time is an art, the skill set and learned patterns that enable someone to master this art are based on science, experience, and practice.

Quite simply, even great natural communicators still must consciously acquire the language skills needed to be great at customer service and especially to succeed when faced with challenging customers and situations.


Eliminate the word “no” almost completely from your customer-facing vocabulary. We know now that just seeing the word “no” for less than a second can cause the production of stress-producing hormones. Other negative language should be minimized or eliminated as well.

Handling challenging customer service situations requires a specific skill set.

#3 Focusing on the Issue, Not the Feelings

I get it. You’re a nice person. You want to help. You know how to solve the customer’s issue, and you want to solve it as quickly as possible. That’s what they want, right?

More often than not when working with upset customers, resolving the issue is actually the second most important thing you can do; the first priority is resolving the customer’s feelings.

We are creatures of emotion, and as mentioned above, when emotions are in charge our ability to reason is severely diminished. With upset or challenging customers, we generally need to resolve their feelings first and their issues next.


When you start to solve, stop and listen instead. Are they talking about the actual specific issue or how they feel? Are they talking about how the situation started or are they focused on the long, painful experience with your organization that led them to you? Listen for the heart of what the customer is trying to tell you.

Don’t resolve the customer’s issue until you’ve resolved the customer’s feelings.

#4 Accepting Limitations

We all have limits to what we can do for customers. Whether we are a CEO, a business owner, or a frontline employee, eventually we all run into situations where we are unable to give the customer what they want.

The mistake people make working with customers is not the fact that they accept the service limitations they have are real — they are — but that they allow those constraints to set the boundaries of the interaction, focusing on the limitation instead of pivoting to what they might be able to offer the customer.

I’ve heard far too many people at all levels of organizations say things like, “Well, what was I supposed to do. She insisted on X, and obviously we can’t do that.” Far too many people working with customers accept the limitations of what they can provide and of what the customer is focused on instead of the opportunities they might have to move the customer towards a different but acceptable solution.


Ask the magic question: “How Can I?” How can I find a creative way to make something happen for the customer? How can I give this customer something close to what he wants? How can I pivot this conversation away from the impossible request and redirect the customer’s focus elsewhere?

One of the most powerful questions in customer service and in life is ‘How can I?’

#5 Not Minimizing Service Triggers in the Customer’s Journey

Even when we do everything right, some customers are just challenging. Yet, too often, teams do not acknowledge the role their customer experience had in creating the customer’s state of mind.

Perhaps the most disastrous mistake made in dealing with difficult customers is, you got it, creating those customers in the first place. This happens in many ways but one area that is particularly obvious is not understanding the role that service triggers have in the customer’s journey and working to minimize their impact.

Of course, many triggers are specific to individuals and are based on the person’s personality and experience. However, certain triggers affect broad swaths of the consumer population.

We catalogued seven of the most important of these triggers in 2013 when we released our 7 Service Triggers, which outlines specific triggers that are almost guaranteed to set customers off. (These were later expanded upon in my book Be Your Customer’s Hero and our online course Master the 7 Service Triggers.)

The triggers are as follows:

  1. Being Ignored
  2. Being Abandoned
  3. Being Hassled
  4. Being Faced with Incompetence
  5. Being Shuffled
  6. Being Powerless
  7. Being Disrespected

Far too many “difficult” customers become so because our customer experience tripped one of these triggers. They were ignored, abandoned, shuffled or worse. Not realizing the impact these triggers have and actively trying to minimize them creates more challenging customer service situations and customers who are more likely to prove problematic.


Look at the list of triggers above and honestly assess which one gets tripped the most often in your customer’s journey. Are customers abandoned by never being called back? Are customers shuffled by being bounced from department to department? Pick the trigger that creates the most customer service challenges and begin by asking how you can minimize the trigger’s impact in your customer journey.

The best way to handle a challenging customer is not to create one in the first place.

The first principle of working with challenging customers is the same as that practiced by physicians across the world: First, do no harm.

By avoiding the disastrous mistakes above, you can make sure your interactions with difficult customers are less stressful and more successful.



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