6 Critical Thinking Techniques to Handle Difficult Customers

Among many things, a company’s reputation comes from the quality of their goods or services, their innovation and often from their customer service. If a company wants a good reputation then odds are they need good customer service.

Customer service is a tricky territory because it’s so vague.  Personally, I see customer service as an all-encompassing customer experience, meaning every interaction a current or prospective customer has with a company counts. This being said there are many different types of customer interactions that employees have in a day, some not so positive.

Though many companies may train their employees on how to best support their customers, I’m not confident that many companies formally train their employees on how to best deal with difficult customers. Except it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll meet a difficult customer at some point in your career –if you’re lucky it’s only at some point and not a more frequent occurrence.  In these situations it’s not speed that matters, it’s the quality of the interaction and of the resolution. When we frame it so that quality is of the upmost importance, critical thinking can help.

In any situation, these 6 critical thinking techniques to handle difficult customers can help keep situations under control if not even resolve them

1. Slow down. Remember that it’s not about the speed but about the quality of the interaction and resolution. As situations get tense our gut reaction is to get as far away from the situation as fast as possible. If you make a conscious effort to keep your voice soothing and slow, you set the stage for a more friendly conversation and may even have a calming effect on the customer. Don’t run away from the situation – start at the beginning and work your way through.

2. Recognize your assumptions. When interacting with customers you should never assume anything. You should ask questions or verify information but try not to make assumptions- even for the most basic things.


In college I must have burned through 2 or 3 printers. I remember when I bought the second printer… I turned it on, I connected it to my computer and nothing happened – my computer didn’t recognize the printer. I spent a good hour messing with everything to no avail. So I called the printer’s customer service number. Immediately, they diagnosed the problem as a computer issue and directed me to call the computer company. I was furious. No one even took the time to attempt to listen to my problem let alone help.

Reluctantly, I called the computer company’s customer service… and in less than 2 minutes they told me I had bought only type of printer that doesn’t work with my kind of computer! And though I was really upset that a printer wouldn’t work with a computer, I was satisfied with the interaction. What worked? They didn’t assume anything. Instead of explaining how to install a printer they first asked what type of printer I had

3. Assess the situation… in its entirety. It may make the problem bigger or harder to fix but putting a band-aid on a problem doesn’t actually solve the customer’s situation. Instead try to understand the bigger picture and how this conversation (or problem) fits in. You’ll need to ask a lot of questions but make sure you have a working knowledge of the entire situation. This may mean you’ll need to use multiple resources but remember –quality not speed.

4. Don’t get emotional. Remember this mantra – “They’re not upset with me. This is not my fault. I can only try and make this better.”
Again, remember to make sure to speak slowly and sooth the tone of your voice. But most importantly keep the conversation objective. Don’t allow the customer to dwindle on emotional issues. Instead keep the conversation moving past comments like “I’m really disappointed” so that you can focus on the solution.  To keep the conversation moving try saying something like:  “I’m sorry. I understand that you’re disappointed. Let’s discuss how we can fix this.”

5. Draw a conclusion. When dealing with any customer, especially difficult ones, it’s important to make sure that you’re offering the best solution possible. Take the time to make sure the solution will not serve as a band-aid but a genuine fix. This may mean you have to call the customer back but remember – quality not speed.  Make sure to weigh the information you received from the customer. Once you have a proposed solution you may even want to have others critique it.

6. Take Action. Don’t leave a conversation without restating the issue, as you understand, it and what the next steps are. Not only will this serve as clarification but also it leads into action – and you must follow through.

What techniques do you use to handle difficult customers?

Learn more about the RED Model of Critical Thinking here.

Image from www.administrativearts.com

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Elizabeth Pauker-Silva

One response to “6 Critical Thinking Techniques to Handle Difficult Customers”

  1. Joe Roselle

    Breanne: Great article. I would add that you can’t part company with that cusomer until you’re absolutely certain they are satisfied with your solution, and an assurance that they can contact you in the future with any more problems. Many times they will accept a solution that is less than what they really want but they won’t tell you. They also won’t come back. You must do your best to establish the fact that you can be counted on in the future to gain their trust. Your goal in selling anything is gaining trust. Trust is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

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